The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bay Program have signed an agreement that is intended to make the region a “model” of how the department can promote “both environmentally and economically sound practices.”

A major part of the department’s effort will be attempting to coordinate efforts of its own agencies, along with state and local agencies, to more holistically address environmental issues related to farming.

“As the lead federal agency in planning and implementing conservation and forestry management programs in the watershed, the Department of Agriculture must be a strong participant in this endeavor,” Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes said at the signing ceremony for the agreement. “No other federal agency can reach as many landowners with efforts to implement on-the-ground actions.”

In particular, the department will work to promote “total resource management planning” on farms in the Bay states. Total resource management seeks to develop comprehensive plans for individual farms that will comprehensively address issues such as soil erosion, nutrient management, and pesticide application.

Without such an approach, farmers often face added paperwork, duplication among agencies, and even conflicting plans. For example, plans to control erosion and plans to manage nutrients may give different recommendations about how — or whether — a particular field should be cultivated.

The USDA’s cooperation in implementing such a program is important because it contains several agencies deeply involved in working with farmers, including the Soil Conservation Service, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, and the Extension Service.

Increasing USDA involvement was a major recommendation of a special Nonpoint Source Agricultural Initiative started by the Bay Program’s Executive Council two years ago. The initiative was aimed at finding ways to improve the effectiveness of nonpoint source control efforts in the Bay watershed and to better coordinate the information given farmers.

Lack of coordination has frustrated farmers and hindered efforts to promote the adoption of practices that would curb nutrient runoff to the Bay and its tributaries. Agriculture is a major source of nutrients to the Bay.

James Lyons, USDA assistant secretary for natural resources and the environment, said the agreement “is really only the start.”

“The key partners in our effort to protect the Bay are the many farmers, ranchers, and other landowners who recognize the value of land stewardship and who employ sound conservation practices in what they do from day to day,” Lyons said. “All our plans and programs, in fact this very agreement, would be useless unless we convince all landowners — and all land users — to carry out and maintain land conservation improvements. It comes down to people, people working together to preserve and protect the Chesapeake Bay.”

To aid in that effort, the department is planning a new watershed management approach for agriculture in the Bay region. The Bay states will be subdivided into hundreds of small watersheds ranging in size from 10,000 to 50,000 acres. Virginia alone will be subdivided into 491 small watersheds.

In each, farmers and other local citizens will be encouraged to work with federal, state, and local personnel in developing “watershed plans” that outline broad goals for resource protection and management. The plans will recognize that in a watershed “the parts all fit together,” said Philip Christensen, SCS’s EPA liaison. “You can’t look at one dairy farm, or one subdivision plan, and do the best management job on those two pieces and think the whole puzzle is going to be nicely fitting together.”

Watershed plans could promote tradeoffs between different land uses to achieve the plan’s overall objectives. For example, a developer who drained several acres of wetlands may pay a farmer to develop a new wetland on his property where it would provide the most ecological value, Christensen said. In a particular watershed, landowners may try innovative techniques, such as the development of forest buffers, to determine how well such practices perform and what kind of incentives lead to their adoption by farmers and other landowners.

“The point is, each watershed could be different, and it should be heavily what the people want,” Christensen said.

Development of the plans, he said, will depend largely on the involvement of local citizens. While government agencies can provide support, successful development hinges on the ability of a local citizen willing to act as a “spark plug” to promote the idea and on the citizens being able to devise their own conflict resolution mechanism. “Typically,” Christensen said, “it’s not our employees who make that kind of thing happen.”

Christensen, who is developing a strategic plan to guide SCS involvement in the Bay region, said the Chesapeake region may be fertile territory for such a management approach because there are already a large number of citizens involved in grassroots river and watershed protection efforts.

Besides promoting the watershed planning effort and promoting total resource management planning, the USDA has agreed to designate personnel to participate in Bay Program committees, and to work with the Bay Program to coordinate research efforts.

A key challenge for the department will be trying to expand its involvement in the Bay watershed at a time when the agency is undergoing budget cuts and a restructuring — and to do so without cutting back on its technical assistance to farmers.

But Christensen said that promoting watershed approaches in agriculture should ultimately make the department’s job easier. “We’re asking farmers to get to know their watersheds,” he said. “We’re asking them to make a little bit of a commitment to understanding how what they’re doing on their farm fits together with their neighbors.”

Total Resource Management Plans

Both farmers and government agencies have experienced frustrations with the way existing plans are developed and implemented for farms. Plans and permits affecting a single farm may be written by a variety of local, state, and federal agencies. As a result, plans for a single farm may be contradictory and leave a farmer in the position of deciding which plan to follow and which to violate.

The goal of Total Resource Management Planning is to identify ways to manage agricultural land holistically by including both environmental and economic factors. By improving coordination among agencies, a single, more flexible, site-specific plan can be written for a particular farm, which should reduce conflicts, overlap, and paperwork.

In each of the Bay states, “teams” representing the different agencies will be formed to determine how such plans should be developed within their jurisdictions.

All plans should contain nine components:

  • Soil and water resource management
  • Nutrient management
  • Crop and pest management
  • Animal management
  • Farmstead assessment
  • Forest management
  • Wildlife habitat management
  • Economic analysis
  • Regulatory compliance

— Source: Chesapeake Bay Program Agricultural Nonpoint Source Initiative