The ag secretaries of the Chesapeake Bay states are backing a plan to increase funding for on-farm conservation by $737 million.
The proposed Chesapeake Bay Resilient Farms Initiative would channel federal money to agricultural best practices through existing USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service programs.
The initiative would target funding to watersheds, especially parts of the Susquehanna River basin, where cleanup would provide the greatest environmental improvements.
The funding would be used at least in part to expand technical assistance, a current bottleneck for farmers seeking to reduce runoff.
The program was outlined in May by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative advisory group. The ag secretaries of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia wrote to U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack in support of the plan on Aug. 25.
The Bay Commission argued that Pennsylvania is not getting a fair share of USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program dollars. The group cited a 2017 Government Accountability Office report that found USDA’s allocations were based mainly on historical funding levels rather than environmental concerns.
The Resilient Farms Initiative is based on a funding mechanism USDA created in 2009 for the Mississippi River watershed.
While that program has provided over $300 million in funding, the proposed Chesapeake program would be twice as rich, with annual funding of $73.7 million for 10 years.
The ag secretaries want the program to use new funding, meaning the plan will need congressional approval.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf voiced support for the initiative on Sept. 7, saying it would improve the state’s resilience to climate change.
“Farmers are waiting to jump into action. We just need support,” Wolf said.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also supports the initiative to boost federal aid to the states.
But the foundation has also repeatedly criticized Pennsylvania for not spending enough of its own money to meet its bay goals, and it encouraged passage of a bill in the state Senate that would put $250 million of the state’s American Rescue Plan money toward bay-related agricultural cost sharing.
Pennsylvania has increased ag conservation funding by $15 million since the PA Farm Bill was created in 2019, and in this year’s budget, the Legislature approved Wolf’s request for a half-million-dollar increase to the Department of Environmental Protection’s bay-related ag conservation work.
But the Bay Foundation estimates that Pennsylvania would need to spend $320 million a year to get up to speed by the 2025 deadline.