Agriculture in Pennsylvania

Farms represent the backbone of Pennsylvania's heritage and economy.

Farm buildings and silos are surrounded by green fields.
Pennsylvania Farm The agriculture industry represents the backbone of Pennsylvania's heritage and economy. © George C. Gress / TNC

This page was updated on July 13, 2021.

Farming represents the backbone of Pennsylvania's heritage. With 52,000 farms and 7.3 million acres of farmland, agriculture is also a big business in Pennsylvania, accounting for approximately $83.8 billion in direct economic output, 280,500 jobs and $10.9 billion in earnings.

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 teaming up with farmers, agribusiness, government agencies, academic researchers and conservationists to explore tools and methods that benefit, rather than harm, local streams and rivers, and ultimately, our nation’s largest estuary.

Two hands hold brown soil that has just been scooped from the white bucket resting on the ground beneath.
Hands In Soil Healthy soils are important to growing food, supporting wildlife and storing carbon. © Mike Wilkinson

Starting With Soils

Pennsylvania farmers know that soil is the cornerstone of life on Earth. They provide a true foundation for clean water and productive land for people and nature.

Healthy soils contain beneficial bacteria and nutrients that aid in food production. They also filter and store water, and capture carbon from the atmosphere.

For food production, farmers apply nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to soil in the form of fertilizer to increase productivity. In heavy rains, excess nutrients and sediment not used by plants can run off into local waterways.

Over the last decade, significant improvements have been made to reduce the impact of nutrients and sediment on our waterways, but there’s still a long way to go. And as rainfall continues to increase in Pennsylvania due to a changing climate, our efforts are more important than ever.

TNC 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.

4R Nutrient Stewardship in Pennsylvania The PA4R Alliance brings together diverse partners to help farmers achieve Chesapeake Bay water quality goals while supporting the economic sustainability of their farms.

Protecting Food and Water

In response, TNC and its partners are helping Pennsylvania growers keep good soil, and associated nutrients, on fields and out of local waterways in ways that allow them to meet the rising demand for food in an 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 proper crop fertilization in order to improve soil health, decrease pollution and protect wildlife.

4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship

The 4Rs promote best management practices (BMPs) to achieve cropping system goals while minimizing field nutrient loss and maximizing crop uptake.

We are committed to rebuilding soils that support a prosperous agricultural industry and feed a growing population. Together with a coalition of diverse partners and local farmers, we are rethinking and improving practices that reduce tillage, increase the use of seasonal cover crops and promote sustainable grazing practices.

We are also restoring and reinvesting in important ecosystems that naturally provide valuable services to people and wildlife. This includes planting vegetation to reduce erosion along river and streambanks, reconnecting floodplains, and welcoming back wetlands that have been filled in or drained. Restoring our rivers, streams, floodplains and wetlands, which is on display at our Acopian Preserve in Lancaster County, help to trap pollutants and store water.

PA Farmers: Partners In Conservation

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.

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.

It’s a great life. We’ve been entrusted with this land, and we’re doing our best to take care of it.

Farmer, York County, Pennsylvania

Clean Water: Eyes on the Chesapeake

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this work will be the Chesapeake Bay. Much of the state’s agricultural production occurs within the Susquehanna River Basin, which drains more than half of the land area of Pennsylvania and provides half of the freshwater that enters the Chesapeake Bay. As a result, the Commonwealth shoulders a large responsibility for providing clean water—to Pennsylvania and to North America’s largest estuary.

“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.”

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.

Great Cypress Swamp: Restoration and Partnership A healthy Chesapeake Bay is in our grasp. Partnership and collaboration are critical to restoring wetlands and floodplains at a meaningful scale.

Pocomoke Watershed: Restoration at Scale

Another strategy for reducing runoff into the Chesapeake Bay is to reconnect rivers to their floodplains. In 2020, a nearly $1 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) was awarded to TNC to accelerate wetland restoration across the bay watershed.

The grant aims to help develop partnerships with key agencies and individuals, invest in capacity for outreach, and provide flexibility to landowners with funding options to restore their land. The grant enables TNC to coordinate with partners and landowners to design new, large-scale wetland restoration projects in Virginia’s Rappahannock watershed, in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River watershed, and in Delaware’s Great Cypress Swamp.

Working in the headwaters of the Pocomoke River, TNC’s Pennsylvania & Delaware chapter and their partners Delaware Wild Lands, Inc. and Ducks Unlimited have restored more than 60 acres of wetlands at Great Cypress Swamp, adding to 750 acres of previously restored cypress and Atlantic white cedar wetlands. It’s part of an effort to resculpt the area's hydrology to create a highly varied, multi-age, multi-class forest in a wetlands setting.

Additional Resources

  • Thumbnail of a factsheet titled Regenerative Agriculture Food-Clean Water-Climate. The header shows a field of tall green leafy plants. Six round silver silos squat on the horizon.

    Regenerative Agriculture

    Using cutting-edge science, The Nature Conservancy is identifying key areas where wetland and floodplain restoration can have the greatest benefit to water quality.

  • Thumbnail for a factsheet titled Challenges and Opportunities to Increasing Conservation on Leased Farmland in the Chesapeake. The header photo shows two smiling men walking down a country lane.

    Chesapeake Bay NOL Research Insights

    Findings from two separate surveys of non-operating landowners (NOLs) and farmers that lease land in Pennsylvania and Maryland examining the challenges and opportunities to increasing conservation on leased farmland in the Chesapeake.

  • Thumbnail of a factsheet titled Farmland Rental Survey Insights Maryland and Pennsylvania. The header photo shows a cornfield in early fall. Open fields roll to the horizon behind the cornfield.

    Farmland and Rental Survey Insights

    Findings from surveys of non-operating landowners (NOLs) and farmers that lease land in Pennsylvania and Maryland suggesting there is potential to strengthen farmer-landowner relationships through written leases.


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