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Bill would help farmers improve watersheds

A proposed program designed to bring conservation-friendly financial resources to farmers across Pennsylvania could come to fruition if recently introduced legislation is enacted.

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Bradford, is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 465, which calls for the creation of an agricultural conservation assistance program. The legislation currently is in the hands of the Senate’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

At its core, the bill calls for funding and technical support to expand conservation practices on farmland to assist with cleaning up the more than 80,000 miles worth of streams across the state.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed, in particular, has been singled out as one waterway within the state that is in need of remediation. At a news conference this week announcing SB 465,

Yaw described one-third of Chesapeake Bay as “impaired” and noted it runs through about half of the state.

“The bottom line, it’s all about the water,” Yaw said of the overarching goal behind SB 465.

Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said members of the state’s agriculture community are willing to roll up their sleeves and adopt practices that are friendly to the environment.

“The health of our farms depend on clean water and fertile top soil,” said Ebert, who has a farming operation in Westmoreland County. “At my farm, we’ve been using no-till technology for over 20 years. We are using this technology to minimize soil disturbances and keep the vital top soil in place.”

The challenge for many of Pennsylvania’s farmers, Ebert said, is the cost of making upgrades to adhere to the most modern conservation practices possible.

“Our agricultural economy has been hurting for the last several years, even before COVID hit,” Ebert added, pointing to the challenge of funding big-ticket upgrades.

Yaw said the would-be program borne out of SB 465 could help farmers with some of their financial challenges by handing oversight to a state conservation commission. In turn, the resources would be funneled to county-level conservation districts, as needed.

Andrew Flinchbaugh helps run a namesake family business, Flinchbaugh’s Orchard and Farm Market in Hellam Township within York County. Flinchbaugh said he favors more local-level decision-making for solutions to conservation issues within the agriculture community.

“One size doesn’t fit all, in terms of managing water quality and soil health,” said Flinchbaugh, whose family business served as a backdrop for Yaw’s announcement of SB 465.

Yaw also emphasized his desire to bring local control into the equation as he discussed the bill.

“Local people know what the problems are,” he said of the rationale.

While recent infusions of federal dollars could be likely sources to fortify the agricultural conservation assistance program, Yaw said he is open to any and all funding streams as the committee-level exploratory process continues.

No firm date has been set for a full Senate vote on the bill, though Yaw said he is hoping it will take place soon. Based on the conversations that have taken place thus far with his elected colleagues, he said he is optimistic it will move forward.

“We have not gotten any negative feedback about the concept,” he said.

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