Farmers throughout the Bay states reacted enthusiastically to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative aimed at taking the most environmentally sensitive farmlands out of production.

The Chesapeake Bay was one of four key areas the department targeted to benefit in the redesigned Conservation Reserve Program, which makes annual payments to farmers to take land out of production that is highly erodible, a cropped wetland, adjacent to a noncropped wetland, or will be devoted to a streamside buffer.

Farmers in the Bay states of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania responded by offering to enroll 86,822 acres in the program during a sign-up period that took place in March. That was an increase from the 67,731 acres previously enrolled.

Nearly 35,000 additional acres were offered in New York, Delaware and West Virginia, where large amounts of agricultural land also fall within the Bay watershed.

A breakdown just for the portions of the states within the Bay watershed is not yet available.

Final decisions about which land offered by farmers will be enrolled in the program are expected this summer.

The CRP has long allowed farmers to take highly erodible farmland out of production for set periods of time, usually 10-15 years, in exchange for annual rental payments from the government. But the program was revised in the 1996 Farm Bill to give the most environmentally sensitive lands priority in the program to protect water quality and improve wildlife habitat.

New criteria used by the department ranks land offered for the program for benefits that include wildlife habitat, erosion control, water quality, air quality and cost. The main goal of the program is to set erosion and reduce sediment runoff into lakes, rivers and streams.

The Bay watershed is one of four national priority areas where land offered for the program gets "bonus points" in the ranking system. Other priority areas, where taking land out of production is considered to have particularly high potential to improve water quality or wildlife habitat, include Long Island Sound, the Great Lakes and the Prairie Pothole region of the Upper Midwest.

Among states in the Bay watershed:

  • Delaware farmers sought to enroll 659 acres, up from the present 659. (40 percent of the state is in the watershed.)

  • Maryland farmers offered 7,203 acres, up from 3,247. (97 percent of the state is in the watershed.)

  • New York farmers offered 33,523 acres, up from 19,859. (13 percent of the state is in the watershed.)

  • Pennsylvania farmers offered 41,878 acres, up from 29,981 acres. (49 percent of the sates is in the watershed.)

  • Virginia farmers offered 37,741 acres, up from 34,503 acres. (54 percent of the state is in the watershed.)

  • West Virginia offered 737 acres, up from 256 acres. (15 percent of the state is in the watershed.)