Category Archives: Chesapeake Bay

What’s Risk Got to Do with It?: Encouraging On-Farm Conservation

Like any business owner or operator, farmers take careful consideration when making any changes to their operations. A change that may seem relatively simple to an outsider could require new equipment, more labor or a different response to heavy rain or drought. In the end the change may turn out to be a great success, but that is often difficult to be sure of at the outset.

Pennsylvania farm with pond.This balance of change, risk and opportunity cannot be overlooked when asking farmers to address environmental challenges in the Chesapeake Bay. Agriculture may be the leading source of nutrient run-off there, but it has also been the second largest contributor to the progress in cleaning up the bay. We have been working with farmers in the region to help advance this progress through our BMP Challenge, a risk management program that American Farmland Trust is implementing across the nation to encourage farmers to make conservation happen on-the-ground. (For more on the BMP Challenge, read my recent story about visiting a farm in Virginia.)

A recent study in Pennsylvania focused on how to address risk when the business of agriculture intersects with the need to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. . Here is what we found:

Risk Is Real

The National Academy of Sciences acknowledges the dilemma that farmers face in deciding how much fertilizer to use:

“Since (they) must make nitrogen applications without being able to predict weather and crop yields, the potential for being wrong is always present and will always occur in some years.”

Our data shows that reducing fertilizer on crops can result in decreased yields 40 percent of the time even with well-tested practices. Over time, these practices should pay off, but farmers cite fear of lost income as a major consideration when deciding whether or not to implement new conservation practices.

An Effective Way to Manage Risk

The BMP Challenge provides three helpful supports to farmers willing to take a chance:

1) Technical assistance from a certified agricultural consultant to help plan and implement the change

2) A comparison of the standard and the new practice on the farmer’s field so he or she can get experience using it and see the results

3) An income guarantee so that if a loss in profit is experienced, the farmer receives the difference

The Result: Widespread Adoption of New Practices

In Pennsylvania, we found that BMP Challenge participants report high satisfaction with the program, and 85 percent say that they have continued to use the practice or a modified form of it on their farm.

Looking Ahead

These results are an important step in addressing the risk that farmers face when adopting conservation practices. We believe that the BMP Challenge is an important new tool for farmers—helping them manage part of the risk they face in trying to be good stewards of the environment and successful small businesses at the same time.

Over the coming months, we will continue exploring how these results will impact the Chesapeake Bay and impaired water bodies across the country. Can we scale up our demonstrations to broader availability? Are there other ways to address “conservation risk,” such as emerging income opportunities like water quality trading that can help mitigate the financial risk of adopting water quality practices?


Jim Baird About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and en

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Mid-Atlantic: A Year of Progress

The Mid-Atlantic region is blessed with agricultural diversity, producing an array of food, fuel and fiber from Delaware to Virginia. The past year has been filled with both challenges and opportunities for farms and farmers. Inclement weather throughout much of growing season tested the patience of farmers across the region. State budget concerns brought discussions of conservation to the forefront, at times challenging critical efforts to protect farmland.

As we look back on another year passed, there is also much to celebrate. 2011 saw a remarkable mix of work undertaken to save the land that sustains us, including efforts across the region to protect valuable farmland resources and to safeguard clean water sources and clean up the Chesapeake Bay. We are proud of our work in the Mid-Atlantic and wanted to share a few highlights from the past year:

Farm fields and barns in MarylandHonoring a Farmland Preservation Hero

This year, we honored Robert Ambrose of Ridgeview Acres Farm with the Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Local Heroes Award. The award recognizes his outstanding efforts to protect the farms, natural resources and waters of the commonwealth. Ambrose, who runs a 130-acre cut-flower farm with his wife Sally, has served as the chairman of the Westmoreland County Agricultural Land Preservation Board since 2001, which has preserved more than 10,960 acres of productive farmland.

Helping Farmers Protect Clean Water

Kevin Craun, who farms in the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia, is just one of many farmers working with American Farmland Trust to reduce fertilizer use and protect clean water. Craun has been working with us by experimenting with alternative soil sampling. This method guides his final fertilizer application, closely matching the crop’s need. By sampling so accurately, Craun and other farmers are reducing their fertilizer use—saving money and protecting their crop yields while helping the environment.

Expanding Our Work in the Chesapeake Bay with Corn Farmers

Through our Mid-Atlantic Clean Water Initiative to help farmers improve their conservation practices, we reached out to farmers and their crop advisors in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to test effective practices that reduce fertilizer applications while maintaining crop yields. By working with farmers in the field and at the policy level, we made progress in reducing the amount of fertilizer flowing off farm fields and into waterways.

Rallying for Farmland Protection in Maryland

At the state level in Maryland, we galvanized the support of farmland advocates to ask the Maryland General Assembly to reject proposals that would negatively impact land conservation programs. As the Maryland General Session gets underway in January, we’ll need everyone who supports Program Openspace funding that protects farm and forest land and supports parks and recreation to make their voices heard.

A Look Ahead

As the calendar page turns to 2012, we look forward to more chances to work with our partners throughout the region to protect farmland, improve water quality and ensure a viable future for farms and farmers throughout the Mid-Atlantic. We will continue to do our best to turn the many challenges we face into opportunities by doing good work for agriculture in the region. We hope you stay tuned and keep in touch.


Jim Baird About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and en

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Working Together to Clean Up the Chesapeake Bay

Water quality in the Chesapeake Bay has been a major concern in the region for decades. Farmers in the bay region, which includes Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Virginia and West Virginia, manage nearly a third of the land in the watershed. As a result, farmers must play an important role in maintaining and improving the region’s water quality.

A key challenge in meeting Chesapeake Bay water quality goals is how to achieve the right balance between helping farmers voluntarily adopt management practices that reduce nutrient runoff and insisting farmers do so through regulations. Perspectives on how far to lean in either direction vary widely among different stakeholders.

Farm and farmland in Lancaster County, PennslyvaniaOne group that is striking this balance in Pennsylvania is the Lancaster County Conservation District (LCCD). The LCCD’s approach seeks to balance its role as the farmer’s trusted advisor and neighbor with its mission to conserve natural resources. The LCCD board voted to force landowners to comply with state conservation regulations at the local level, a move that only 13 other counties in Pennsylvania have taken. The decision was based on the rationale that conservation is achieved most effectively when a more local entity acts as a buffer between state or federal regulatory agencies and the farmers. LCCD has set 2015 as its target date to have conservation plans written for 100 percent of the county’s farms, with a clear and consistent system to verify implementation that includes penalties when necessary.

To balance voluntary on-farm management with regulation, LCCD works to include farmers in the compliance process. Robert Shearer operates a 700 hog and grain farm on 250 acres in Lancaster County and also serves on LCCD’s Ag Compliance Committee. On his own farm, he has been implementing conservation practices for years. He recognizes that his efforts help him meet production goals while complying with Department of Environmental Protection regulations. When the compliance committee occasionally needs to fine a producer who has not responded to multiple requests to fix a runoff problem, Shearer feels confident the committee believes that everyone must do their part to “keep the soil where it belongs.”

Key Recommendations for Bay Restoration from the Conference Participants:
  • Get everyone involved. There were many players involved in polluting the bay over the years, and there will have to be many players involved in cleaning it up. In an effort to get past finger-pointing, a number of projects are consciously bringing the homeowners, farmers and developers together to address the many sources of runoff. Collaborative projects to install a rain garden in the town center, or plant trees on a farm stream bank, help neighbors see their challenges are not so different and that collective action makes a difference.
  • Waste not, want not. The production of meat and dairy products for Mid-Atlantic urban markets is a vital part of the agricultural economy. But having many animals in the region means lots of manure—so much that farmers are running out of fields to put it on. But recent innovations in composting, methane digesters and renewable energy solutions show promise for turning the problem into the next renewable resource solution.

This week, I had the opportunity to meet and learn from Mr. Shearer on a field trip that was part of the Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Network Forum. This annual conference sponsored by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network brings together more than 30 grantees to share lessons learned from their work addressing water quality issues in the bay. The meeting of agricultural and conservation leaders demonstrated the passion and energy that people are bringing to bay restoration, from finding innovative ways to help farmers comply with conservation regulations to whole community approaches that stretch from farm-to-table.. The diversity of partnerships among grantees—representing ag groups, environmentalists, researchers, public employees and non-profits—is remarkable.

