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Integrate Soil Health, Manure Management, and Riparian Ecosystem Stewardship into Water Quality Strategies

The health of the land and water is critical to meeting both farm production and conservation needs. Approaches based on performance through land and water stewardship should be emphasized over practice based approaches. Soil health, management of manure as a resource, and stewardship of riparian ecosystems need to be priority messages. Clean and abundant water starts with soil health and function. Plans required by law must be meaningful management tools that are simple to develop and follow. Programs for forest riparian buffers must be highly incentivized, streamlined and flexible.

While funding and implementing conservation has often taken a practice based approach and education has emphasized specific practices, many participants suggested a different frame which emphasizes stewardship, or management, of land and water resources to achieve environmental performance compatible with agronomic production. With respect to conservation practices, not every practice is compatible with every farm. “The general principles of conservation—such as soil health—are more universal,” noted one participant. Many suggested that messaging to farmers should be crafted around these universal conservation principles. A focus on improving management for soil health may reduce the need for more expensive conservation practices to improve water quality, suggested participants.

The importance of soil health was a theme that resonated throughout the conference. It relates directly to clean water, several participants noted. “We are blessed with water in Pennsylvania,” said one. Clean and abundant water starts with soil health and function.  Supporting soils as living organisms and natural mechanisms for water infiltration and purification is crucial to meeting both agricultural production and water quality goals.  These kinds of soil health messages should build upon successful high priority efforts already underway in Pennsylvania and beyond, such as the NRCS Soil Health Initiative, the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, county conservation district efforts, Extension programming and research from the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s new SOIL Institute. Devoting specific resources to soil health education and peer-to-peer farmer outreach was one suggestion as to how this initiative could grow. This would be money wisely spent, noted several participants, since once farmers understand the importance of soil as a living organism vital to meeting both production and water quality goals, they will change their management without the need for implementation of expensive structural practices.

Participants also recognized that Pennsylvania, particularly in the southcentral region, has a high intensity of livestock production.  This presents challenges with handling excess manure and meeting manure management objectives. Participants recognized that for many Pennsylvania farmers, managing manure not as a waste product but as a resource to support crop production and soil health is also a critical message for farmers.

The topic of manure led to discussion on the various plans that farmers are required to have by law, including agricultural erosion and sediment control plans, manure management plans and nutrient management plans. Producers indicated that for these plans to be helpful, they must be meaningful management tools. They must be simple to develop and easy to follow if they stand a chance at actually being implemented and actively used to guide farm management. “We are required to give them a compliance document, but what we really want to give them is a management tool,” noted one participant. 

The manure management plan, required by Pennsylvania law for farms that produce or utilize manure, was given as an example of a common sense, easy to follow plan that can be readily implemented and adapted into farm management and operations. Some participants cautioned however that the importance of creating simple, functional management tools can lead to challenges in getting such tools recognized by the Chesapeake Bay Program as sufficient in achieving nutrient and sediment reductions and therefore receiving “credit” in the Bay Model.

Stream health is also important, as noted by participants.  Many, many farmers have significant stretches of streams flowing through their farms. While forest riparian buffers are a tougher sell with producers, they remain a highly valued, priority practice. “Near stream areas is where we need to be spending money,” commented one participant. “Farmers need to give streams space. Finding ways to get it done is the hardest sell we have.”

To make that sell, many participants posited that programs for forest riparian buffers should be highly incentivized, streamlined and flexible. The importance of farmers in practicing riparian ecosystem stewardship and providing multiple, ecosystem service benefits for the farm, the community and society should be emphasized. These benefits include flood control, pollinator and wildlife habitat, cooler stream temperatures, shade for fish and aquatic life, fishing and other water based recreation, and herd health.

These aspects of management go hand in hand, and an integrated approach to messaging, education and outreach, and implementation funding involving all three management aspects has strong appeal among all stakeholders.  If all farmers managed their production land for soil health, managed their manure as a resource, and managed stream corridors for ecosystem health (seeing buffers as their “pet,” in the words of one producer), we would be well on our way to achieving Pennsylvania agriculture in balance.