PA farmland at sunset

Managing cropland and pastures in ways that improve soil health benefits farmers and prevents pollution in waterways. (Brian Lutz)

The best strategy for meeting the pollution reduction goals in the Chesapeake Bay’s Clean Water Blueprint (formally called the Bay’s total maximum daily load) is to focus on farms. Providing more financial and technical support to help farmers implement conservation practices will not only improve water quality, but also reduce greenhouse gases and bolster the region’s resilience to climate change.

Collectively, the Bay states, and especially Pennsylvania, are behind schedule in meeting their share of the targets. These targets outline the reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution needed to remove the Bay from the federal “dirty waters” list. More than 80% of the remaining pollution reductions must come from agriculture.

A restored Bay is worth $130 billion annually in economic, public health and environmental benefits. In Pennsylvania, those benefits will approach $40 billion a year. How can we finish the job?

We know certain farming practices work both to reduce pollution and benefit farmers. Together, they form a type of farming called regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture is essentially a farm system designed to work in harmony with nature. It focuses on minimizing the physical, biological and chemical disturbance of the soil; keeping the soil covered with vegetation or natural material as much as possible; increasing plant and crop diversity; keeping living roots in the soil; and integrating animals into the farm. For example, farmers may rotate their grazing livestock through various pastures, plant forested buffers along streams or use diverse crop rotations and cover crops.

By improving soil health, regenerative farming increases the land’s ability to filter and retain water and nutrients. In turn, polluted runoff decreases, benefiting water quality. Farmers benefit, too. Healthier soil can improve productivity, reduce the need for costly fertilizers, and make farms more resilient during droughts and floods. Many regenerative practices also capture and store carbon in the soil, helping to mitigate climate change and the extreme weather that harms both farmers and the Bay.

Getting more of these practices on the ground — in areas of the watershed where they will have the greatest effect — is key to reaching the Bay states’ pollution reduction requirements by 2025.

Up-front costs and a shortage of technical experts to assist with implementation create barriers for many farmers who want to adopt regenerative practices. While some Bay states and the federal government offer cost-share programs and assistance, historical funding levels are not nearly enough to meet the need.

In Pennsylvania alone, the agricultural funding need between now and 2025 is roughly $3 billion, and data indicate the state isn’t getting its fair share of federal conservation dollars. A 2017 report by the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office suggested that Pennsylvania is shortchanged roughly $20 million each year by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program — a cost-sharing program for conservation practices — because the money is allocated based more on historical funding amounts than conservation needs. In addition, unlike Virginia and Maryland, Pennsylvania does not have a state agricultural cost-share program to help its farmers.

Federal lawmakers could help close the gap by adopting bipartisan solutions, including the Billion for the Bay Initiative and legislation such as Virginia Congressperson Abigail Spanberger’s Climate Stewardship Act.

The Billion for the Bay proposal was recently presented to Congressional leadership by the governors of the six Chesapeake Bay states; the mayor of Washington, DC; and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. It would provide a new infusion of funding necessary to meet the 2025 Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

The Climate Stewardship Act would provide tens of billions of dollars in investment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s working lands conservation programs with funding directed toward climate stewardship practices.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation believes that Congress should adopt both initiatives and target the majority of the funding to additional technical and financial resources to basins within the watershed where regenerative farming practices are most effective at improving water quality — what the state-federal Bay Program partnership refers to as “most effective basins.” Many are in Pennsylvania.

At the same time, the Pennsylvania legislature should pass the new Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program bill sponsored by Sen. Gene Yaw. This legislation would complement these additional federal resources by expanding on-farm conservation measures throughout Pennsylvania, including high-priority areas like the Chesapeake watershed.

There is little time left to meet the 2025 Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint targets. Immediate action to get more financial and technical assistance to farmers for regenerative agriculture is the fastest, most efficient way we can make progress.

Denise Stranko is the federal executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

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