The U.S. Department of Agriculture in January released $23 million, the largest amount of farm conservation money ever to target the Bay, to help farmers in the watershed take action to control erosion and nutrient runoff.

The funds are the first of a four-year, $188-million commitment made in the 2008 Farm Bill to provide cost-share money to farmers who want to plant nutrient-absorbing cover crops, establish streamside buffers or implement other best management practices that will improve water quality.

The significance to the Bay cleanup effort is huge: Agriculture is responsible for the largest share of sediment and nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake and any hope of meeting water quality goals depends heavily on the ability to ratchet up implementation of best management practices, or BMPs, on the 87,000 farms in the watershed.

"This is a great opportunity for the states and agriculture as a whole to be a big part of the solution to improving the Chesapeake Bay," said Craig Derickson, Pennsylvania state conservationist for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"We know there are a lot of on-farm needs, and people who need both technical assistance and financial assistance," he added. "I think this will help them do more."

Officials say the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, which was created when Congress approved the 2008 Farm Bill, provides the largest amount of agricultural conservation money ever targeted to a single region. After this year, the initiative is to receive $43 million in 2010, $72 million in 2011 and $50 million in 2012.

The initiative helps correct problems identified in a 2006 review conducted jointly by the inspectors general of the USDA and the EPA. Their report said agricultural conservation programs were woefully underfunded in the watershed, and many applicants seeking help were turned away. It further said that money needed to be better targeted toward areas and practices that would best help the Bay.

Because farm conservation programs are voluntary, agencies have historically been reluctant to target the often-limited funding.

The new initiative-which provides funds in addition to those going toward traditional agricultural conservation programs in the states-is voluntary but is intended to allow agencies to better assist farmers with implementing specific actions, and in specific locations, that will provide the most benefit for the Bay.

Officials from the USDA, the EPA and other agencies have met for months to review water monitoring and other data to identify watersheds where they believe agricultural actions will have the greatest impact on the Chesapeake.

In addition, agricultural officials in each state have identified a handful of practices that they believe will do the best job at reducing sediment and nutrient runoff from the type of farming operations conducted within their state.

The Bay money will be targeted specifically toward those practices, while the full suite of USDA conservation practices will continue to be available, but through other programs.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, priority practices include such things as no-till, cover crops, nutrient management, buffers along fields and streams, and stream fencing.

"The core practices that we are looking at are pretty much can't-miss," said Barry Frantz, assistant Pennsylvania state conservationist. "We are trying to target people who haven't been using them before. We have a lot more money now that people can apply for and I think they might be offered a contract now if they are ready and able to do this work."

Farmers in other areas of the Bay watershed, or who need help with other severe water quality issues, will not be excluded from the process. But those coinciding with the state priorities will be awarded more points as the projects are ranked.

"I don't intend for my field staff to not address a particular bad situation with an area that might be eroding, or a stream that needs stabilization, or a farmstead that has a really bad waste storage situation," Derickson said. "I want to be able to use all of the components that we have to do the most good possible. But in terms of a marketing message, we are going to be marketing pretty heavily those core types of practices."

Agency officials hope that water quality monitoring programs, funded outside the Farm Bill, will be established in at least some of the areas targeted for heightened implementation. The hope is to be able to show, and even quantify, the impact of the additional funding on water quality.

Because of scattered implementation in the past, the benefits of activities are often diluted within the watershed. As a result, it has often been difficult to document downstream water quality improvements from farm-based practices.

Officials hope that the targeting will result in tangible evidence that the investment is paying off.

"It has tremendous opportunity to target like we have never done before," said Kelly Shenk, of EPA Bay Program Office, who has been working with agricultural officials on the program.

"The Bay is a national treasure," she said. "If they are going to be competitive with farmers across the country and still have a healthy Bay, our farmers need extra funding to go that extra mile. And we certainly want to maintain well-managed agriculture in the watershed."

Besides the $188 million in Chesapeake Bay Initiative funding, all states are expected to get significant increases in money under traditional Farm Bill programs that will continue to support the full range of conservation practices to farmers both in and out of the Bay watershed. Those programs are estimated to provide an additional $252 million to the six states in the Bay watershed over the next five years under the 2008 Farm Bill.

When the Bay-specific and traditional programs are combined, total annual farm conservation funding in the Bay watershed may nearly double the roughly $80 million a year previously received.

That would still fall short of the needed agricultural funding to meet Bay goals. "The federal support received on the Farm Bill is unprecedented and is of the order of magnitude that we need," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures and pressed for the additional funding. "Now," she added, "it is up to the states to match it."

That may be more problematic, as all of the states in the region are facing budget shortfalls, and existing agricultural funding may be jeopardized, rather than increased.

Another limiting factor is the lack of adequate technical support-people on the ground who can talk to farmers about various BMPs and help them with implementation.

"For more than 10 years, the Bay restoration effort has acknowledged that without technical assistance and outreach, you cannot achieve the implementation levels needed," Swanson said. "For the $23 million investment to provide us pollution control returns, we need state support for technical assistance and outreach."

The number of technical support staff from federal, state and county offices has gradually decreased over the years. Comments during a series of "listening sessions" conducted in the region prior to the 2008 Farm Bill indicated that the lack of adequate technical support could limit the benefits of additional funding.

Derickson said one of the factors in identifying priority watersheds was the availability of enough people to visit farmers and market the program to farmers.

"We do have some technical assistance, but we will need more to affect the outcome we are looking for," Derickson said. "This is not just business as usual. It is going to require a more hands-on approach to actually knock on farm doors and have multiple meetings with people who are not implementing a basic good conservation system and to have them enter into an agreement with us to get that work done."

Last summer, the White House Office of Management and Budget had sought to block the Bay funding, saying it had not gone through a "competitive, merit-based review." That move was criticized by many lawmakers, and ultimately the release of funds was announced just days before the Bush administration left office.