Farmers care about the bay, too

Op-ed: Voluntary conservation by farmers is working in the Chesapeake Bay.

Most of us have an understanding of how important the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are to aquatic and riparian ecosystems, working landscapes and local economies. But the folks we represent — American farmers — know it on a much deeper and more personal level.

The Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America, is home to more than 83,000 farms that together generate $10 billion in economic activity each year. For decades, these producers have stepped up all across the watershed, assumed responsibility for their share of the nutrient and sediment pollution in the bay, and worked tirelessly toward unprecedented, remarkable change. Just in the past seven years, the agriculture sector has single-handedly reduced its phosphorus and sediment runoff in the watershed by 50 and 75 percent respectively.

Farmers care about the bay and the vibrant and diverse ecosystems it supports because they are at their very core stewards of the land. Year in and year out, they depend on productive soils and clean water to produce this country's food, fiber and fuel. And generation after generation, they have conserved these natural resources to the best of their abilities. We are proud of what our membership has accomplished in the bay over the past several decades and believe it is our duty to share their story with you.

Since 2009, the agricultural community has put $890 million worth of conservation practices on the ground with assistance from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and contributed an additional $400 million of their own to the cause. In total, voluntary and incentive-based conservation practices were installed on over 3.6 million acres (an area almost three times the size of Delaware) of working lands within the watershed.

The results have been extraordinary.

Since 2006, farmers' use of cover crops tripled within the watershed, helping to reduce sheet and rill erosion rates by 57 percent and edge-of-field sediment losses by 62 percent (that's 15.1 million tons of soil per year, or enough soil to fill 150,000 train cars). Just in Maryland, 492,000 acres of cover crops in 2015 prevented an estimated 2.95 million pounds of nitrogen and 98,500 pounds of phosphorus from washing into local tributaries.

Producers have also implemented no-till or conservation tillage systems and boosted the efficacy of their nutrient management systems by installing over 3,500 miles of riparian buffers and fences to keep animal waste and nutrients from reaching waterways. All of these practices together have reduced the loss of nitrogen by 38 percent and phosphorus by 45 percent.

These improvements have led to huge spikes in native wildlife populations.

Take underwater grasses, which provide critical food and shelter to wildlife. In 2015, they covered more than 91,000 acres — compared to 60,000 acres in 2013. The blue crab, an indicator species for aquatic health, is thriving, too. The number of adult females rose by 92 percent just in the past year, bringing the overall crab population to its fourth highest level in two decades. Oyster, American shad, striped bass and anchovy populations are all increasing by leaps and bounds as well.

One of the biggest and most important take-aways from the agricultural community's combined efforts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is that voluntary conservation works. Our producers and conservation districts have proven it, and they'll keep proving it if we give them the resources they need. That's why we are encouraging Congress to invest in voluntary conservation programs in the next farm bill. With the right tools in the right hands, we can make a profound difference.

Lee McDaniel (Lee-McDaniel@nacdnet.org) is president of the National Association of Conservation Districts; Chip Bowling (tobaccoman5@yahoo.com) is president of the National Corn Growers Association, and Richard Wilkins (wilkfarm@verizon.net)is president of the American Soybean Association.

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