Agricultural issues have moved to the forefront of the Bay agenda recently for a simple reason: Whether the Chesapeake ever achieves the clean water envisioned by cleanup advocates will hinge largely on whether efforts to reign in nutrient runoff from farm fields and animal feeding operations are successful.

About two-fifths of the nitrogen and phosphorus that fouls Chesapeake water by spurring algae blooms and removing oxygen originates from agricultural lands, according to Bay Program estimates; about half of that stems directly from animal manure.

Those figures could be underestimates. Some studies in scientific journals have put the amount of nitrogen stemming from agriculture at 50 percent or slightly higher.

But agricultural controls tend to be less costly than other nutrient control programs. As a result, state-written plans call for 68 percent of the nitrogen reductions and 64 percent of the phosphorus reductions that are needed to restore Bay water quality to come from farming operations throughout the watershed.

The critical role of agriculture was highlighted when U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns met with members of the Chesapeake Executive Council during their November meeting.

“We told him that this is just the beginning of the conversation, and not a simple courtesy call,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who chaired the meeting.

Council members are pressing for more federal farm conservation spending to be steered toward the Bay region and presented Johanns a report from a series of “listening sessions” that took place throughout the watershed last year which outlined the region’s priorities when Congress and the Bush administration write the next Farm Bill, which is scheduled for 2007.

Federal funding for agricultural programs in the Chesapeake watershed portion of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania totaled about $66 million in 2004—a figure that is roughly matched by the states in the watershed. But the report the Executive Council presented Johanns estimated that the state and federal spending would each need to quadruple to about $262.5 million annually to implement all of the agricultural pollution control practices called for in state cleanup strategies.

The person who oversees the alphabet-soup of farm conservation programs the region depends up—EQIP, WHIP, WRP, CSP and so on—says that more money alone will not solve environmental problems stemming from agriculture.

“You see this nationwide,” said Bruce Knight, chief of the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. “Everybody often thinks that you solve environmental problems with money. It is not money that solves environmental concerns. It is action. It is putting conservation on the ground. So it is really about how efficient and effective you are able to be in that.”

As NRCS chief, the third-generation farmer and rancher from South Dakota may have the greatest influence over how much is put on the ground in the Bay watershed of any federal official. His agency spends more on conservation programs than any other agency. From 1994 through 2005, the NRCS spent $306 million in the watershed to control polluted runoff and restore habitat, according to the congressional Government Accountability Office.

“You’ve got a large number of federal agencies and state agencies that have a focus on how to do specific conservation actions on public lands,” Knight said in a recent interview with the Bay Journal. “We’re about the only one out there that is working on private lands. If you look at the map of the Chesapeake Bay area, it is really about private lands and private waters where the action needs to occur to improve the environment.”

Funding for farm conservation programs has increased 80 percent since the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, he said, resulting in additional funding for programs in every state.

Prior to that bill, large backlogs built up of farmers seeking help from various conservation programs—to the point that some farm conservation advocates contend that many farmers no longer bother to go through the paperwork to apply.

“We are chewing up the backlogs, but we still do have backlogs,” Knight said. But he said the often-cited figure that four out of five farmers seeking conservation support are turned away was a “myth.”

From 2002 through 2005, he said two out of three farmers who sought to participate in conservation programs in the six states that drain into the Bay—Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New York—were funded.

“That is a tremendously positive story and it is one that is going to have a profound impact on addressing the nonpoint source concerns, the water quality concerns, that everybody is focused on around the Bay,” Knight said.

And, he said, the agency is becoming more effective at implementing its programs. States that can demonstrate their effectiveness in having farmers adopt conservation measures are getting bonuses over others. In 2005, out of nearly $57 million in bonus payments distributed nationwide, Delaware got $1.9 million; Virginia got about $1.2 million; New York got $1 million; Maryland got $197,637 and Pennsylvania $173,729.

New funding has also become available to promote innovative farming programs: Last year, the Bay region got $5 million in Conservation Innovation Grants to promote such technology, including one last year aimed at managing livestock feed to reduce nutrient concentrations in manure—an issue that has become a major focus of the Bay Program. And, Knight said the Bay region was in line for another $5 million this year to promote innovation.

Nonetheless, Knight acknowledged a growing demand for conservation funding not only for the Bay, but all across the nation where areas are dealing with water quality issues of their own. During recent “listening” sessions across the nation conducted by the USDA to get input on the next farm bill, Knight said it was “clear there is a great deal of support for conservation.”

Although the actual amount of funding has increased since the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress has not funded programs to the level called for in the legislation. Funding for conservation in the past two years has stabilized, and for some programs slightly declined.

The report the Bay governors handed to Johanns not only called for more money, but also for establishing new “regional stewardship funds” that would allow regions to pool money from the myriad federal conservation programs and target them to achieve specific water quality objectives.

Knight said it was too early to say whether the administration would advocate such a program; NRCS programs are already prioritized at the state level, he noted.

