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Bill encourages conservation

Pennsylvania farmers are continuing their efforts to improve their land and the natural resources on their farms.

A bill was recently introduced in the state senate to increase conservation and technical assistance for farmers to further reduce pollution impacts on local creeks and streams.

Senate Bill 1272, introduced by state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23rd District, would allow local county conservation districts throughout Pennsylvania to directly receive and manage funding for agricultural conservation projects determined by local officials in order to significantly improve local water quality.

“Agriculture is looked to for significant reductions to meet pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay and other major watersheds in the state,” Yaw said. “Nevertheless, almost one-third of our commonwealth’s streams do not meet standards for drinking, fishing or recreation, and agriculture remains one of the largest sources of impairment. To meet the challenges, I have introduced legislation to establish an Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program.”

The bill is a collaborative effort of governmental and non-governmental representatives, including the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Penn State.

“Pennsylvania farmers have long been conservation-minded and manage their farms in a way that protects natural resources,” said Farm Bureau President Rick Ebert. “However, challenges remain in meeting water quality goals, especially within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. We are pleased that lawmakers such as Senator Yaw acknowledge that farmers cannot go it alone, while also recognizing that environmental challenges are not going away. This agriculture conservation bill will help farmers make conservation improvements on their farm and bring Pennsylvania closer to meeting those water quality goals.”

The Blair County Conservation District supports the bill, Manager Donna Fisher said.

“I personally think this is an excellent idea. If implemented, this program will direct targeted dollars for use in implementing farm conservation measures in areas with the most critical need to improve local water quality. This program will direct funding to county conservation districts and will give conservation professionals in those areas the flexibility to determine and finance cost-effective farm conservation practices for local water quality improvement,” Fisher said.

The program is modeled after the state’s Dirt and Gravel Road Program, administered by the State Conservation Commission and administered locally by the Conservation District.

“Each year, the commission allocates funding to county conservation districts based on a formula that looks at the volume of impaired streams and miles of dirt roads. Annually, the Blair County Conservation District receives about $180,000, which we then turn around and fund local municipal road projects chosen by a local team of professionals. I believe the same approach can be used in financing farm conservation measures that effectively improve the quality of Blair County’s waters in a cost-effective way,” Fisher said.

Pennsylvania farmers have long been leaders in conservation, said Liam Migdail, a Farm Bureau spokesman.

“Farmers believe it is their responsibility to be good stewards of the land and natural resources so that future generations can continue to farm. At the same time, many of the conservation measures that farmers implement to protect natural resources are also smart farming practices,” Migdail said.

In partnership with neighboring states, Pennsylvania is working to implement practices that reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania recently developed its Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plan, which is a road map of sorts to how the state will reach certain federally mandated pollution reduction goals by 2025. The plan outlines conservation measures to be implemented in agriculture as well as other sectors to improve water quality in the bay watershed. Pennsylvania farmers played an active role in helping to develop the plan and recommending conservation practices that can be implemented on Pennsylvania farms, Migdail said.

Blair County farmers continue to step up to improve water quality, Fisher said.

“We have seen a significant increase in no-till and minimum till planting and an increase in the use of cover crops, thus reducing the potential for erosion on cropland throughout the entire year. Although not a structural practice, both of these best management practices have resulted in significant reductions in soil erosion, nutrient pollution and increased farm productivity. Pasture management and treating areas near streams with stabilized animal crossings and fencing is also a minimal cost and very effective practice used locally,” Fisher said.

Gary Long, president of the Blair County Farm Bureau, who owns Long’s Field Service, said he has been implementing manure management plans for about 15 years.

“I can put on the manure but have to cut back on my commercial fertilizer. This is to help the Chesapeake Bay. I am not allowed to till the ground. I am able to put so much manure on the field based on the conservation district’s criteria, so I don’t put on too much and have it run into the streams,” Long said.

Migdail said Pennsylvania needs to continue to ramp up these conservation efforts to stay on track with its goals outlined in the Watershed Improvement Plan.

“The challenge is that many of these practices … are too expensive for farms to implement on their own, especially as they continue to weather a challenging farm economy and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Migdail said.

“It comes down to what the farmers can afford to do. More money is needed. This bill is putting more money out there to help the ag guys,” Long said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.

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