Pennsylvania farmers will finally get credit in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup for a raft of conservation practices they have implemented with their own money.
A survey conducted by Penn State University documented conservation plans covering 200,000 acres, along with 5,800 acres of forested riparian buffers and enough streambank fencing to stretch from Lancaster County to Rhode Island.
“If we want folks to do more, we should at least give them credit for what they’ve already done,” said Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture, who joined in announcing the survey results on Dec. 16.
The bay model — the computer program that tracks how the states in the Chesapeake watershed are progressing toward their cleanup goals — has long included projects done with government cost-share money, but farmers have complained that they were not getting credit for projects they did on their own.
The Environmental Protection Agency will accept the survey results into the model, said Rich Batiuk, an associate director for science, analysis and implementation at the Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition, the Chesapeake Bay Program, the state-federal partnership that leads the cleanup, has approved the survey methodology for use throughout the bay watershed, Batiuk said.
Thanks to the survey, “we’re getting a much better idea of what’s happening on the ground,” he said.
The survey is a key piece of Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake reboot, launched in January to speed up the state’s lagging cleanup.
The survey, developed by Penn State with support from state government and ag organizations, asked farmers if they had 11 best management practices that reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment runoff.
The practices were chosen because they are highly effective at reducing pollution and because they seemed likely to be implemented voluntarily, said Matt Royer, director of the Agriculture and Environment Center at Penn State.
The practices included cover crops, nutrient management plans and stream buffer plantings.
About 6,800 surveys were returned earlier this year, a whopping 35 percent response rate, he said.
More than 40 Penn State Extension employees verified the results on 700 of the participating farms in August and September, Royer said.
The survey found that farmers have installed more than 2,000 manure storage units and 2,000 barnyard runoff control systems, and developed erosion and sedimentation plans covering 55,000 acres.
Lancaster County, home to the most farms in the state, had by far the highest number of respondents, Royer said.
The visits and statistical analysis indicated that the data were generally highly accurate, and possibly even underreported in some cases, Royer said.
On the other hand, the survey results overreported the number of riparian buffers compared with what Extension staffers found on the ground.
This issue was likely a mismatch in how the survey was written and how the Extension staffers were trained to classify practices. Penn State researchers were able to adjust for the overreporting, Royer said.
The researchers also separated out practices farmers reported that were already counted because of cost-share programs, Royer said.
Penn State will continue to analyze the data, potentially looking at what types of farms are most likely to implement conservation practices and what types of farms are using cost-share programs.
“This is an extremely rich data set,” Royer said.
Batiuk attributed the survey’s success to farmers’ willingness to share their data with people they trust in a manner that protected their confidential information.
Penn State produced the results in aggregate form so that individual farms could not be identified.
Advocacy groups celebrated the survey results.
“The impressive number of pollution reduction measures reported and verified by the survey shows there is a culture of stewardship among the agricultural community in Pennsylvania,” said Harry Campbell, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s executive director for Pennsylvania.
“The results of the survey unequivocally confirm what Pennsylvania farmers and Pennsylvania Farm Bureau have been telling environmental officials for years — that farmers have not received credit for a wide variety of conservation practices,” said Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which helped craft the survey.
Though the survey will add more existing practices to the official tally, Pennsylvania’s cleanup goals will be challenging.
“We still have a big hill to climb,” said Patrick McDonnell, Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of environmental protection.
As a result, Pennsylvania’s reboot includes several other strategies to find existing and implement new conservation practices.
Inspectors from county conservation districts and the Department of Environmental Protection started visiting farms this summer to see if farmers have their required nutrient management plans and similar documents.
The state has also launched a program to have 95,000 acres of riparian buffers planted on public and private land by 2025, the end date of the Chesapeake cleanup program.
In a separate study, a remote sensing pilot project in Pennsylvania’s sliver of the Potomac River watershed found that farmers had implemented four times the number of conservation practices documented by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
NRCS conducted the pilot project with the state Department of Environmental Protection.