Conference report sees farmers playing key role in meeting water-quality goals

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Because of a new narrative of stewardship, Pennsylvania farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will be persuaded to look at conservation not as something they have to do but rather something they want to do.

That’s one of the key conclusions in a just-released report from a conference that brought together farmers, representatives of farm and environmental groups, and local, state and federal government officials to find new collaborative strategies for reducing excess nutrients from agriculture flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Held in Hershey last March and called “Pennsylvania in the Balance,” the conference was organized by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Before this conference — which included 120 dedicated people representing the many perspectives needed to meet the challenge — there was a lot of concern about agriculture's role in water quality initiatives in Pennsylvania,” said Matt Royer, director of the college's Agriculture and Environment Center and coordinator of the conference.

“But now it is clear that farmers have a real opportunity to play a key role moving forward," he said. "The conference has positioned agriculture to have an important seat at the table, to take a proactive role in finding a solution to the excess-nutrient problem plaguing Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams and the Chesapeake Bay. That is a big change.”

The new and exciting thing coming out of the conference, Royer added, is that there is universal support for having “champion farmers” lead other farmers to transform the entire community from perceiving conservation as “need to” to “want to.”

Royer characterized conference attendees as leaders in agriculture and environmental protection working together to identify 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.

The conference report attempts to capture their many creative thoughts and innovative ideas on how Pennsylvania agriculture can help meet clean-water goals, Royer said, adding that “All those involved in agriculture and conservation can find inspiration from this report and use it in a positive manner to advance the dual goals of vibrant agriculture and clean streams.”

In addition to Penn State, the conference was sponsored by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, federal and state government agencies, nonprofit groups, agricultural organizations and private-sector businesses.

According to Royer, the four initiatives identified in the conference report describe areas in which progress can be made in the near future. They are:

1. Increase technical capacity through enhancements in conservation training opportunities.

These enhancements will complement existing USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and state training programs to build the technical network of conservation professionals necessary to meet increased farmer demand for developing manure management plans and implementing their associated conservation practices.

Partners will explore development of training offerings to fill identified gaps and streamline training for interested professionals, as well as for students within existing course offerings and degree and/or certificate programs. Farmer-to-farmer approaches and community, technical and vo-ag schooling opportunities will also be pursued. 

2. Develop and disseminate a narrative around a “culture of stewardship” through soil and streams health.

The conference embraced agriculture and its ingrained culture of stewardship, which constitutes the overarching theme infusing the entire partnership’s work moving forward.

“We are looking to agriculture for leadership and to be the solution for clean water,” Royer said.

The hallmark of this narrative will be a farmer-led effort to promote soil and stream health on the farm. This statewide education and outreach initiative will seek to involve producers, conservation technicians, Extension educators, nonprofits, and the ag industry. It will build off of successful farmer-led efforts and agency initiatives that promote water-quality-based conservation practices in the broader context of maintaining soil health and economic profitability.

3. Develop new and creative incentives to encourage a high bar of conservation beyond compliance. 

An agricultural certification program will recognize and reward producers who have reached a high bar of conservation. Recognition-based, certainty-based and market-based incentives will all be explored to encourage producers to pursue certification.

According to the report, farmers appreciate being recognized and rewarded for reaching high conservation standards within the industry. Recognition, perhaps paired with incentives, can also motivate peers to raise their conservation bar.

“The potential exists also for the certification program to be linked to product branding and ‘clean water’ supply chains to meet corporate sustainability goals,” Royer said.

4. Develop and deploy delivery mechanisms for accelerating conservation in priority watersheds.

Conference attendees emphasized the importance of focusing efforts in priority watersheds, where nutrient loads are high, local impairments exist, and local efforts are underway and can be built upon.

To succeed in this prioritization effort, delivery mechanisms need to be developed and supported, including technical assistance in developing watershed plans that identify the right practices to be implemented in the right places, Royer noted.

“Pennsylvania success stories are almost always locally led — this initiative seeks to transform local success stories from pilot programs to standard operating procedure for achieving water-quality goals in the Commonwealth.”

The full report is online at http://agsci.psu.edu/aec/research-extension/conferences-and-workshops/pa-in-the-balance.

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Last Updated March 01, 2017