A record number of voluntary conservation practices adopted by Chesapeake Bay farmers since 2006 have significantly reduced the amount of nitrogen, sediment and phosphorus leaving cultivated croplands, according to a report released today.
West Virginia is one of six states that touch the Chesapeake Bay watershed and is home to 17 million people and more than 83,800 farms and ranches. Agriculture contributes about $10 billion annually to the region’s economy. Conservation practices have other environmental benefits, such as sequestering carbon and making farms more resilient to extreme weather events linked to climate change.
“In West Virginia, there are more than 4, 000 farms across nine counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said Kevin Wickey, State Conservationist. “Farmers and other conservation partners have played a key role in improving water quality. Together, we are constantly working to find ways to continue our efforts in protecting and restoring the bay.”
The report by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that, since 2006, conservation practices applied by cropland farmers in the past seven years are reducing nitrogen leaving fields, by 48.6 million pounds each year, or 26 percent, and reducing phosphorus by 7.1 million pounds, or 46 percent.
Conservation practices also lowered the average edge-of-field losses of sediment, or eroded soil, by about 15.1 million tons a year, or 60 percent. That’s enough soil to fill 150,000 railcars stretching more than 1,700 miles.
Most of these practices were supported by conservation programs under the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill. NRCS has provided more than $670 million in financial and technical assistance to farmers in the Bay during the past five years.
The report, part of the Conservation Effects Assessment Project, or CEAP, highlights a wider acceptance of popular conservation practices like erosion control structures. Most notably, some form of erosion control has been adopted on 97 percent of cropland acres within the Bay. While this does not mean that all acres are fully treated to address sediment and nutrient losses, it is a positive indication of a willingness by farmers to do their part to help restore the bay watershed.
Farmers use a variety of conservation practices, like no-till and cover crops, to keep nutrients and sediment on fields and out of nearby waterways. Excess amounts of nutrients and sediment can have detrimental impacts on water quality.
In West Virginia, NRCS and its network of conservation partners, such as soil and water conservation districts, the West Virginia Conservation Agency, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, and others, work with farmers and ranchers to install measures on their farms to protect and restore water quality. By comparing losses of sediment and nutrients from cultivated cropland to losses that would be expected if conservation practices weren’t used, CEAP reports give science-based insight into the approaches with the most benefits.
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, or CBWI, was authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill. NRCS has used CBWI to accelerate the adoption of conservation systems in the region. NRCS targeted funding to priority watersheds and practices that would have the biggest impact on watershed health. CBWI expired in October with the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill, reducing the technical and financial assistance available to bay watershed producers.