A farm bill approved by the Senate would sharply increase financial support for farmers who take actions to protect the Bay and other waterways. It would also create a pilot program in the Bay watershed that would pay farmers to use less fertilizer.
If the conservation provisions of the bill, which cleared the Senate on a 58-40 vote Feb. 13, become law, regional officials say the measures would provide a major boost for efforts to clean the Bay by 2010, as agriculture is the largest single source of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake.
“It could mean a lot of good things for the Bay watershed,” said Tom Simpson, of the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program’s Nutrient Subcommittee. “We’re about as happy as we could be about it right now. We just have to survive conference.”
The bill, would provide $4.3 billion a year for farm conservation programs, more than double the current funding for programs that do such things as improving animal waste management or taking environmentally sensitive lands out of production.
The House passed a much different version of the Farm Bill last year, which would provide about $3.3 billion for conservation. A conference committee is expected to begin meeting in March to work out the differences.
The Senate version not only has greater conservation funding, but offers a mix of programs more likely to be used in this region, said Bill Street, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, including those that protect farmland from development and reward farmers for maintaining already-existing conservation efforts on their land.
Trying to win increased support for the Bay region was the major focus of an informal group of officials from the states, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Chesapeake Bay Commission. The group has been meeting for months trying to win added federal support for the Bay cleanup effort, which is expected to cost billions of dollars by the end of the decade.
“The strong conservation programs under the Senate farm bill are a tremendous step toward reducing water pollution to help protect the Chesapeake Bay,” said CBF President Will Baker, who predicted the bill — if passed — “will help farmers stay profitable and save the Bay at the same time.”
Right now, farmers in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania get a combined $15 million annually for conservation. Under the Senate bill, that could jump to nearly $80 million annually, according to an analysis by the group, Environmental Defense.
Historically, farmers in this region have gotten far less federal farm support than those in the Midwest and South, largely because crop subsidy programs favor growers in those regions.
The Senate bill would greatly reduce that disparity, largely through increased conservation programs, which environmental groups had made their top priority in the new farm bill.
Agricultural runoff accounts for about two-fifths of the nutrient pollution in the Bay, and is the chief source of pollution in many other coastal areas, including the Gulf of Mexico. Yet 70 percent of farmers who apply for assistance today to implement programs to protect waterways are rejected because of a lack of funding.
Tim Searchinger, of Environmental Defense, said the conservation portions of the Senate bill were among the most promising pieces of environment legislation to pass since the Clean Air Act amendments a decade ago. “This package will provide unprecedented resources to reward farmers and ranchers when they help improve water quality, restore wildlife habitat or limit sprawl,” he said.
The Senate bill creates a $70 million Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Reduction Pilot Program that would offer incentives to farmers to place less fertilizer on certain crops than is normally recommended.
In most years, that should result in little, if any, reduced production, scientists say. When there is a loss of production, participating farmers would be paid to make up for their losses under the program.
Research suggests that reducing fertilizer applications 15 percent to 25 percent below recommended levels could sharply reduce nitrogen runoff from croplands.
The bill also authorizes the use of that money for other innovative nutrient reduction practices, Simpson said, making it possible that a portion of the funding could be used for other practices, such growing switchgrass, which can both reduce nutrient runoff and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
“If we are to remove nutrient impairments to the Bay, additional reductions from agricultural sources must be made and that will only be accomplished with new and innovative programs,” said Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, who got the pilot program included in the legislation.
The bill creates a new Conservation Security Program. Unlike most programs, which pay farmers to adopt new conservation efforts, it would reward farmers for maintaining those efforts on private land. The CBF’s Street said that would disproportionately benefit farmers in the Bay region who have been in the forefront, nationally, in conservation. As a result, they often have not benefited from programs that only rewarded new efforts.
In the next five years, the Senate bill would spend $5 billion on the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps farmers improve nutrient and animal waste management, slightly more than the House version. It also makes $100 million available annually for innovative environmental enhancement projects.
It allows up to 40 million acres of farmland to be enrolled nationally in the Conservation Reserve Program, which gives farmers annual payments for taking environmentally sensitive land out of production. That compares to the current cap of 36.4 million acres, and a 39.2 million acre cap in the House Bill.
Also, the Senate bill has $1.85 billion to purchase conservation easements and prevent development in the next five years; the House bill has $50 million a year.
In addition, it has $875 million for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, which helps fund habitat improvement projects, such as the creation of wetland and stream improvements, on farmland. The House Bill has $385 million for the program. The program gets about $50 million a year now.
Bush administration officials, though, have expressed concern about the cost of the Senate bill.
The administration and others also contend that the commodity programs in both versions of the bill, which guarantee minimum prices for crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat, encourage overproduction.