Watershed Farm Bureaus raise voices to USDA
Six state Farm Bureaus in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have joined the call for the USDA to establish a new long-term funding stream for practices to reduce nutrient and sediment loss from farms in priority areas.
In a Sept. 15 letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Farm Bureaus called for the agency to establish a Chesapeake Bay Resilient Farms Initiative, with funding of $737 million over 10 years.
The letter, signed by Farm Bureau presidents representing more than 100,000 farm families, comes three weeks after heads of the agriculture departments from the same states — Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia — sent Vilsack a letter with the same request.
Proposed in May by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a bay-wide Chesapeake Resilient Farms Initiative would provide funds for nutrient and sediment reductions that support state-based watershed implementation plans, targeting funds to key sub-watersheds and priority practices.
It is modeled after the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watershed Initiative which was created in 2009 and has delivered over $300 million in the last ten years through existing programs, above what those programs would have delivered through basic allocations.
According to the commission, the Chesapeake initiative needs an investment of $73.7 annually for the next decades to help the states’ farms meet pollution reduction goals for 2025.
“This infusion of funds would address the shortfall in Conservation Technical Assistance for conservation planning, project design and engineering, which remains a significant obstacle in getting more practices on the ground,” the commission said. “It would also provide the financial incentive payments necessary to install the full suite of practices prescribed.”
Over the past 30 years, nutrient and sediment pollution loads have been reduced by half, even as human and livestock population has increased, the two letters said, citing the commission’s proposal.
But another 50 million pounds of nitrogen has to be reduced with more than 80 percent coming from the agriculture and forestry sectors, a nine-fold increase in historic rates for agricultural conservation practices.
“Farmers have been extraordinarily receptive to voluntary cost-share programs designed to achieve these restoration goals,” the Farm Bureaus wrote. “What we lack is the necessary capacity, both human and financial. Adequate funding and USDA’s involvement is pivotal.”
According to the CRFI proposal, the funding would primarily target sub-watersheds known to have the greatest influence on the Chesapeake Bay and offer the most cost-effective solutions.
“This is particularly true in Pennsylvania, where agriculture is heavily concentrated and the rural nature of the Susquehanna River watershed means agriculture is the dominant source of excess nutrients in the Commonwealth’s waters,” the state agriculture secretaries wrote.
In proposing the CRFI, the commission said funding from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is not at a level sufficient enough to meet the bay’s needs.
It cited a 2017 review from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found state allocations of NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program were largely driven by historical funding levels instead of environmental need.
“No Chesapeake watershed state exemplifies this problem more than Pennsylvania,” the commission said. “The Commonwealth’s EQIP allocation is so inadequate that it would require an increase of 60 percent to meet the estimated needs. In short, Pennsylvania, the linchpin of Chesapeake Bay restoration, is not getting its fair share of EQIP dollars.”
The state agriculture secretaries are seeking funding for the initiative from new sources and pledged to work with USDA and congressional delegations to find it.
The commission suggested an appropriate source is the proposed federal infrastructure bill.
“There is no greener “green infrastructure” than the agricultural conservation practices necessary to restore the Chesapeake Bay and the 100,000 miles of streams and rivers that define its watershed.”