The unique character of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is a large part of what inspires those of us working to restore and protect this special region. The 64,000-square mile watershed is home to a diverse array of landscapes that we all enjoy in some way, from the quaint towns and cosmopolitan cities, to the rugged mountains and expansive forests, to the scenic rivers and the beautiful Bay itself.

Farms are also central to the history, culture, beauty and economy of the Chesapeake region, as well as providing many of the foods we enjoy. Plus, as the readers of Bay Journal know, the 8.6 million acres of agriculture in the watershed have a tremendous impact on the environment. Agricultural acreage accounts for approximately 22 percent of the land use, making agriculture the second largest land use after forests, and the leading contributor of pollutants to the Bay, responsible for more than 40 percent of the nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and more than 60 percent of the sediment.

Sources of these pollutants on farms include inorganic fertilizers and organic animal manures. Agricultural practices and natural causes contribute to these pollutants traveling into our groundwater and waterways.

Let me be clear-farmers are not the bad guys; they are the good guys. We as a society need to be supportive of agriculture, to seek out opportunities for farmers to be more profitable conservation stewards of their lands. The Bay depends upon it. Agriculture might be the single largest source of pollution to Chesapeake Bay, but another use of that same land would be much worse for the Bay.

Unfortunately, farms are disappearing in many areas and are being replaced by houses, condos, parking lots, shopping malls, gas stations, convenience stores and every other imaginable type of suburban development.

There are more than 80,000 farms in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And unlike the agri-business-dominated large farms across much of the nation, here in the Chesapeake we have mostly small, family-owned farms-about one-third the size of the nation's average farm.

The good news is we've made significant progress in reducing the nutrients and sediment coming from these farms in the last 25 years, and not simply because there has been some decline in agricultural land. Bay Program partners are about halfway to reaching our goals for reducing these pollutants because of the leadership of federal agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service and state and county governments; the work of watershed organizations; the assistance of the agricultural industry; and ultimately, the actions by farmers themselves to develop nutrient management plans; plant cover crops; manage animal manures and litter; maintain vegetation as buffers along waterways; keep animals out of streams; and practice conservation tillage.

As we head into the 21st century, the questions are how can we continue to make progress in addressing the environmental challenges of agriculture and how can we capitalize on the opportunities presented by the region's farms, all the while preserving their special place in the Chesapeake watershed?

Two events in September were positive steps forward.

The Maryland Department of the Environment published a draft general permit that would ensure the state's largest poultry producers implement controls to better manage poultry litter and reduce nutrient pollution to the Bay and its rivers. The proposed permit and regulations would cover at least 200 poultry farms and bring around 50 percent of the state's poultry litter under regulation by MDE. Also, applications and plans for animal feeding operation permits would require public review.

Maryland's action is important because approximately 12 percent of the nitrogen and 15 percent of the phosphorus that make up agriculture's load come from poultry operations. When considering all of sources of nutrient loads to waterways (such as stormwater, point sources, forests, etc.), poultry operations contribute 5 percent of the total nitrogen load and 7 percent of the total phosphorus load.

These statistics show how crucial it is to address all of the sources of pollution to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay. Whether regulating wastewater treatment plants, controlling urban runoff or instituting rules for poultry operations, it isn't singling out a particular industry-it is working on a piece of the entire puzzle.

Because agriculture is the largest single source of pollutants to the Bay and many of the management practices are cost-effective compared to other alternatives, Bay Program partners are relying on agriculture to achieve about two-thirds of the reductions necessary to restore the Bay.

For poultry operations, this means properly storing and applying manure so nutrients do not enter surface and ground water, finding alternative uses for excess manure nutrients, and exploring ways to reduce or conserve nutrients in manure.

To assist with meeting the new requirements, the Maryland Department of Agriculture offers farmers grants through its Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program. Funding may also be available through the Maryland Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund.

Another opportunity for agriculture to be a leading part of the watershed's environmental and economic future was highlighted on Sept. 4 when a report on biofuels was released by the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The report, "Next-Generation Biofuels: Taking the Policy Lead for the Nation," is the result of a year- long effort to explore the feasibility of cellulosic biofuels from sources including switchgrass, fast- growing timber and municipal wastes. These sources can potentially create a beneficial impact on water quality and are much more preferable than creating ethanol from corn, barley and other grains.

The report's conclusion is very exciting-that the Chesapeake region has the potential to become a national leader in the production and use of environmentally conservative biofuels. This is due to many assets, including climate, soils, landscapes, universities and the biotech industry. Of course, there is also the track record of the region's farms, which have made it one of the most productive agricultural areas in the country for four centuries.

Tremendous credit is due to the CBC and Pennsylvania for stepping forward last year to champion the biofuels issue. Remarkable leadership in appointing a panel of experts and coordinating work on the report was demonstrated by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell; Ann Swanson, CBC executive director; Pennsylvania Rep. Art Hershey, CBC chairman; and Maryland Del. James Hubbard, chairman of the Biofuels Advisory Panel.

Now, the key is taking action. The report clearly outlines recommendations for regional and state action that would move the Chesapeake toward a bright future in environmentally conservative biofuels. Everyone in a position to make a difference-including policy makers, opinion leaders, energy providers, consumers and Bay Program staff-should engage in implementing the recommendations. This is precisely the type of progressive opportunity that we need to seize to make giant strides in restoring and protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

The solution is not to allow agriculture to become a minor aspect of the Bay landscape, but to ensure that it remains economically viable, and that farmers have access to the financial and technical resources to implement agriculturally sound conservation practices and systems. The 2008 Farm Bill, which contains a Chesapeake Bay-specific provision, will help us all to work toward these goals and a cleaner Bay watershed.

These recent events are another reminder that agriculture will always be an essential part of the environmental and economic equation in the Chesapeake watershed. It is important for us to make the region's farms central to our restoration and protection efforts, as an integral part of the solution to the Bay restoration effort. That way, future generations can enjoy everything agriculture provides to our personal lives and collective society.

Visit www.chesapeakebay.net for more about the Chesapeake Bay Program and agriculture's role in the watershed.