But to help better target programs to meet local water quality objectives, Knight said the NRCS this year is switching to a watershed-based approach for implementing its programs. Right now, the agency tracks implementation at the state level. In the new system, it will be able to track implementation in subwatersheds. In addition, the NRCS plans an assessment within each of those watersheds to determine the actual potential for various conservation programs to restore wetlands or control runoff—and how receptive farmers in that watershed would be to those programs.

That information, Knight said, will help the NRCS to avoid what he calls “random acts of conservation kindness” which may provide minimal benefits, and instead move toward a more targeted method of implementing programs to show results. Then, Knight said, “folks at the local level can say, we’d really like NRCS to put a little more money on this watershed versus this watershed. And with that data, people even within those watersheds will agree with those decisions.”

Historically, it has often been difficult to show water quality improvements from farm conservation programs, in part because they are voluntary, and those requested by a farmer may not be the ones that provide the greatest benefit. In addition, they have often been scattered across watersheds, diluting their effect. The NRCS ranks projects by their environmental benefit before funding them, but Knight said even with its new watershed system, there is only so far the agency can go in pushing programs on landowners.

“If we are out there telling people this is where you need to make your priorities as a producer, then we are sounding a lot more regulatory than helping,” he said. “I never let perfect be the enemy of the good. As long as each and every year we are giving as many farmers and ranchers and private landowners in the Chesapeake Bay area as we can an opportunity to put good conservation on the ground, I’m confident that we are making progress on that.”

Further, Knight said, the interaction with the farmer gives NRCS staffers an opportunity, over time, to encourage the implementation of other measures. “We’re always looking for opportunities, using progressive planning to go back, revisit that and address those things,” he said.

Whether the agency has enough people to have those discussions in the field with farmers is a major concern. Even if full funding were available for all farm conservation programs, a recent report from the Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee said the NRCS and other agencies would lack the personnel to provide technical assistance to help farmers plan and implement various conservation practices.

Although the number of people working with farmers goes up and down, the overall trend has been downward for decades. The report the governors gave Johanns said that “the number of federal, state, non-government and private sector technical service providers must be increased if any of the conservation programs are to reach their full potential.” It suggested allowing the amount of funds in conservation programs that could be used to provide technical assistance to increase from 15 percent to 25 percent.

Knight said that nationwide, there has been a net gain of 1,400 people providing technical assistance over the past three years, but added that meeting demand is difficult because universities do not graduate enough people to meet the demand, nor can they be trained fast enough. Increasingly, he said, the agency is working to build up a “cadre” of outside technical advisors who can do things such as develop feed management and nutrient management plans for farmers.

But he predicted that new technology will be “the unsung hero of adding technical capacity.” He said the NRCS has worked to have all soil surveys computerized, so they are available to everyone from land use planners to farmers to consultants around the clock.

Other advances, such as the availability of global positioning systems, help field staff do more in less time. “Terraces and grass waterways used to take two or three people to stake out,” he said. “Now, using GPS units, one person on a four-by-four can do in a day the work that would have taken three men a week.”

Knight expressed enthusiasm for the Conservation Security Program, a new program in the 2002 Farm Bill that rewards farmers who adopt widespread conservation practices on working lands and achieve levels of environmental performance that go beyond minimal requirements.

“I’ve got myriad programs that either try to fix something that shouldn’t have happened—the wetlands reserve program and the conservation reserve program, which restore lands that perhaps should never have been farmed to begin with—or EQIP, which has people coming into compliance with things that fix a particular problem,” Knight said. “But only with the CSP have we now been able to reward people for going above and beyond the bare minimum.”

When created in the 2002 Farm Bill, the CSP was touted as a national entitlement program to reward conservation. But Congress moved to cap funding, and farmers in only five watersheds in the Bay region are eligible for the program this year.

In the Bay region, Knight said 100 percent of the eligible farmers who applied for the program were accepted in 2004, and 95 percent were accepted in 2005. “What I like about it is that we are rewarding leading-edge conservationists for being leading- edge conservationists and continuing to make improvements,” he said.

The recent Bay report, which was signed by five governors in the region, made expansion of the CSP throughout the watershed and other regions one of its top farm recommendations. That may not happen anytime soon. A budget bill approved by the U.S. Senate in December would cap funding for the program at $1.95 billion over the next five years, allowing for little growth over its 2006 funding level of $259 million nationwide. The House must still act on the bill, something that could happen in early February.

Knight expressed confidence that, over time, the CSP will prove it is worth funding nationwide. “Growth has been slow, but it’s been steady and I’m optimistic in the long term that CSP will continue to grow and thrive and be a part of the long-term solution to conservation in the Chesapeake Bay area,” he said.

