Pennsylvania’s 58,000 farms produce $7.4 billion worth of crop and livestock products on 7.6 million acres. This represents only a fraction of the economic benefits — food manufacturing, support services, and related businesses generate approximately $135.7 billion in total economic impact annually, maintaining 579,000 jobs with $26.9 billion in earnings throughout the Commonwealth.
In addition to the economic impacts, what happens on this farmland directly impacts our communities and, most importantly, our local water quality. Pennsylvania’s 6,798 stream miles that are impaired by the results of agricultural activities — especially nutrient runoff, soil erosion, and unrestricted livestock access — need improved environmental stewardship on farmland.
Most farmers are working diligently on land and water stewardship, but often need technical and financial help. Agricultural producers are squeezed by low prices for their products and steep increases in the cost of fuel, real estate, and other operating costs, making conservation investments difficult to bear on their own. Federal farm conservation programs only meet a fraction of the annual need, so additional resources are imperative to help farms invest in conservation.
For almost 40 years, Pennsylvania laws have required farms to develop and implement plans to manage manure and other nutrient sources, and to prevent erosion and sediment loss. In addition to reducing water pollution, these plans improve crop utilization of nutrients and keep top soil in place to sustain long-term production. However, measures to ensure that farms have and follow these plans only began in earnest after 2010 with limited resources, so significant gaps remain.
Many farms are now focusing on production systems that reduce tillage intensity to maintain soil structure, responsibly incorporate manure, and sustain a cover of living plants to improve soil health and reduce water pollution. This increases water infiltration, retains soil moisture for periods of drought, and reduces stormwater runoff and soil erosion during heavy rains. Soil and nutrients stay in agricultural fields for production, rather than degrade local streams. When adopting new production methods, farms often need technical advice adapted to their soil, terrain, climate, and production goals.
FOUR RECOMMENDATIONS TO SUPPORT FARMERS AND CLEAN WATER
1. Increase funding for the following:
Cost-share programs to help farms invest in conservation practices and provide conservation easements, especially in watersheds impaired by agriculture;
Available Resource Enhancement and Protection tax credits to $12 million annually;
Conservation Districts, conservationists, land trusts, and private sector conservation and nutrient management planners to provide technical assistance to farms establishing conservation practices; and
The Department of Environmental Protection to adequately enforce state laws.
2. Restrict Clean and Green preferential tax savings to landowners meeting all state and federal regulations.
3. Restrict livestock access to streams through applicable legislation.
4. Provide more resources to support forested buffers and tree plantings.
For more information on protecting and restoring Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams, see the Pennsylvania Clean Water Briefing Book.