Consider Conservation Before There’s No Choice

The Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone reached a historic 8, 776 square miles in 2017. Such zones deprive fish and plants of oxygen due to excessive algal growth. ( NOAA )

Building trust in food begins with empowering farmers through one of the largest and most diverse conservation- and sustainability-focused public-private partnerships in our nation’s history: America’s Conservation Ag Movement. To find the latest news and resources related to the Movement, visit

At 12-years-old Jim Harbach was picking up rocks in freshly tilled Pennsylvania fields. Each pass of the planter unearthed more rocks and softball-sized dirt clay lumps that never seemed to break up.

After years of repeated tillage on highly-erodible soils, the damage started to show in nutrient loss and soil runoff. Each pounding rain brought loss, and Harbach and his family knew it was time for a change on their Chesapeake Bay-area farm.

Thirty years ago, the Clinton County, Penn., farmers switched their acres to no-till. Fifteen years ago, they started experimenting with cover crops, a practice they now widely use across their acres.

“It’s all about doing our part on our piece of ground,” Harbach says in a recent video with the Chesapeake Bay Program. “This is not about being sustainable, it’s more about being regenerative and making that soil the most it can be.”

Chesapeake Climate: Regenerative Farming from Chesapeake Bay Program on Vimeo.

South of Harbach in Centreville, Md., row crop farmer Keith Leaverton sits just 20 minutes east of the Chesapeake Bay. Farmers in Maryland are under strict scrutiny from government, natural resource and citizen stakeholders when it comes to their farming practices and environmental footprint.

“For example, we have limited dates when we can apply nutrients and we’re required to use cover crops if we rent state land,” Leaverton says. “You can only apply a certain amount of nutrients. If you go over by more than 10 lb. per acre you’re in violation and can be fined. If you’re over two years in a row you don’t have access to incentives from conservation programs.”

He has to include the nutrient benefit estimate he gains from cover crops, in addition to tracking applications. Groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other state organizations perform research, and some offer monetary incentive for farmers who implement environmentally friendly practices.

Specifically, they recommend these practices for farmers in watersheds:

  • Streamside buffers — buffers near stream banks planted with native trees, shrubs or grasses.
  • Streamside Fencing — keep livestock and their waste out of farm streams.
  • Nutrient management plans (required in Maryland) — identify how much and when to use fertilizers on crops.
  • Continuous no-till — reduce erosion and runoff by minimizing soil disturbance.
  • Cover crops — living root systems help absorb excess fertilizer and help the soil better infiltrate water to reduce erosion.

“It’s estimated that widespread use of these five priority practices on Bay region farmers could reduce the amount of nitrogen pollution going into the Bay from nonpoint sources by as much as 60%,” according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

One of the biggest changes Leaverton made to his operation, while not listed in the best management practices above, is using multiple applications and placement methods for nutrients throughout the season. He can feed the crops what they need and precisely when they need it.

“Now we’re placing fertilizer in-furrow, 2x2x2 and with Y-Drops to put it right where the crop needs it, which helps save on fertilizer by making each application more efficient,” Leaverton says. He also use cover crops on the majority of his acres, but sometimes sees yield drags, so it’s a practice his is still perfecting.

Consider changes while they’re voluntary

In Maryland, farmers are required to track nutrients and only allowed to apply as much as their five-year field yield history will support. This caps their yields, or, at the very least, makes increasing yields a slower process because they can’t feed the crop as many nutrients as it might need in optimal growing season conditions.

“Ever since I started farming, we’ve focused on managing nutrients,” Leaverton says. “I started on my own in ‘99 and it became regulated the year after. Despite the burden of nutrient management regulations, good things have come out of it. We wouldn’t go back to the ‘old’ way of growing crops.”

Pennsylvania’s Harbach echoes that sentiment—conservation is helping him preserve his farm for his children, the 10th generation.

It helps us better withstand big swings in weather, decreases runoff and helps the soil sequester more carbon, Harbach says. “Our goal is not only to maintain the soil but to improve it.”

With more eyes on sustainability and conservation, farmers in the Midwest should consider environmentally and pocketbook-friendly options—before it becomes regulated. Specifically, farmers in the Mississippi River Watershed, Great Lakes Watersheds and those in Iowa already have resources because those areas are priorities due to the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes hypoxia concerns. Think about implementing various conservation practices before you don’t have a choice.