Farming—it represents the backbone of Pennsylvania's heritage and economy. However, in the 21st century, the agriculture industry faces pressing challenges related to producing enough food, fuel and fiber to support a rapidly increasing population without harming our lands and waters.
As one of six states comprising the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed, Pennsylvania also has an enormous responsibility for ensuring that pollution and excess nutrients from cities, industries and farms is stored and filtered before entering local waterways. With this in mind, The Nature Conservancy is working with farmers and agri-businesses to promote practices that improve water quality in streams and rivers, and ultimately in our nation’s largest estuary.
Starting With Soils
Pennsylvania farmers know that healthy soil is the cornerstone of life on Earth. Healthy soils contain beneficial bacteria and nutrients that aid in food production. They also filter and store water, capture carbon and provide resilience in the face of variable weather. Healthy soils provide a true foundation for clean water and productive land for people and nature.
For food production, farmers add nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to soil. However, excess nutrients not used by plants, and not stored in soils, can run off into local waterways. That is why many farmers are exploring a variety of tools and methods for keeping good soil, and associated nutrients, on their fields. These efforts benefit the farmer and lead to cleaner waterways and drinking water.
Nature Conservancy scientists, economists and agriculture experts found that improving soil health on half of U.S. soy, wheat and corn croplands could deliver up to $7.4 billion in environmental and economic benefits by 2025.
Protecting Food and Water
The Nature Conservancy is working as part of a statewide alliance of farmers, agribusinesses, government agencies, researchers and conservationists seeking practices that will help local growers meet the rising demand for food in a sustainable and economically feasible way. This collaborative effort centers around the 4Rs of Nutrient Management—the right source of nutrients are applied at the right rate at the right time in the right place. The 4Rs serve as a checklist for assessing whether a crop has been properly fertilized to perform better, improve soil health, decrease environmental pollution and protect wildlife.
The PA 4R Alliance and TNC are also examining sustainable agricultural practices that reach beyond nutrient application such as reducing tillage and using cover crops. And TNC continues to restore stream and wetland habitats to improve water quality around the state. Many of these practices are on display at TNC's Acopian Preserve.
In 2019, a grant from the York County Community Foundation fueled efforts to build partnerships that support agriculture and water quality. Employing the 4R Nutrient Stewardship framework, farmers in this part of Pennsylvania are learning about matching nutrient applications to crop needs to prevent excess nutrients from leaving fields and reaching surrounding waterways.
“We look forward to working in York County to advance the 4R framework. It makes economic and environmental sense,” says Katie Turner, TNC’s agriculture program manager in Pennsylvania.
TNC is already working with Bob Buser, the patriarch of a 5th generation family farm that boasts a deep history in York County and hosted an event to showcase the 4Rs. According to Buser, cultivating crops is similar to cultivating the next generation—you need the right nutrients (or advice), applied in the right amount, right when and where they’re needed.
He adds, “Knowing what nutrients the plant needs and putting them there is key. If you add nutrients that a plant doesn’t need or spread liquid nitrogen with no ground cover, you’re just throwing nutrients and money away.”
Employing the 4Rs fortifies Buser’s knowledge and experience with new science and technology focused on applying nutrients with unprecedented precision. Working in this way results in a healthier landscape, especially soils, that benefits wildlife, water quality and crop production.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of this work will be the Chesapeake Bay. The Pennsylvania Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan calls for reducing an additional 1 million pounds of nitrogen flowing into the Susquehanna River through 4R nutrient management practices by 2025. TNC is partnering with seven agribusinesses through the PA4R Alliance to promote the implementation of nutrient management and soil health practices to help achieve this ambitious goal.
“These farmers have a deep knowledge of local lands and waters, like no one else,” says Turner. “The 4Rs builds on that in order to achieve the delicate balance required to benefit our farmers and nature.”