Farmers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed got a boost on June 1, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an agreement with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to make changes in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which could reduce sediment and nutrient loading levels in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Changes in the CREP program, which were first enacted in Pennsylvania in 2000, will increase the acreage ceiling by nearly 20,000 acres and make all Pennsylvania CREP practices eligible for sign-up in Chesapeake Bay watershed counties.

CREP is an option under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that agricultural producers may use to voluntarily establish conservation practices on their land.

Producers can enroll in CREP at any time. To encourage enrollment into these environmentally sensitive resource areas, per-acre annual rental payments are at a higher effective rate than offered under a general CRP sign-up.

Pennsylvania farmers and landowners are encouraged to voluntarily convert eligible cropland and marginal pastureland to native grasses, legumes, forbs, shrubs and trees under 10-15 year CRP contracts. In return, they receive annual rental payments, cost share and other incentives.

Several states, including Pennsylvania have been at odds with the USDA over guidelines used to set daily total maximum daily load (TMDL) standards for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. While influential members of the Bay Restoration Society have called for stricter guidelines for TDML and more stringent enforcement of these regulations, farmer-led associations have questioned the validity of the nutrient standards and have filed suits to prevent the EPA from enforcing these regulations.

Michael Scuse, under-secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, says of the new changes to the Pennsylvania CREP, “These changes will provide greater flexibility for more Pennsylvania farmers and other land owners to establish conservation cover and increase land stewardship within the Chesapeake Bay watershed."

The USDA contends the CRP program, including CREP programs in some states have been influential in reducing the impact of agriculture on the Chesapeake Bay.

A government press release claims, “In 2011, as a result of CRP, nitrogen and phosphorous losses from farm fields were reduced by 623 million pounds and 124 million pounds respectively.

“The CRP has restored more than two million acres of wetlands and associated buffers and reduces soil erosion by more than 300 million tons per year. CRP also provides $1.8 billion annually to landowners — dollars that make their way into local economies, supporting small businesses and creating jobs,” the June 1 news release states.

To be eligible for the CREP, cropland must meet specific CRP requirements, including an acceptable history of crops produced on the land.

Producers who have an existing CRP contract are not eligible for CREP until that contract expires. Producers with expiring CRP contracts who are interested in CREP should submit offers for re-enrolling their land into CREP during the last year of their existing CRP contract.