Congress has started to debate how to direct hundreds of billions of dollars to implement the nation’s farm and nutrition policies in the coming years, and the outcome could have a major impact on Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.The Chesapeake Bay Commission has recommended that the new Farm Bill provide longer-term funding for annual conservation practices, saying that farmers would be more likely to plant nutrient-absorbing cover crops if they were eligible for multi-year funding. (Dave Harp)

That’s because the massive legislation being crafted, known as the Farm Bill, is also the biggest source of funding to help farmers throughout the Bay watershed reduce nutrient and sediment runoff from their operations. 

“It will define the future of clean water efforts,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative advisory panel.

Agriculture is the largest single source of the nutrient and sediment pollution that fouls the Bay’s water. 

Congress revises and passes the Farm Bill every five years — more or less — which directs federal policy and funding for agricultural issues ranging from food stamps to crop subsidies and conservation practices.

Funding for agricultural conservation programs represents only about 6 percent of Farm Bill spending, but it is critical for Bay cleanup progress, providing about $130 million annually to farmers in the region to reduce environmental impacts.

Figures from the state-federal Bay Program show that the amount of nitrogen runoff from agriculture in the 64,000-square-mile watershed has changed little in recent years, in part because the benefits of conservation practices have been offset with increases in the number of farm animals, particularly chickens, and their related waste products, as well as increases in crop acreage.

Conservation provisions within the Farm Bill help farmers install pollution control practices, plant buffers, restore wetlands and other habitats, and take environmentally sensitive land out of production. But those funds have declined in recent years.

The Bay region received a big boost in the 2008 version of the Farm Bill, in which Congress created a special Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative that provided about $50 million annually to the region over a five-year period. Unlike other Farm Bill conservation programs, in which farmers’ priorities largely determine how funds are spent, the initiative directed funds to support the most effective water quality control practices and targeted them geographically to areas where they would have the greatest impact.

But the region came out a loser in the 2014 Farm Bill, which replaced the Bay initiative and other regional programs with a nationwide Regional Conservation Partnership Program, in which $100 million a year, supplemented with funds from other conservation programs, was divided among competing areas of the country.

Under that program, the Bay region received an average of only $9.8 million a year devoted specifically to Chesapeake pollution reduction — a cut that alarmed groups working on the cleanup. “This is a huge shortfall for conservation in our region,” said Choose Clean Water, a network of Bay region conservation groups, in a letter to congressional leaders earlier this year.

Conservationists and others say the RCPP has also been hampered by bureaucratic hurdles that make it hard to participate in the program.

“We’d like to make it more outcome driven and make it easier for the partners, because there is a lot of administrative burden that goes along with that program,” said Beth McGee, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Director of Science and Agricultural Policy.

Last fall, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, introduced legislation that would triple the amount of money going into the RCPP from $100 million to $300 million, which would allow more funding to flow to Bay farmers. It is backed by most senators from the Bay watershed, who hope to see it merged into the final version of the Farm Bill.

But exactly what changes will be made in the Farm Bill — and when they will take place — remains largely uncertain. The House Agriculture Committee in mid-April approved a bill that included slight reductions in conservation spending, but that measure could be substantially revised when it comes to the House floor.

Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to produce its own version of a Farm Bill, but that had not emerged by late April. As a result, many speculate that passage of any legislation is likely to get pushed into next year.

That’s not bad, some Bay advocates say, because it gives farmers and others in the region a chance to coalesce around improvements that could help the cleanup effort.

“The good news is this gives more time for them to talk about this, say it’s important and ask members to do something about it,” said a representative from an environmental organization working on the issue. “Their voices are important.”

A delay would also provide more time to bring attention to other important regional issues, such as reworking the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays farmers to plant grass or forest buffers along streams, to increase participation. Streamside buffers, especially forest buffers, are among the most effective pollution control measures for croplands, but states are lagging badly behind the region’s 900-mile-a-year goal.

A recent Farm Bill policy paper produced by the Bay Commission calls for making it easier for nongovernmental organizations to partner with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote buffer installation, offer more technical assistance for such projects and provide funding to maintain the buffers once installed.

It also calls for allowing grass buffers to transition to forests once they are planted. Right now, a farmer who signs up for a grass buffer can be penalized if they allow trees to grow.

“That needs to change,” Swanson said. “Because in the end, trees are the preferred land use.”

Some of the commission’s other Farm Bill recommendations include:

  • Increase the availability of technical assistance, which has suffered cuts over the years that affect the ability of the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service to help farmers. The commission said funding for technical assistance to farmers “must be at least stable” and that additional funding should be provided to help train and certify third-party technical assistance providers in order to get more “boots on the ground” to help farmers with conservation projects and practices.
  • Consider making a portion of the Farm Bill’s conservation funding available to states as block grants to support state priorities.
  • Increase the nationwide cap on the Conservation Reserve Program from 24 million to 30 million acres. The program gives farmers an annual payment to take marginal and environmentally sensitive lands out of production.
  • Provide longer-term funding for annual conservation practices. Traditionally, the NRCS prefers to fund more permanent conservation practices such as buffers or manure storage facilities over practices that have to be repeated each year, such as cover crops. But, the commission said, farmers would be more likely to plant nutrient-absorbing cover crops if they were eligible for multi-year funding.