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Pennsylvania advocates push for conservation money in next farm bill

The Susquehanna River in Harrisburg as seen on Aug. 19, 2019. The river is the largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay.
Ian Sterling
The Susquehanna River in Harrisburg as seen on Aug. 19, 2019. The river is the largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay.

Congress is debating the next farm bill — a massive spending plan focused on agriculture and nutrition.

Some advocates are pushing for water quality priorities to make it into the final bill.

Agriculture is a big source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution that impairs local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

Environmental groups say resources from the farm bill can help farmers lower their impact.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the 2023 bill will cost $725 billion over 5 years and $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, make up the bulk of the spending at around 80%.

Harry Campbell, who directs science policy and advocacy in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania office, said the commonwealth only gets about half the national average in technical support for conservation.

He said this year’s package needs to provide more money for technical assistance and to make help more readily available to small farms.

“A significant percentage of those farmers that ask for assistance–upwards of 80% in some cases–do not receive that assistance on an annual basis. And that’s partly because of the lack of staff that can responsively work with them,” Campbell said.

Pennsylvania expects agriculture to make up 90% of the state’s remaining pollution reduction goals for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

The state has been lagging in those goals. The Environmental Protection Agency recently settled a lawsuit from CBF and other bay states that alleged the EPA did not properly enforce pollution reduction in Pennsylvania.

Campbell said the Farm Bill provides the backbone to a lot of conservation programs for farmers, but Pennsylvania still needs to step up.

“And so while we can rely upon the federal farm bill for a myriad of activities and support to help get us there, it simply isn’t in and of itself the solution and it requires Pennsylvania to do their fair share as well,” he said.

The Bay Foundation is also pushing for an expansion of a pilot program from Virginia that helped farmers plant buffers along waterways. Those buffers help keep nutrients and sediment from flowing downstream.

The Natural Resources Defense Council says the spending package has the potential to make farms more resilient to disruptions from climate change and reduce emissions by advancing organic agriculture, increasing cover crop adoption, and reducing food waste.

“This Farm Bill has the chance to protect the historic $40+ billion Inflation Reduction Act investments empowering farmers to turn agriculture into a climate solution and double down on transformative, economy-wide investments needed to scale up climate-smart agriculture & forestry,” NRDC scientists and advocates wrote in a blog post.

The last version of the Farm Bill, passed in 2018, is set to expire at the end of September.