Recognizing that the next federal Farm Bill could dramatically boost—or break—Bay restoration efforts, regional leaders sent Congress a 16-page report outlining areas of concern for the Chesapeake in the hope that their voices will be heard when discussions on the multibillion-dollar legislation begin next year.

The report not only calls for stepped-up conservation funding, but also proposes creating regional programs to coordinate the spending of farm conservation money, hiring more people to provide technical assistance to help farmers implement runoff control practices, and more effectively targeting existing programs to make them better.

“We believe the extensive farmlands of the Chesapeake Bay region, draining into the largest estuary in the United States, are important places to deal with farm conservation program reforms,” said a cover letter signed by the governors of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, the District of Columbia mayor and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

“Further, the measures that we identify to meet the dual goals of strengthening agriculture and improving water quality in the Chesapeake have application to the multitude of other fragile and recovering watersheds in the nation.”

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. Historically, the Bay region has had only a little role in the legislation. But securing increased money in the next bill—especially for conservation programs that help farmers improve water quality—could have a huge influence on the Bay cleanup.

Agriculture is the largest single source of nutrients to the Bay, but farm runoff is also the most inexpensive source of nutrients to control. Across the Bay watershed, state-written nutrient control strategies are counting on agriculture to achieve 68 percent of the nitrogen and 64 percent of the phosphorus reduction goals.

The Bay Program estimates it would cost about $700 million a year to implement all of the actions needed to achieve those reductions. Assuming an average cost-share with farmers of 25 percent would leave an annual governmental cost of $525 million, according to the report. If the states cover half of these costs, the remaining federal share would be $262.5 million a year—about four times the current level of federal funds provided to the Bay watershed under the Farm Bill.

Recognizing the stakes, the Chesapeake Executive Council called for developing a regional farm proposal to submit to Congress by the end of the year. A Farm Policy Reform Work Group this year conducted more than 40 listening sessions attended by more than 1,000 individuals and stakeholder organizations throughout the watershed to gather ideas about what the next Farm Bill should contain.

“Nationwide, we are one of the first groups out with a report,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia and chaired the work group. “Given the financial condition of the country right now, I think it is very important that we start this early.”

Winning greater support for regional conservation programs could be an uphill fight.

The Congressional committees that write Farm Bills are dominated by members from the Midwest and South, and those regions have received disproportionate benefits from the legislation in the past. Only two of the 46 members of the House Agriculture Committee are from the Bay watershed, Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, and Rep. Tim Holden, D-PA. Just one of the 20 members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, is from the Bay watershed, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-PA.

A bit less than a quarter of the Farm Bill spending actually goes to farmers, and those are funneled through two programs: commodity payments, which subsidize growing certain crops, and conservation payments, which help fund actions that reduce pollution from farm lands, protect habitats or take environmentally sensitive areas out of production. Commodity payments approved in the 2002 Farm Bill, which tend to benefit farmers in the Midwest and South, were more than three times greater than conservation spending.

Bay advocates say farms here deserve more attention. Although they constitute only 3.2 percent of total farm acreage in the United States, farms in the Bay region generate $12 billion in sales, which is 5.7 of the total for farm receipts. Nonetheless, the vast majority of farmers are turned away because of lack of money when they seek support from Farm Bill conservation programs.

While the report is a first step in making its case, the region will have to wage a continued, and coordinated, campaign to stress the Bay’s case, Swanson said. “Unless all of the states exert their own influence on these recommendations and also garner the support of the constituencies, we will not be able to make much headway,” she said.

The report outlined five broad areas for action in the next Farm Bill:

  • Establish a nationwide program of “Regional Stewardship Funds” to increase flexibility in the use of federal funds for state or multistate initiatives in threatened or degraded watersheds. It would allow for Regional Stewardship Programs to be designated by a state, or states, and approved by the secretary of agriculture, for areas that have established plans to address regional water quality needs. Those programs would get additional federal funding beyond that available from existing programs to promote conservation efforts and produce measurable water quality improvements. States and local governments that provide a partial match would get funding priority.
  • Reauthorize and implement the Conservation Security Program throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed and in other regions. The CSP was a new program in the 2002 Farm Bill designed to make ongoing payments to farmers who implement conservation practices on their land beyond those required by regulations. But the program has never received the funding envisioned in the Farm Bill and its use has been restricted to a few subwatersheds across the nation. The report calls for the nationwide expansion of the CSP to encourage the adoption of new conservation technologies and practices.
  • Target funds to maximize environmental benefits and ecological services. The report calls for the next Farm Bill to prioritize funding to support on-farm practices that best address local and regional water quality problems. It also said accountability must be improved by ensuring that practices are fully implemented and programs are achieving measurable water quality results. In addition, farmers should get extra incentives, including insurance, if they are willing to adopt promising nutrient and sediment strategies they may view as risky.
  • Do more to support the viability of agriculture by providing farmers with assistance in market development, renewable energy applications and risk management. Among the reports recommendations are increasing support for the development of renewable energy production, including biofuels; helping farmers create value-added, off-farm uses for excess manure and poultry litter; and adjusting crop insurance programs to protect farmers who adopt new and innovative conservation programs.
  • Increase funding and technical assistance for conservation-related programs. The report noted that four out of five farmers in the region who seek funds from conservation programs are turned away because of inadequate funding. In addition, more field-based professionals are needed to provide on-the-ground assistance in designing site-specific best management conservation measures to address local needs. The report said technical assistance should increase from roughly 15 percent of conservation programs to 25 percent.

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.

Limited numbers of printed copies are available by contacting the commission at 410-263-3420.