Share

PA in Balance

Harnessing Agriculture's Culture of Stewardship as a Solution to Clean Water

On March 1-3, 2016, the College of Agricultural Sciences together with other partners hosted the Pennsylvania in the Balance Conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Over 120 diverse stakeholders attended the event, which provided a collaborative forum where motivated leaders in agriculture and the environment identified new, innovative solutions that can help ensure vibrant, productive agriculture while meeting water quality goals for Pennsylvania's rivers and streams and the Chesapeake Bay. Read the Executive Summary and the Full Report.

At the end of three days, clear themes and initial recommendations emerged which, if seized upon, can form the basis of a new consensus based, collaborative strategy to ensure profitable and productive agriculture while achieving water quality goals. This strategy embraces agriculture and its ingrained culture of stewardship, and looks for leadership from agriculture to be a solution to clean water.

Themes

Themes identified at Pennsylvania in the Balance include:

Initiatives

Four initiatives, representing items which attendees and stakeholders agreed were priorities for action, are proposed. Each of these initiatives will be led by individuals and organizations in Pennsylvania with expertise and commitment to advance plans to action.

These initiatives are:

The PA in the Balance Conference

It has been over eight years since Ag in Balance set forth a vision for Pennsylvania agriculture. Much has been accomplished since then. Yet the lift remains heavy, and Pennsylvania is not on pace to meet interim goals set for agriculture related to Chesapeake Bay restoration. Given the ongoing challenges and looming deadlines, combined with the Commonwealth's renewed and increased support of Chesapeake Bay strategies, now is the time to work together to identify new approaches. The need is urgent, as there is much at stake for Pennsylvania.

On March 1-3, 2016, the College of Agricultural Sciences together with other partners hosted the Pennsylvania in the Balance Conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania. This conference provided a collaborative forum where motivated leaders in agriculture and the environment identified new, innovative solutions that can help ensure vibrant, productive agriculture while meeting water quality goals for the Commonwealth's rivers and streams and the Chesapeake Bay. A complete agenda is found in Appendix C.

A planning committee was established that included leaders at the College and the University and several critical partners, including the PDA, DEP, EPA, USDA NRCS, USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, PennAg Industries, Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Stroud Water Research Center. In the months leading up to the conference, the committee worked collaboratively to identify the key issues for discussion and to develop a framework to bring together the foremost expertise to identify opportunities and solutions, facilitate productive dialogue, build trust between stakeholders, and achieve results in actionable outcomes.

While this conference was meant in some ways to be a revisit to the 2008 Ag in Balance conference, the urgency of where Pennsylvania currently stands with respect to its Chesapeake Bay commitments provided the driving force for the conference and a focus for the discussions. The progress and successes discussed above are to be acknowledged and commended, but it is clear from all perspectives involved that more needs to be done and new and innovative approaches need to be developed and tried.

The conference title--Pennsylvania in the Balance--was deliberately chosen as a slight twist on the inspiring vision developed eight years ago, with the hope that all involved would acknowledge what hangs in the balance and devote their time and energies to developing new actions and a renewed commitment to meeting the vision for Pennsylvania's agriculture and natural resources.

The conference was a huge success. Nearly 120 diverse stakeholders attended, including farmers, agricultural industry representatives, scientists, federal and state agencies, researchers and Extension personnel, agricultural and environmental attorneys, nonprofit conservation organizations, conservation districts, planners, and agricultural consultants. A complete list of participants is found in Appendix D.

Initial plenaries were held on day one, where experts shared relevant background information and scientific studies related to Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay. Day one concluded with a panel of diverse stakeholders sharing their thoughts on the challenges in meeting water quality goals and sustaining a vibrant agriculture in Pennsylvania.

In a general sense, many of the challenges identified related to lack of resources and capacity. The issue of the small dairy sector and the expensive investments needed to solve their water quality problems was specifically raised, as were capacity issues in providing technical assistance and riparian buffer program delivery. Others raised concerns about the failure to invest in "scaling up" pilot approaches that have worked, and the lack of wise spending of resources in general. In the words of one stakeholder, "we've doled out way too much money without the strings attached."

