or several years, regulators and environmental watchdogs have been sounding the alarm about Pennsylvania agriculture’s lagging pace in meeting its Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals. For nearly as long, Pennsylvania farmers have been telling the government that they have been putting in a lot of pollution-controlling practices, but they weren’t getting credit for them.
So in 2016 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection sought to determine who was right. Working with the Penn State Survey Research Center, environmental officials sent questionnaires to the state’s farmers.
A total of 6,782 farmers — 35 percent of the 20,000 farmers to whom the survey was mailed — answered the questions. They included information about how many best management practices were in place and where they were. To verify the information, the Penn State researchers visited 700 farms, about 10 percent of the respondents, to inspect.
So, who was right? Turns out, maybe both.
Patrick McDonnell, the state’s acting environmental protection secretary, said the farmers are clearly putting in practices that had not been accounted for previously. Among them, he said, are more than 2,000 barnyard runoff control systems that had not been counted in the Chesapeake Bay Program’s models. These systems help keep animal manure from washing into streams and rivers. The farmers also reported installing 1 million linear feet of fencing along streams, which was more than expected.
Still, it’s not enough, McDonnell said.
“We still have a big hill to climb in meeting our Bay obligations,” he said in a December webinar to report the Penn State survey results, which included several other environmental and agricultural officials. McDonnell said that the survey will help with that climb. Regulators, researchers and the specialists who install buffers and manure-management systems will now be able to get more complete data on what farmers are already doing to curb pollution.
“We can have a general understanding of what is happening out there,” he added.
Russ Redding, Pennsylvania’s agriculture secretary, called the survey an “unprecedented” effort to listen to the state’s farmers.
“We have taken a concern that has been raised in the agriculture community for some time,” Redding said, “and today we know more about what that concern is, what it looks like.”
Matthew Royer, director of Penn State’s Agriculture and Environment Center, which oversaw the survey, said researchers will continue to collect and analyze information gathered from farmers. For example, Royer said he did not know how many Plain Sect farmers had participated, or what practices they were most likely to put in, but he said researchers could find that out as they examined the results more closely.
All of the pollution reduction steps farmers have taken appear to be having some effect in the Susquehanna River, says Rich Batiuk, associate director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program office.
“I never thought I would see it in my 30 years here, but for the first time, the amount of nitrogen is heading down,” Batiuk says. “We have a grass bed in the Susquehanna Flats that you can see from space. Pennsylvania farmers can take a lot of credit for that particular work.”
Despite such signs of progress, the Bay Program’s computer modeling indicates that the state still has a long way to go. Last year, the Bay Journal reported that an EPA review said that Pennsylvania needed to double the number of farm acres under nutrient management and plant seven times as many acres of forest and grass buffers as it did in 2014 to help it get back on track to meet Bay nutrient pollution reduction targets.
In the next three years, the 2015 report stated, Pennsylvania would have to reduce nitrogen loads almost four times as much as the rest of the watershed states combined to meet the goals set for the end of 2017. To assist with that effort, federal and state officials in October announced a $28 million aid package to focus on farm runoff.
Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says he is glad to see farmers are doing the right thing for the local waterways and using their own money to do it.
But, he adds, “with over 6,700 miles of rivers and streams impaired by agriculture, the work is far from over in Pennsylvania.”
Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell is a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun.