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 USDA report.
The report, Impacts of Conservation Adoption on Cultivated Acres of Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region, 2003-06 to 2011, estimates that since 2006, conservation practices applied by farmers and landowners 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.
The report, part of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Effects Assessment Project, notes that these practices have also lowered the estimated average edge-of-field losses of sediment, or eroded soil, by about 15.1 million tons a year, or 60 percent. The majority of the conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay were made possible through Farm Bill conservation programs, which are now expired, the report says.
According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack these conservation efforts help to boost outdoor recreation — an activity that adds more than $640 billion to the economy.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed touches six states and is home to 17 million people and almost 84,000 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.
To better target conservation efforts in the region, USDA launched the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, or CBWI, in 2008. USDA targeted CBWI funding to priority watersheds and practices that would have the biggest impact on watershed health.
Due to these efforts, the report highlights a wider acceptance of innovative conservation practices. Notably, some form of erosion control has been adopted on 97 percent of cropland acres in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. 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.
Additionally, the report shows an increased use of cover crops by Bay watershed farmers. Since 2006, land with cover crops in a cropping system increased from 12 percent of acres to 52 percent. Farmers are using a variety of other conservation practices, such as no-till, that help keep nutrients and sediment on fields and out of nearby waterways.