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Report: farms in Chesapeake Bay watershed must ‘urgently accelerate’ conservation efforts

In a new report, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation calls on farms in the bay’s watershed to “urgently accelerate and scale up” their conservation efforts, not only to reduce waterborne pollution — a federal mandate — but to slash their greenhouse gas emissions and stoke local economies.

The six states within the 64,000-square-mile watershed are far behind on meeting their Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint commitments, agreed to with EPA oversight in 2010. That blueprint called for reducing nitrogen runoff by 25%, phosphorus runoff by 24%, and sediment runoff by 20% by 2025. But with less than four years remaining on the clock, less than half of the nitrogen reductions have been achieved.

Among the tools that farmers can use to meet these goals are converting conventional farmland to rotationally grazed pastures, which builds soil health, and planting permanent forested stream-side buffers, which filter sediment and fertilizer that would otherwise flow into the bay, smothering aquatic life and contributing to large algal blooms and dead zones.

Installing 190,500 acres of forest buffers by 2025 — a blueprint commitment — would remove more than 173,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, says the report, “Farm Forward,” equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 37,600 passenger vehicles.

The CBF report includes case studies of four farms in the Chesapeake watershed that converted conventional cropland to rotationally grazed pasture. The farms reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 42%, their nitrogen pollution by 63%, their phosphorus pollution by 67%, and their sediment pollution by 47%.

Other best management practices recommended by the report include reducing tillage, planting cover crops to reduce erosion and soak up fertilizer, and reducing overapplications of nutrients. Taking such steps can also “help farmers cut costs and make their farms more resilient to environmental and economic shocks by increasing yields, reducing the need for costly inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, and buffering the impacts of extreme weather.”

Investing in conservation practices can also benefit local economies, the report notes, when farmers purchase trees to create buffers or pay contractors to install fences that keep cattle out of waterways, reducing stream-bank erosion.

Agronomists and other experts have been touting the benefits of these conservation practices for many years. But adoption of best practices, says the report, is “severely lagging.” Pennsylvania, for example, has implemented just 10% of its 2025 forest-buffer goal; Virginia just 4%.

To spur farmer participation, the report calls on federal lawmakers to increase funding for agricultural conservation programs and technical assistance, and it calls for reinvigorating the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a state-federal partnership — administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency and its Natural Resources Conservation Service — that languished under the Trump administration and was designed to deliver technical assistance to farmers.

The full report can be found here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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