As Pennsylvania renews efforts to clean the state's waterways and the Chesapeake Bay, Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is helping to craft a strategy in which farmers spearhead clean-water initiatives.
Agriculture has high standards for conservation, with roots in a culture of stewardship, and farmers are ready to lead and be the solution for clean water, according to Matthew Royer, director of the college's Agriculture and Environment Center.
"While much progress has been made to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution from agriculture, more work needs to be done," Royer said. "Agriculture is well positioned to take on the challenge."
In early March in Hershey, Royer coordinated a three-day conference, hosted by Penn State, aimed at developing a strategy for Pennsylvania contributing to Chesapeake Bay restoration. The event, titled "Pennsylvania in the Balance," included leaders in agriculture and the environment working together to identify new, innovative solutions that can help ensure the state maintains a vibrant and productive agriculture industry, while meeting water-quality goals for the Commonwealth's rivers and streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
"A major theme that emerged from conference participants was that the culture of stewardship so prevalent in the agricultural community should be embraced in our ongoing efforts to solve the complex and challenging water-quality problems in the Chesapeake basin," he said. "Farmers are leaders in land and water stewardship within their communities. Those practicing good stewardship do not condone poor managers who are causing water-quality problems."
The conference was sponsored by Penn State, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, federal and state government agencies, nonprofit groups, agricultural organizations, and private-sector businesses. The event attracted about 120 diverse stakeholders, including agricultural producers and industry representatives, scientists, federal and state agencies, extension personnel, agricultural and environmental attorneys, nonprofit conservation organizations, conservation districts and planners. They covered key topics such as targeting resources, technical assistance, innovation, incentives, compliance and new funding strategies.
"Participants identified barriers, opportunities and solutions, asked and answered hard questions, and identified pathways forward to implement actionable outcomes," Royer said. "This collective effort has the potential to complement and enhance the Commonwealth's recently announced new strategy for Chesapeake Bay restoration."
With the hope of shaping policy, Royer will use the proposals developed during the conference to produce a strategy document with clear action items, which will be shared with the state departments of Agriculture and Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"The Pennsylvania in the Balance conference was a great reminder of how the power of partnerships can be harnessed to find solutions for the co-equal goals of water quality and viable farms," said Russell Redding, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. "Our collective challenge is to work to grow agriculture and maintain the balance of our surrounding communities."
Conference participant Matt Ehrhart, director of the Stroud Water Research Center, believes the conference will play an important role in helping Pennsylvania meet its clean-water obligations related to the Chesapeake Bay.
"Helping farmers and agribusinesses get to higher levels of water-quality protection and improving their economic viability will take innovation that's grounded in solid science," said Ehrhart, who also serves as president of the Penn State Agricultural Council, an industry group that advises the college on research and extension programming. "The conference provided a forum for innovation and created a renewed energy and a commitment among producers and other participants to take collective action to resolve this complex and challenging problem."
In addition to Embracing a Culture of Stewardship, six other strategies emerged from the conference:
--Employ Effective Targeting. Targeting is essential to strategic use of limited resources and achieving maximum water-quality benefit for resources spent, Royer pointed out. Effective targeting should involve not only geography but also focus on key demographics within the agricultural community, and key practices should be prioritized.
--Integrate Soil Health, Manure Management, and Riparian Ecosystem Stewardship into Water Quality Strategies. Integrating soil health concerns and actions into water-quality strategies is vitally important, Royer explained, because the health of the land and water is critical to meeting both farm production and conservation needs.
"Managing manure not as a waste product but as a resource to support crop production and soil health is a critical message for farmers," he said. "We should emphasize the importance of farmers practicing riparian ecosystem stewardship and providing multiple, ecosystem-service benefits for the farm, the community and society."
--Support Community-Based Approaches. Supporting community-based approaches makes sense because they work, according to Royer. There is a critical need to foster more community-based approaches that are farmer led. Most, if not all, success stories to date in Pennsylvania involve locally led, community- based approaches to water-quality improvement, he said.
--Recognize and Support a Three-Pronged Approach to Accelerate Conservation. A three-pronged approach is needed to accelerate adoption of conservation practices within the agricultural community, including education and outreach, technical assistance and enforcement, Royer said.
--Revisit and Retool Conservation Incentive Programs. "Several existing programs work well and should continue to serve as the core of conservation incentive programs," Royer said. "A willingness exists, however, to revisit existing programs to improve delivery and explore innovative new incentive structures."
--Collaboratively Seek New Funding Opportunities. While being more strategic in spending existing resources is critical, existing funding is insufficient to achieve our water-quality goals, Royer contended. New funding opportunities must be sought. "A unified, collaboratively developed funding strategy offers the best chance for success."