Have you heard the terms “voluntary agricultural practices” or “non-cost-shared practices?” They refer to agricultural conservation practices that are neither paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Farm Bill programs nor state and county agencies through cost-share programs. These are practices that farmers often pay for themselves — on their own dime — without any government support.

The Chesapeake Bay Program partnership has recognized and credited non-cost-share practices in its modeling tools since the 1980s. The Program uses modeling tools to project pollution loads and flows into the Chesapeake. To ensure the Bay ecosystem is represented as accurately as possible, the models include a variety of data sources, including best management practices, which is where non-cost-share practices are represented. But most of the watershed states have focused primarily on tracking and reporting publicly funded practices, and have not reported non-cost-shared practices to any significant degree.

States are beginning to supplement their publicly funded BMP systems with new approaches for tracking and reporting non-cost-shared practices to ensure that farmers receive credit for their agricultural conservation practices. These new approaches are reviewed and approved by the Bay Program’s Agriculture Workgroup for modeling tool credit under the pollution diet – the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load. The Agriculture Workgroup has developed specific guidance on acceptable approaches for tracking, verifying and reporting non-cost-share practices, and serves as the venue for reviewing and approving state approaches.

Here are examples of non-cost-share practices implemented and recognized by the Bay Program partnership:

National Crop Residue Management Survey (CRM): In 1989, the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) launched the National Crop Residue Management (CRM) Survey, which became the only survey in the United States to measure conservation tillage at the county level, reporting both cost-share and non-cost-share practices. In 2002, funding for the survey ended. A full national data set hasn’t been collected since 2004, but a few counties continued to voluntarily report through 2007. The most recent data continue to be used as the basis for state conservation tillage levels, even today, for states who have not implemented their own form of data collection.

Conservation Tillage Transect Survey: When the CTIC curtailed the National CRM Survey collection efforts because of federal budget cuts, some watershed states developed their own conservation tillage tracking efforts. Pennsylvania implemented a new version of the CTIC CRM transect survey in 2006 across six counties, with funding assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency. The effort has continued to expand and now involves most counties within the Pennsylvania portion of the Chesapeake watershed on a multiyear rotational basis. Pennsylvania has used the results of these transect surveys to provide updated information on an annual basis for progress reporting. Delaware implemented their new version of the CTIC CRM transect survey in 2014 across the entire state, and continues to use this method for collecting data for progress, reporting to Bay Program on an annual basis.

Cover Crop Transect Survey: Cover crop transect surveys were initially developed by the CTIC in limited areas outside of the Bay watershed. Delaware and Pennsylvania redeveloped the CTIC concept into a survey that could address the more stringent requirements for reporting traditional cover crops to the partnership’s modeling tools. This data collection effort was piloted across Delaware and limited counties in Pennsylvania in early 2014, then expanded further between 2014 and 2015. The survey process and results were reviewed and approved by the Agriculture Workgroup in September 2015 for the .annual progress reporting of traditional cover crops only. Additional testing work for future consideration is being conducted by the two states for commodity cover crop tracking and reporting.

Poultry Feed Management: Phosphorus reductions resulting from the use of phytase enzymes in poultry feed have been credited in the Bay Program modeling tools since 2003. Phytase is a feed additive enzyme that improves phosphorus absorption, reducing the amount of phosphorus in poultry manure. The representation of the effects of phytase on poultry was enhanced in 2005 through work accomplished by the state of Delaware. Currently, all poultry species portrayed in the modeling tools for all six Bay states are assumed to be receiving phytase in their feed management programs without further tracking and reporting by the jurisdictions.

Resource Improvement Practices: Maryland originally developed a methodology to identify and track agricultural practices that did not meet the more stringent engineering requirements of applicable USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service practices. These nonstandard practices are not typically funded by the USDA or state government programs and were evaluated by an Agriculture Workgroup BMP Expert Panel and termed Resource Improvement BMPs. These RI BMPs may have an equivalent nutrient and/or sediment reduction value on an annual basis as their USDA-NRCS standard counterparts, but have a shorter effective lifespan. The partnership-approved RI BMPs were reviewed and approved in 2014 for tracking and reporting for annual progress. To date, only Maryland has tracked and reported RI BMPS to the partnership’s modeling tools, although they are available to all jurisdictions.

Agricultural Nutrient Management (Tier 1-2): State nutrient management programs and the Bay Program have recognized the opportunity for tracking and reporting agricultural nutrient management implementation outside of federal or state incentive programs since the inception of the modeling tools in the 1980s. Voluntary nutrient management plans were a mainstay of land grant university extension programs prior to federal and state regulatory and incentive programs. The level of tracking and reporting of voluntary plans has diminished in some states with increased regulations and the expansion of public incentive-based programs, but continues to be an important implementation tool in some states such as West Virginia.

Agricultural Nutrient Management (Tier 3): Voluntary forms of nutrient management representing levels above and beyond land grant university or public program requirements were first represented in the partnership’s modeling tools in 2003, with the development of the jurisdictional tributary strategies. The precision/decision agricultural nutrient management BMP was replaced by the partnership in 2016 with the approval of the Phase 5.3.2 Nutrient Management BMP Expert Panel’s recommendation for a Tier 3 nutrient management practice for in-field scale management practices. Maryland has traditionally been the only jurisdiction to track and report precision/decision nutrient management for annual progress, and was joined by Virginia in the 2015 with the approval of the Tier 3 nutrient management practice. Tier 3 nutrient management practices are typically implemented by producers and service providers based on economics as opposed to public incentive-based programs.

Agricultural BMP Verification Guidance: The Agriculture Workgroup developed an expansive guidance document in conjunction with the Bay Program’s planned implementation of universal BMP verification across all land-use sectors by 2018. The agricultural verification guidance recognizes the importance of tracking and reporting practices under existing permitting programs, incentive-based programs, and non-cost-shared practices. Specific annual practices such as conservation tillage and cover crops were identified as being more likely to be implemented without permitting or incentive-based programs, and are eligible for approved transect survey methods. In addition to the primary guidance document, the Agriculture Workgroup also developed guidance for recognized standard statistical sampling methods to allow jurisdictions to evaluate alternative approaches to tracking and reporting agricultural BMPs, including non-cost-shared practices.

The Chesapeake Bay Program partnership continues to evaluate innovative approaches and methods for collecting, tracking, verifying and reporting data on non-cost-shared practice implementation across the six states. The EPA has, and will continue to assist the states in improving and expanding opportunities for tracking and reporting non-cost- share practices.

The EPA provides financial and technical assistance to the Bay states to support data collection, database management and new tracking approaches. Examples of EPA-supported efforts include:

  • Development of conservation tillage transect surveys in Delaware and Pennsylvania;
  • Development of cover crop transect surveys in Delaware and Pennsylvania;
  • Development of RI BMPs in Maryland;
  • Development of a USDA-ARS remote sensing pilots for cover crops in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; and
  • Development of USDA-NRCS remote sensing pilot in the Potomac watershed of Pennsylvania.

The Chesapeake Bay Program wants to ensure that states and individual agricultural operations receive credit for reducing nutrient and sediment pollution. To do so, they need to meet agreed-upon standards and requirements, be tracked and reported on an annual basis, and periodically be verified. The Bay Program and its Agriculture Workgroup have demonstrated an interest and willingness to work with jurisdictional partners to look for new methods to ensure non-cost-shared practices are captured, reported and receive the credit they deserve so we can achieve our shared goal of a restored and healthy Chesapeake Bay and its waterways.