Specific objectives of this study are to:
1. Develop a strategic plan for planting perennials in riparian buffers on economically marginal cropland for three Pennsylvania farms.
2. Determine the water quality benefits of converting conventional annual cropland to multifunctional buffers on economically marginal land.
3. Evaluate the economic benefit of planting multifunctional buffers.
4. Understand whether and how perennials can be used to improve agricultural sustainability through multifunctionality and commodity diversity.
The Chesapeake Bay aims to plant 900 miles of buffers annually but Bay states like Pennsylvania have consistently missed this goal. The purpose of this project is to accelerate riparian buffer plantings in the Chesapeake Bay watershed by demonstrating, documenting and disseminating agricultural practices that achieve environmental goals in synergy with farm profitability. The novel but practical approach we will pilot is to finance perennial buffers primarily through the sale of biomass crops, with minimal government subsidies.
We’ve established two demonstration field sites and outfitted one with water quality monitoring infrastructure. The sites will serve as research sites for documenting water quality impacts of perennial grasses and as sites for engaging farmers.
Planting perennial grasses in multifunctional buffers established on economically marginal cropland may be the
best option for improving water quality along with farm profitability. These areas often occur in or near riparian
zones and represent nutrient hotspots that are disproportionately responsible for water quality degradation.
Perennial grasses in these zones may be profitable at the current market price of $160/ton (BEG, 2018) and a
conservative 4 tons/acre; that equates to $60 million in potential revenue. They may be able to help farmers re-imagine riparian buffers as opportunities rather than a practice that takes valuable land out of production.
Two 1-acre demonstration sites have been established on two farms in Central Pennsylvania. These sites are planted with 4 treatments, a control (business-as-usual corn), switchgrass mix with three cultivars, a strong biomass production perennial grass mix, and a strong pollinator grass mix. One demonstration site is equipped with tipping buckets and lysimeters to measure surface flow and collect surface and subsurface water samples. Starting in January 2019, samples will be collected and analyzed for nitrate-nitrogen, total and orthophosphate, and sediment load reductions across the plots.
A workshop was held with the Chesapeake Bay Program Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee November 14-15, 2018 to discuss perennial grasses and understand how they might help accelerate riparian buffers plantings in the Bay. The workshop included ~50 participants including farmers and stakeholders from academia, industry, and government. A webinar was held before the workshop to share stakeholder (including farmers) experiences regarding perennial grasses and buffers.