USDA releases study showing conservation practices protect water resources in the Chesapeake Bay watershed

America’s farmers and ranchers are being challenged by an onslaught of regulations, guidance and other requirements being issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Carl Shaffer, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

In testimony on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation before a House  Agriculture subcommittee, Shaffer said that nowhere is the impact of EPA activity more obvious than in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where EPA’s recently finalized Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) guidelines could push hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland out of production.

“EPA itself projects that roughly 20% of cropped land in the watershed (about 600,000 acres) will have to be removed from production and be converted to grassland or forest in order to achieve the required loading reductions,” said Shaffer, a member of the AFBF board and executive committee.

Shaffer said EPA’s over-reaching focus on agriculture is particularly troublesome because agriculture has worked successfully with the Agriculture Department to reduce its environmental impact on the Chesapeake Bay.

“Use of crop inputs is declining,” Shaffer said. “No-till farming has reduced soil erosion and resulted in more carbon being stored in the soil. Milk today is produced from far fewer cows. Nitrogen use efficiency has consistently improved. Farmers are proud that their environmental footprint is dramatically smaller today than it was 50 years ago, and we are committed to continuing this progress.”

Shaffer, a Columbia County (Pa.) green bean, corn and wheat farmer, said agriculture’s success in reducing nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay is well documented, but EPA has ignored the substantial effort and progress of recent years. A new report from USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service outlines the progress made by agriculture. USDA’s “Assessment of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region” quantifies these environmental gains and identifies opportunities for further progress.

“Agriculture plays an important role in protecting water quality and maintaining economic stability in this watershed,” said Dave White, Chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, as he announced the study results. “This study confirms that farmers are reducing sediment and nutrient losses from their fields. Our voluntary, incentives-based conservation approach is delivering significant and proven results. This study will help us improve our conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay area.”

The study also shows that there are opportunities for further reductions of sediment and nutrient losses from agriculture by focusing conservation activities on the most vulnerable acres. Well-managed farmland is among the best land uses for sustaining natural resources in the watershed. Conserving working lands will be instrumental in meeting objectives for a healthy Chesapeake Bay.

Key findings of the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) study include:
 


• Conservation practices have reduced edge-of-field losses of sediment by 55%, nitrogen in surface runoff by 42%, nitrogen in subsurface flow by 31% and phosphorus by 40%.

• Targeting enhances effectiveness and efficiency. Use of additional conservation practices on acres with a high need for additional treatment can reduce per-acre sediment and nutrient losses by more than twice that of treatment of acres with low or moderate conservation needs.

• Comprehensive conservation planning and implementation are essential. The study shows that the most significant conservation concern on cultivated cropland in the watershed is the loss of nitrogen by leaching and overland flow. Suites of conservation practices that include soil erosion and comprehensive nutrient management are required to address soil erosion and nutrient losses simultaneously.

The CEAP results will be used to improve the focus on priority conservation needs and results in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. This is the second CEAP study for cultivated cropland. NRCS is the lead USDA agency for CEAP. The complete Chesapeake Bay cropland study report and findings from other CEAP studies can be found at www.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/nri/ceap/chesapeake_bay/index.html.

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