Look to the Delaware for ways small farms can be a part of the climate change solution


Look to the Delaware for ways small farms can be a part of the climate change solution

As long-time environmental funders focused on clean water in the Delaware River watershed, we are optimistic about the many areas of shared interest between the Foundation’s philanthropic investments and the Biden Administration’s goals related to the environment. Last week, my colleague Nathan Boon wrote about our region’s networks and workforce programs in relation to President Biden’s call for a Civilian Climate Corps. This post focuses on opportunities around regenerative agriculture.


President Biden’s team has recognized the important role of agriculture in addressing climate change and maintaining a healthy environment. Conservation and regenerative farming practices have demonstrated benefits for soil health, climate, and water quality. The Administration also recognizes that new climate-smart agriculture policy must work for small family farms, not just for larger operations that have historically benefitted more from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs. The Delaware River watershed can serve as an excellent testbed for the Administration to understand whether a new policy will work for small farms, which are crucial to meeting our nationwide climate goals.

The 14,000 farms in this watershed average a little over 100 acres each—much smaller than the national average. As the Administration develops new climate-smart agriculture policy, it should design policy that works for farms here because if it works for farms in the Delaware, it will likely work for other small farms across the country and meet the Administration’s priority of small family farmers being part of the climate change solution.

Despite the large number of farms here, this watershed is usually known more for its cities than for its farms. Wilmington, Trenton, Philadelphia, and Allentown are just a few of the many historic cities and towns lining the Delaware River and its tributaries including the Lehigh and Schuylkill Rivers. The watershed is often also known for its great wild places—the Catskills and the Pocono Mountains, millions of forested acres housing world-renowned trout streams, and some of the most visited parks in the nation like the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. But in addition to its cities and forests, agriculture is one of the largest land uses here, covering about a quarter of the watershed.

The region is home to some great agricultural heritage, too. The Rodale Institute and the legacy of J.I. Rodale, who the USDA credits as the father of modern organic farming, are surely part of why Pennsylvania farms rank second in the nation for organic sales. The Stroud Water Research Center conducted seminal research on forested stream buffers that informed the creation of some of the USDA’s largest conservation programs.  

Many more farms here could transition to organic and regenerative farming practices if the right policies and financing mechanisms would support it. But in order to work here, the Administration’s policies need to be adaptable to benefit farms of all sizes. The Administration should look to the Delaware River basin for successful program models and build upon them with federal support.

For example, the WPF-funded Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI) is an established regional conservation partnership that supports the coordinated efforts of many organizations doing on-the-ground conservation. Partners including the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, New Jersey Audubon Society, North Jersey Resource Conservation & Development, the Brandywine Conservancy, and Berks Nature work with hundreds of farmers to strategically channel public and private funding to projects with the greatest potential benefits, often finding creative ways to make federal funding programs work for small farms. Their work is concentrated in a few priority sub-watersheds and could be scaled up with additional federal investment.

The Delaware River watershed is ready to participate in bold climate-smart agriculture programs at a significant scale. With 14,000 farms, strong farmer support networks like Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, innovative farm advisory firms, and the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, all the elements are here to help the Administration put its ideas to work on small farms. If new federal agriculture programs can work here, then they will succeed in helping small family farms play an important role in moving the needle on climate change.


Each week, my colleagues will share different perspectives on areas of overlapping interest between our Watershed Protection funding and the Administration. Stay tuned for more in this series.

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