And those efforts are beginning to show positive results. The Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) Cropland Report released in March collected conservation data from farms in the region, made recommendations on the 4.3 million acres of bay cropland, and found conservation practices implemented on about 96 percent of that land. More recently, a study from Johns Hopkins found a decline in dead-zones—the oxygen-starved regions resulting from waters rich in nitrogen and phosphorus where plants and water animals cannot live—indicating that conservation efforts by farmers and others are beginning to pay off.

However, our work is far from complete. Achieving clean water will require well-funded, robust federal and state conservation programs and additional guidance for farmers to help them get those practices in place. It is important to give farmers credit for what they have accomplished, and the gathering of leaders and experts on water quality in the bay presents continued hope for future work. But we all need to ensure that we invest enough attention and resources to finish the job.


Jim Baird About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and en

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Working Lands and Conservation: Chesapeake Bay States Close a Decade of Effort and Head to the Future with Renewed Vision and Energy

The first decade of the 21st century has ended and with it, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia passed a major milestone for the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement. The regional agreement acknowledged the crucial role land conservation plays in the Bay’s water quality and set a goal to protect 20 percent of the farm, forest and ecological land area in the watershed.  In just 10 years, the states have preserved 7.26 million acres!

In 2010, as part of its Executive Order on the Chesapeake Bay, the Obama administration developed a new goal in consultation with the Bay states. Together, all six states making up the Bay watershed—including Delaware, New York and West Virginia—will work to protect an added two million acres.  Farmland and working forests will be a major portion of this conservation goal.

For American Farmland Trust, these objectives affirm our long-held assertion that well managed farms provide not only economic, cultural and historic benefits—including food, of course— but environmental ones as well.  The Executive Order highlights the fact that protecting land, including working farmland, is a key component of the effort to clean up the Bay. And EPA documents pertaining to the Bay’s new regulatory structure assert that farmland is the preferred water quality land use. Not only does farmland contribute less pollution acre-by-acre than densely populated areas, it provides the opportunity for more cost-effective pollutant reductions than sewage plant upgrades or urban storm water retro-fits.

A new report, Conserving Chesapeake Landscapes, conducted by the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the Chesapeake Conservancy, highlights this decade’s land conservation accomplishments, focusing attention on successful programs and policies that helped to achieve the target milestone as well as the urgent need for new innovations and continued financial support. Echoing another hallmark of our approach, the report emphasizes that keeping farms economically viable as farms, and not as potential development sites, is crucial for saving the land that sustains us.

Our success in saving working landscapes requires efforts to assure that the farm and forest economies along with the tens of thousands of jobs they provide are supported with adequate infrastructure … access to tech­nical assistance and government support programs. (pg 17)

Efforts to preserve working farms and forest lands will fail unless the economy can support their long-term viability. (pg 17)

Farm viability means keeping farms in farming. This means that if farmers are going to adopt conservation practices, they need to have confidence that their business will retain profitability.  That is why we are working with federal and state conservation agencies to provide farmers an opportunity to test new practices “risk free” by guaranteeing their income for a trial period with our BMP Challenge. Farmers in the Chesapeake have saved more than 130,000 pounds of fertilizer from flowing into the Bay in the last two years under the program and we are beginning new initiatives in other impaired watersheds like the Mississippi River and Long Island Sound.


Jim Baird

About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and ensuring that farmer concerns are reflected in policy and program discussions.

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Bi-Partisan Legislation Bolsters Efforts to Clean the Bay

Water quality in the Chesapeake Bay needs to be improved. To be sustainable for the future, the people of this region need to figure out how to live, work, farm and recreate in ways that allow the Chesapeake estuary to function and thrive.

Contrary to the opinions of some, maintaining well-managed farms and private forests is an essential part of the solution. Essential, rather than optional, because farm soils improve water quality through filtration; because farmers can achieving pollution reductions more cheaply than sewage treatment plants or urban residents; and because agriculture does all this while contributing more to the region’s economy than any other single sector.

The forthcoming Bay-wide TMDL will require deep reductions in nutrients and sediment, and present significant changes to farmers and every other Bay resident and business.

Bi-partisan legislation in the both House and the Senate has come through an often contentious and heated debate, with important policy and program tools help all of us to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization & Improvement Act was introduced in the House by Congressmen Holden (D-PA) and Goodlatte (R-VA), and passed out of the Agriculture Committee on unanimous voice vote. Rep. Holden worked hard to craft legislation that is responsive to the concerns of the agriculture community, recognizes their positive contributions, and helps set reasonable environmental goals for agriculture.