Opportunities to meet challenges were shared as well. Attendees noted that voluntary conservation works when the time is given to build relationships between farmers and conservation professionals. These positive relationships allow conservation professionals to work with farmers and recommend conservation practices and systems that address identified natural resource concerns. Depending on the farm operation, some of these may increase a farmer's net income. Education and outreach, particularly on practices that are good for bottom lines, are effective and should receive higher priority.

One stakeholder observed that many policies and approaches to date have failed to recognize the human dimension. Farmers are individuals, making management decisions about their businesses which are tied to and dependent on the land and water resources they own and manage. In this respect it is not a scientific or a technical problem, but a policy problem. It is first and foremost about changing human behavior, a stakeholder noted, and the policies and approaches must be developed and deployed to achieve this.

To begin the second day, a producer panel representing a wide diversity of Pennsylvania agriculture shared their perspectives. Over days two and three, attendees participated in facilitated small group work sessions on key topics, including targeting resources, technical assistance, innovations in incentives, compliance, and new funding strategies. Each small group represented a cross section of the stakeholders involved in these issues. The format allowed leaders from diverse perspectives to work together to identify barriers, opportunities and solutions, ask and answer hard questions, facilitate productive dialogue, build trust, and identify pathways forward to implement actionable outcomes.

At the end of three days, clear themes emerged which, if seized upon, can form the basis of a new consensus-based, collaboratively-focused strategy to ensure profitable and productive agriculture while achieving water quality goals. This strategy embraces agriculture and its ingrained culture of stewardship, and looks for leadership from agriculture to be a solution to clean water.

A set of initial recommendations and action items were identified at the close of the conference. Since the conference, recommendations have been advanced collectively under the leadership of the AEC. Post-conference planning committee discussions, debriefings with key agencies and stakeholders, and a reconvening of conference attendees and other stakeholders in October 2016 resulted in development of four priority initiatives and a framework for implementation.

This collective effort has the potential to complement and enhance efforts to improve local water quality while also restoring the Chesapeake Bay, including development of Pennsylvania's Phase 3 WIP. The conference created a renewed energy among participants and a commitment to take collective action moving forward to resolve this complex and challenging problem.

Framework for Implementation: The PA in Balance Partnership

At the conference wrap up and in subsequent discussions with conference attendees and other key stakeholders, the organizational framework for advancing conference outcomes was discussed. The challenge of balancing a need for structure with a desire to stimulate creativity and flexibility within the framework chosen was raised as a concern.

To meet this challenge, the resulting recommendations from the conference and from post-conference discussions are to develop an implementation framework consisting of an informal, collaborative partnership facilitated by the AEC. A PA in Balance Partnership Council, consisting of the conference planning committee and other willing participants including critical producer representation, is proposed to serve as the steering committee for this partnership moving forward (see Appendix E).

This framework will oversee the implementation of the four priority initiatives discussed above. Each of these initiatives will be led by individuals and organizations in Pennsylvania with expertise and commitment to advance plans to action.

Opportunities to share progress and receive continued input from the larger set of stakeholders participating in the conference will be pursued by devoting a page on the AEC website to PA in Balance, and by offering additional conferences or workshops as needed in the future.

Conclusion

The energy, ideas and collaborative spirit that came out of the Pennsylvania in the Balance Conference truly has the potential to fundamentally change the conversation and the course of action regarding agriculture's role in solving our Commonwealth's most pressing water quality problem. The initiatives put forward in this document have the potential to universally change the mindset from I have to do it to I want to do it. In the months following the conference we have seen already the Partnership and its members making strides to advance conference outcomes and capitalize on conference ideas and themes.

In conclusion, it is worth noting that conference attendees have made a conscious decision to name this exciting new partnership the "PA in Balance Partnership." The Pennsylvania in the Balance Conference was timely held, as the future of Pennsylvania's agriculture and its rivers and streams hangs in the balance at this particular moment in time. But we believe the conference in March 2016 has played its part in changing the course for the better. We are hopeful that we may be able to achieve the inspiring vision of Pennsylvania agriculture in balance, if all partners continue to work collaboratively toward implementation of initiatives to meet our common goals of viable, vibrant agriculture and healthy rivers and streams.

More Information

For more information on the Pennsylvania in the Balance Conference, and the PA in Balance Partnership, contact Matt Royer, Director, Penn State Agriculture and Environment Center, mroyer@psu.edu, (814) 863-8756.

Download Publication

Article Details

Title

PA in Balance

This publication is available in alternative media on request.