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Embrace a Culture of Stewardship

Agriculture has high standards for conservation, with roots in a multigenerational culture of stewardship. Farmers are ready to lead, and be a solution for clean water.

Farmers take very seriously land and water stewardship and practice it every day on their farms. The success of their farming operations—their business and livelihood—is dependent on healthy, productive soils and clean, abundant water. Many of these farmers are stewarding the same land that has been in their family for generations. This culture of stewardship is prevalent in the agricultural community, and should be embraced.  Farmers are part of the solution to clean Pennsylvania rivers and streams, and a healthy Chesapeake Bay.

Farmers are leaders within their communities and the Commonwealth. These leaders helped shape the Pennsylvania in the Balance Conference. Approximately a dozen producers attended the conference. From the producer panel which kicked off day two, to creative and thoughtful dialogue in all six working session groups, Pennsylvania’s farmers left their imprint on this conference.

Yet the producers who attended the conference are only a small sampling of leadership in Pennsylvania agriculture. Such leaders exist in rural communities across the Commonwealth. They are not uniform; as on participant noted, they “come in various shapes and forms.” All participants from all stakeholder sectors—particularly those providing conservation services and technical assistance—recognized the importance of finding the local “thought leaders” in the agricultural community to steer successful water quality improvement initiatives. Another participant noted that in many rural communities, farmers play prominent roles in local government, often as local elected officials and trusted leaders.

Programs to cultivate and grow leadership and perspectives within the agricultural community were also suggested. One idea shared was a field trip to the Bay to see impacts, continuing up the watershed to meet with farmers and communities and see local impacts as well.

Many groups discussed the challenges of working with those farmers who are contributing to water quality problems. A common viewpoint shared at the conference by those practicing good stewardship was that they do not condone poor managers who are causing water quality problems. “I can’t defend the mistakes of a fellow co-worker,” said one participant.

While farms that contribute to water quality are often seen as high priorities for BMP funding and implementation, several participants shared that perhaps a paradigm shift is in order. “We spend program dollars to fund bad actors, and those who are doing a good job are not rewarded,” lamented one participant. “Rewarding bad behavior is counterproductive.” Some participants surmised that it might not be the wisest idea to “subsidize” small farms, as larger farms do a better job of reducing pollutants. “If you can’t afford to be a sustainable famer, maybe you shouldn’t be farming,” said one. In other lines of business, it was noted, there are market consequences for poor business owners. “Maybe if people can’t afford to implement management practices, then just like in other areas of business, those bad managers do not stay in business,” said one participant.

Yet other conference participants recognized important cultural, historical, and quality of life rationales for continuing to support the diversity of farming enterprises in Pennsylvania, especially small family farms. These are often the very farms that need outreach, administrative, technical and financial assistance to learn about and take advantage of programs. Perhaps, some conference participants surmised, not enough has been done to reach these farmers. The stark reality is that agricultural sources of water quality impacts are priorities that must be addressed in the immediate near term, and that takes money. In the case of some sectors, like small dairy, it will take a significant amount of money.

Many participants suggested capitalizing on the culture of stewardship by creating programs to recognize and reward farmers meeting high conservation standards. One existing program that incorporates this model is the USDA NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). This program has become the most popular conservation program in the country and is available to farmers and operators in Pennsylvania.

With respect to new programs embracing a culture of stewardship, the common concept discussed at the conference was a statewide certification program with standards for conservation practices that go above and beyond baseline compliance. Such a program has strong appeal in the agricultural community and may help raise the conservation bar.

While recognition itself (including signage, prestige in meeting certification standards) may incentivize many producers to elevate the level of conservation on their farms, many participants felt that linking the program to some level of regulatory relief (i.e., “ag certainty”) would provide much greater incentive to participate. Existing programs in Virginia and Minnesota were shared in several of the work sessions as potential models.

As a Pennsylvania program is explored, it is important to note that the Commonwealth has existing statewide regulatory programs which may not exist in other jurisdictions which have adopted ag certainty. This means that the program must be carefully crafted to ensure the “high bar” of conservation is well above the minimum standard of regulatory compliance, and the regulatory relief granted is not a relaxation of existing requirements.

With these points in mind, one potential opportunity to provide ag certainty and thus incentivize participation in a certification program could insulate farmers from the inspections presently being conducted as part of DEP’s new water quality strategy. Certification programs could also be linked to market based demand for “clean water” products and suppliers, providing additional incentive for participation.