The second bill, The Chesapeake Clean Water & Ecosystem Restoration Act of 2009, authored by Senator Cardin (D-MD), was revised with support from Senator Inhofe (R-OK), which enabled it to pass out of committee, also unanimously.

Each bill provides essential tools and resources to improve water quality in the Bay, especially for farmers. The provisions in both bills are complementary and would:

  • Offer regulatory protection, a “safe harbor,” to farmers who are on track in implementing a conservation plan.
  • Reinvigorate the potential for environmental-trading markets (the Senate bill with guarantees for investors, and the House with an impartial oversight commission).
  • Mandate a complete, full and accurate accounting of all practices farmers have implemented up to the present, and moving forward.
  • Provide funds to implement conservation practices, technical assistance, and research on farms. The Senate bill provides 20 percent of all state implementation grant resources for that purpose, and investments in research.
  • Mandate greater collaboration between the EPA and USDA. The House bill increases the USDA’s authority in setting technical standards and developing a nutrient-trading program.

When both parties and houses of Congress converge like this, it’s a sign of a real opportunity.  At American Farmland Trust (AFT), we like what we see in these bills. Together they achieve a healthy balance of voluntary, incentive-based programs within an overall regulatory framework.

Farmers need clearly defined expectations and requirements coupled with the flexibility to adapt practices to fit their individual farm operations. Regulatory-only approaches cost the public and farmers more.

These bills offer an approach of shared responsibility and accountability. Farmers have done a lot to improve water quality, more than they are often given credit for, and more than other sectors. Nevertheless, all parties must be responsible and held accountable to take action and make improvements.

Farmers and environmentalists deserve a final bill that’s equitable, balancing clear environmental standards with tools that will get the job done. If like Congress, farmers and environmentalists can keep their common goals in mind, and come together in a bi-partisan way, this legislation provides the tools we need to have healthy farms and a healthier Bay.

Jim Baird

About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust. This post was originally run in the Del Marva Farmer.

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The 64,000 Mile Chesapeake Bay Plan

There are a couple of big happenings in the world of Chesapeake Bay restoration in regards to farmers in the region- and for those out of the region too, since the Bay is likely to be the model for other watersheds across the country.

First, as of May 11, 2010, a federal judge found that the EPA has failed in its responsibility to ensure the Clean Water Act, and must now act to do so.

Next, a new multi-agency federal strategy has just been unveiled for protecting and restoring the health of the 64,000 square-mile Chesapeake Bay region and its communities. This strategy was developed under the Executive Order issued by President Obama a year ago that designated the bay as a national treasure and enacted a new multi-tier action and accountability scheme.

For farmers in the watershed, this means:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will provide farmers and forest owners throughout the bay watershed with the resources to prevent soil erosion and keep nitrogen and phosphorous out of local waterways.
  • USDA will target federal funding to the places where it will have the greatest water quality impact and will ensure that agricultural producers’ conservation efforts are accurately reported.
  • USDA will also lead a federal initiative to develop a watershed-wide environmental services market that would allow producers to generate tradable water quality credits in return for installing effective conservation practices.

In summary, the Executive Order Plan is final, a key court case is closed—and all that’s left is actually doing the work!

This is where we are focused. Within the region’s four million acres of agricultural land, we are supporting viable farms and clean water by helping farmers adopt conservation practices that reduce nitrogen and phosphorus, by securing farmland protection measures and working with agricultural and environmental partners on sensible policies and programs.  Change is coming and we want farmers to have the necessary tools to meet new regulations and requirements set to clean the Chesapeake Bay.

The EPA is asking for very specific assurances from Chesapeake states to reduce the nutrients and sediment that make their way into waterways and eventually the Bay and we think that farmers need greater flexibility in how they choose to meet these new requirements and limits.  Farmland is essential to water quality in the Bay, so we must ensure that regulations help clean the bay while still letting farmers run the successful business necessary to keep the land in agriculture- if not, the farm will likely be sold to developers and we will lose yet another farm, and with it, our most cost effective way to clean the Chesapeake Bay.

AFT has been busy working with individuals and organizations in the region to achieve this balancing act.  It is a long road ahead, but we are certain of a future where the Chesapeake Bay is a thriving ecosystem, not in spite of the surrounding farmland, but because of it.

Jim Baird

About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust.

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