Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region could see an infusion of cash for management practices that reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads to the waterways under a new federal program.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, a part of the new Farm Bill, prioritizes eight regions of the country for extra funding. The Bay is one of those regions, which could mean additional money not only for the tried-and-true practices, such as cover crops and buffers, but for more innovative practices that are still in the testing stages.

Under the 2008 Farm Bill, about $50 million a year was dedicated specifically for water quality programs in the Bay watershed, in addition to funding available to farmers from other U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs.

The new program, which was part of the 2014 Farm Bill approved by Congress earlier this year, includes $1.2 billion in nationwide funding over the next five years. There will be $400 million in USDA funding available in the first year. It will be split up thusly:

  • 35 percent of the funds will be granted, via a competitive process, to the eight priority regions in the partnership, of which the Chesapeake is one.
  • 40 percent of the funds will be granted through a national competitive process —meaning any farmer can apply
  • 25 percent of it goes to a state competitive process, meaning the farmers within that jurisdiction can apply.

Therefore, farmers in the Chesapeake watershed have three bites at the funding apple, so to speak. It should work out to as much funding as they’ve gotten in previous years, and possibly more, but probably not less, according to Sue Wolitsky, communications director for Sen. Benjamin Cardin. The Maryland senator was instrumental in pushing for the funding, and he said it was “a struggle…but at the end of the day, we were able to persevere.”

Many questions remain. How will farmers get the money? Who, precisely, will get it? For what practices? Will the money fund mostly cover crops and buffer strips, or is the USDA looking at more technical solutions, like more consultants to write nutrient management plans. What about funds for monitoring to make sure the practices work well?

At a media event Friday at the Baltimore Center for Maryland Agriculture in Cockeysville, several officials attempted to answer those questions. One of them was Jason Weller, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Weller stressed that NRCS expects to see partnerships formed between farmers and non-governmental organizations which are expected to bring matching funds to the table, bringing the total program investment to $2.4 billion. The next steps for the program, according to NRCS, include:

  • Over the next 45 days, NRCS wants to see pre-proposals, of six pages or less, on what an organization and a farm want to do together. Weller’s staff (the agency has 12,000 employees) will choose the most promising proposals.
  • Those who make the first cut will have 60 days to put together a more detailed proposal. “We’re not looking for War and Peace,” Weller said. “Twenty pages or less.”
  • Then, NRCS will work through its traditional avenues, including the conservation districts, to fund the projects. Organizations like the Nature Conservancy, which already have these partnerships in place, will be able to apply for new money.

Those looking for funding should know the door is open, NRCS officials said. They stressed they are looking for innovation and partnerships, be they with biologists, volunteer groups or community members.

“I don’t really care whose foot is in the boot — I do want more boots on the ground,” Weller said.

Several Chesapeake Bay environmentalists have begun building these partnerships on their own. Recently, the Chesapeake Bay Journal has reported on MidShore Riverkeeper Drew Koslow’s efforts to encourage farmers to build ditch management structures on their farms, leveraging money he got from state and federal partners. The structures are far more complicated than grass waterwasy or buffers, but they have great potential to reduce nitrogen and help farmers control flooding.

Royden Powell III, assistant secretary for resource conservation with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said he expects the new federal funding could bring about more of those successes.

“This legislation opens the door for new player, new partners,” Powell said. “it will be a tremendous help.”