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Despite many farmers’ most ardent efforts, agriculture is one of the top sources of water pollution in the United States today. Contaminants contained in agricultural runoff — like fertilizers and pesticides — are linked to a wide range of environmental and human health issues, such as suffocating aquatic life in massive “dead zones” and increasing the risk of cancer and birth defects in humans. Frequent severe wet weather in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions is leading to more flooding and exacerbating the problem.

Yet, agriculture does not inherently pollute water — or any other natural resource, for that matter. Conversely, agriculture can serve to protect, and even increase, clean water supplies and significantly improve public and environmental health in the process. The difference between a destructive agricultural system and a restorative one lies largely within how the system is collectively managed by its stewards: the farmers.

Farmers represent our most powerful opportunity for drastically and relatively quickly improving water quality. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, there are approximately 53,150 farms in Pennsylvania. Collectively, these farms encompass over 7 million acres — nearly a full quarter of the state’s total land base.

If the majority of these farms implemented conservation best management practices, local watersheds like the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River — sources of drinking water, economic activity, and recreation for approximately 31 million people — would be significantly cleaner and safer. These best practices include planting cover crops, rotationally grazing livestock on pasture, establishing forested buffers along rivers and streams, and designing the farm’s landscape with water in mind.

For example, cover crops can reduce nutrient and pesticide runoff from farms by greater than 50% and reduce on-farm soil erosion events by 90%. Forested buffers have the incredible capacity to prevent up to 85% of all common agricultural pollutants from entering ground and surface waters. Restricting livestock’s access to rivers, creeks, and streams would prevent manure from directly entering waterways. You can read more about how these practices and others can significantly impact water quality in our recently published report, Water Farming: Managing Agricultural Land for Clean & Safe Water, available at bit.ly/PASAwater

Yet, even if a farmer understands the benefits of best management practices, there can be significant obstacles to implementing them. It can be risky to change established systems. Integrating cover crops into a crop rotation or developing a system of swales and berms to help control flowing water requires investments of time and money that may not readily be available.

Several existing government programs can provide farmers with technical assistance, direct funding, or other financial incentives, like tax credits, to help advance on-farm conservation projects. These include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; the Conservation Reserve Program administered by the Farm Service Agency; and the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program administered by the Pennsylvania State Conservation Commission. Farmers can apply to these programs directly to help them achieve their environmental stewardship goals.

Implementing best management practices to improve water quality can additionally benefit a farm’s bottom line, from improving yields to generating new marketing opportunities. Together, farmers can simultaneously turn the tide of water pollution and grow their businesses — a win-win.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker is Pasa Sustainable Agriculture’s executive director. Aaron de Long is Pasa Sustainable Agriculture’s Delaware River Hub manager and the author of the report Water Farming: Managing Agricultural Lands for Clean and Safe Water.

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