RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Improved farming practices within the Chesapeake Bay watershed already are making a positive difference for the battered bay, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is committed to helping farmers do their share to help restore the estuary, the department's No. 2 official said Friday.

Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the department wants to remove the uncertainty that some in the agriculture community have about the massive bay restoration, which is being directed by the Environmental Protection Agency after decades of ineffective efforts by the states within the 64,000-square-mile watershed.

Merrigan steered clear of a legal challenge of the plan by a national farm lobby and other agricultural interests, and instead focused on USDA efforts to provide funding, technical assistance, and guidance to growers, poultry producers and ranchers.

"There are skeptics out there, but there are actually people on the ground who are saying, yes, this can work," Merrigan said in an interview with The Associated Press.

She pointed to estimates released by the department earlier this year that 88 percent of the cropland within the watershed is using some form of reduced tillage. The EPA's so-called pollution diet for the bay calls for steep reductions in sediment that flows into the bay with other pollutants, fouling its waters.

"That's a remarkable result," Merrigan said, "and evidence of a strong conservation ethic of farmers in this region. We were really surprised that it was this high, which means that some of our messaging is getting out there."

Merrigan said the department is mindful of the challenges facing farmers and is promoting "the concept of certainty."

That means providing them with clear guidelines on voluntary conservation practices to reduce levels of sediment and nutrients, and funding and technical advice to achieve those anti-pollution goals.

"The USDA is really working to help farmers and ranchers meet that diet and to have their investments in conservation recognized," Merrigan said. "We know scientifically that these conservation practices work."

Farm runoff, air pollution and the impact of 17 million people within the bay's watershed have left it an environmental mess. The bay's once-abundant oyster population has been virtually wiped out, portions of the bay contain vast dead zones devoid of life and its blue crab population is just beginning to rebound after years of decline.

The EPA, with the backing of President Barack Obama, has developed pollution limits for the states and the District of Columbia to implement. The states include Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York.

The plan, however, has faced fierce opposition from industry groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, fertilizer producers and homebuilders. The basis of the Farm Bureau suit is that the EPA has gone too far, enacting regulatory controls intended for the states under the Clean Water Act.

Don R. Parrish, a spokesman for Farm Bureau, credited the USDA for providing resources to farmers but said those efforts ultimately will fall short of EPA goals.

"Even if you do everything that the USDA has in its toolbox, they're only going to get you halfway to what the EPA wants," Parrish said. By EPA's own estimates, he said, the restoration plan will mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland.

Environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, are seeking a say in the legal actions to defend the EPA.

The Chesapeake Bay Program's executive council is scheduled to meet Monday in Richmond, bringing together governors from the watershed states and a long list of government officials, including EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and Merrigan.

"One of the reasons I want to be at the meeting is so that the interests of farmers and ranchers are being heard," Merrigan said.

The bay's restoration is one of the biggest water pollution control projects in the nation's history. The cost is estimated at tens of billions of dollars through the life of the program in 2025.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.