Although wide-scale implementation would easily put the price tag in the billions annually, Knight said “the efficacy is also very big because it is about just paying that minimal amount of enhancement that it takes to avoid a unit of nitrogen or that additional unit of phosphorus from getting into the Bay or into the streams,”

Further, he said, the program provides economic benefits to rural communities because unlike some other programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program which pays to take environmentally sensitive lands out of production, the CSP pays for farmers who take action to reduce pollution from lands they are actively farming. “You are supporting conservation, minimizing nutrient loadings and supporting working lands in rural America,” he said.

Knight said the CSP also addresses “lingering concerns” about inequities in farm commodity payments, which tend to go to relatively few farmers and primarily those in the Midwest and Southern states who grow certain crops. By contrast, he said, the CSP can support any farmer, whether he or she is raising dairy cows in the Bay watershed, cherries in Michigan or vegetables in California.

Attention nationwide is turning to the next Farm Bill, which is scheduled for action in 2007, but some speculate action could be put off. Some, including the Farm Bureau, the nation’s largest farming organization, have urged extending current legislation rather than writing a new bill.

Right now, Knight said it is too early to say what will happen with the next Farm Bill. The USDA has been conducting listening sessions around the nation to get input, and Knight said he expects Johanns later this year to lay out more details about the administration’s plans for the legislation. But Knight said he expects there will be a bill.

“I have watched farm bills for many years and generally the first wave of reaction almost invariably, about a year or year and a half out, is maybe we really don’t need one,” he said. “And every time, folks still proceed with one.”

NRCS programs at a glance

  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP): promotes agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible goals. Through EQIP, farmers may receive financial and technical help to install or implement structural and management conservation practices on eligible agricultural land.
  • Wetland Reserve Program (WRP): provides technical and financial assistance to eligible landowners to address wetland, wildlife habitat, soil, water and related natural resource concerns on private land in an environmentally beneficial and cost-effective manner. The program provides an opportunity for landowners to receive financial incentives to enhance wetlands in exchange for retiring marginal land from agriculture.
  • Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP): encourages the creation of high-quality wildlife habitats that support wildlife populations of national, state, tribal and local significance. Through WHIP, the NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to landowners and others to develop upland, wetland, riparian and aquatic habitat areas on their property.
  • Conservation Security Program (CSP): provides financial and technical assistance for the conservation, protection and improvement of soil, water and related resources on private land. The program provides payments for producers who historically have practiced good stewardship on their agricultural lands and incentives for those who want to do more.
  • Farmland Protection Program (FPR): helps farmers and ranchers keep their land in agriculture. The program provides matching funds to state, tribal or local governments and nongovernmental organizations with existing farmland protection programs to purchase conservation easements or other interests in land.

These next two programs are funded by the USDA Farm Services Agency, although the NRCS provides technical support.

  • The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP): encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filter strips or riparian buffers. Farmers receive an annual rental payment for the term of the multiyear contract. Cost sharing is provided to establish the vegetative cover practices.
  • The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP): is a new, state-federal conservation partnership to address specific state and nationally significant water quality, soil erosion and wildlife habitat issues related to agricultural use. CREP uses financial incentives to encourage farmers and ranchers to voluntarily enroll in contracts of 10 to 15 years in duration to remove environmentally sensitive lands from agricultural production. As these agricultural lands are planted in trees, grass and other protective vegetation, soil erosion is reduced, air and water quality improves, and acres of wildlife habitat are established.

The Farm Bill & the Bay

Congress generally approves Farm Bills every five years that establish funding levels for a host of agricultural programs, from food stamps to bioenergy to rural development.

Conservation programs received far greater attention in the last bill, approved in 2002, than in previous bills. Overall spending on conservation programs is up roughly 80 percent.

Nonetheless, with increasingly tight federal budgets, Congress has not spent as much money on those programs as called for in the legislation.

For instance, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program—a key program that funds a variety of nutrient control efforts in the Bay watershed—was slated to get $1.2 billion nationwide in 2005, but only got a little more than $1 billion.

The Wetland Reserve Program was supposed to support 250,000 acres of restoration in 2005, but was funded to restore only 154,500 acres. The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program was slated to get $85 million in 2005, but got only $47 million.

Groups around the nation—including the Bay states—are starting to stake out positions for the next farm bill, expected in 2007 or 2008, as negotiations on the legislation are expected to begin later this year.

Last fall, the governors of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware, along with the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures, presented a report to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns laying out the region’s farm bill priorities.

The report, “2007 Federal Farm Bill: Concepts for Conservation Reform in the Chesapeake Bay Region,” stemmed from a series of stakeholder meetings conducted last year, and outlined the region’s funding needs and ways to make programs more effective. Among the recommendations were methods to improve the targeting of money, and changes in the ways that funds are distributed to the states to improve program flexibility.

Copies of the report, “2007 Federal Farm Bill: Concepts for Conservation Reform in the Chesapeake Bay Region,” are available on the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s web site, www.chesbay.state.va.us.

For information see, “Report outlines regional issues for next Farm Bill,” December 2005