Cattle in Highland County. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)
On Holt Farm, the grass may literally be greener on the other side of the fence.
Woody Ward wasn’t expecting that. The farmer, who raises roughly 80 head of cattle as well as hay on his Albemarle County property, initially thought putting up fences around the three creeks that cut through his pastures would just control erosion and keep his herd healthier.
But as time passed and Ward began planting trees as buffers along the creek banks, he noticed that the new grass springing up beyond the fences was unusually lush — and it was beginning to creep inside his pastures to where his cattle browsed.
“It’s almost like I have this stock of grass that I’m not going to touch that will grow up and go to seed,” he said. Other benefits have emerged too: the streamside fencing laid the foundation for Ward to begin rotational grazing, which he said has improved the quality of his pasturage. Water quality in his creeks has improved dramatically; recently, he’s even seen four-inch-long freshwater clams. And the herd has faced fewer threats from bacteria-laden creek waters or falls on slippery slopes.
For Virginia environmental officials, though, the greatest beneficiary of Holt Farm’s fences isn’t Ward. It’s the Chesapeake Bay.
As the bay region draws closer to the federal 2025 deadline for cleaning up the nation’s largest estuary, agriculture is increasingly in the spotlight.
In Virginia, “far and away the largest portion of the remaining reductions are anticipated to be gained from the agricultural sector,” said James Davis-Martin, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Chesapeake Bay coordinator.
But with thousands of farms across the commonwealth, from the flat, sweeping row-crop operations of the Tidewater to the hilly, cattle-heavy enterprises of the Shenandoah region, the challenge is a daunting one. And while the General Assembly has in recent years devoted record levels of funding to programs that help farmers pay for the costs of agricultural practices that reduce polluted runoff from farms, doubts remain about whether Virginia will meet its 2025 agricultural targets at its current pace.
“What we’ve done up to this point will not get us to the finish line,” said Davis-Martin. “We need to redouble our efforts, no doubt.”
Thousands of farms, dozens of strategies
Since the 1980s, bay states have been working to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
By that time, the estuary had become overwhelmingly polluted by sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus, causing large-scale die-offs of aquatic plants and the fish and shellfish that depended on them. “The Bay has suffered serious declines in quality and productivity,” a 1987 cleanup agreement between Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C. and the federal government concluded.
Numerous commitments over the years to stem the flow of pollution within the bay’s 64,000 square mile watershed had only variable success, however.
Then in 2010 came the Total Maximum Daily Load, an EPA-imposed “pollution diet” for the bay that required each of the six bay states and Washington, D.C. to craft detailed, three-phase cleanup plans. The end target of these efforts was 2025.
Officials quickly realized there was no single source of the pollution problem. Wastewater treatment plants were a big contributor, but septic systems and stormwater runoff from suburban and urban areas were too.
So was agriculture. During rainstorms, nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers and soil ran off fields in large quantities and were deposited into creeks and rivers that eventually emptied into the bay. Cattle and other grazing animals caused soil erosion; left to meander into creeks, their droppings significantly harmed water quality.
“You realize how much bacteria one cow dropping can do — an amazing amount of damage down the stream,” said Ward. “Some of these guys have 30, 40, 50 cattle up against and hanging all day in the creek.”
Virginia policymakers as well as the agricultural and environmental communities came up with a range of solutions to try to stem the tide. Streamside fencing was one. Forested buffers, which have proven one of the most effective strategies for capturing and filtering nutrients before they reach waterways, and nutrient management plans were others.
But while agricultural pollution reductions have been a part of every state cleanup plan, officials and environmentalists have long acknowledged the unusual difficulty of the task.
“Controlling pollution through agricultural practices is a less precise work than is controlling them from a wastewater plant,” said Peggy Sanner, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The cost-share roller coaster
Chief among the hurdles Virginia faces in reducing agricultural pollution in the last four-year stretch of the cleanup is money.
While some strategies the state encourages farmers to adopt like nutrient management plans and the planting of cover crops to reduce erosion can easily be justified for the financial and soil benefits they yield, others are a harder sell. Fencing to keep animals out of streams is pricey and requires farmers to install another water source. Even if trees are supplied for free by organizations like the James River Association, forested buffers take land out of production.
“Those are the ones that we’re having to try to find ways to sweeten the pot,” said Davis-Martin.
Federal cost-share funding through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is one way to make the strategies more attractive, but many farmers describe its requirements as cumbersome, preferring instead the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share Program, which they say is more flexible.
In the state program, “you had guidelines of what you needed to do, but you weren’t told exactly you had to do this,” said Tony Pullaro, farm manager at Edgemont Farm, a historic property designed by Thomas Jefferson in Albemarle. “They worked with you, not against you.”
For many farmers, then, how much funding is available through the state’s agricultural cost-share program is the deciding factor in whether they adopt pollution-reduction strategies.
“By and large, producers have responded to achieving the conservation goals when there’s funding available,” said Kyle Shreve, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council. “I think the thing that gives producers pause is asking them to go it alone, because you fundamentally are asking them to change their business practices.”
Funding levels for Virginia’s cost-share program have been erratic, however, as has funding for technical assistance through the state’s soil and water conservation districts. Appropriations over the past decade have dipped as low as $9.1 million for fiscal year 2014.
That’s hampered adoption of pollution reduction strategies.
“Producers respond when cost-share is available and they know it’s going to be there,” said Shreve. “We’ve had big years in the past, but when it’s not sustained … it’s very difficult to depend on it.”
Davis-Martin described the “roller coaster ride of cost-share funding” as “not good.”
“It makes it hard for soil and water conservation districts to keep trained staff,” he said. “It’s not conducive to building capacity over time.”
In recent years, and following a 2017 study ordered by the General Assembly, funding has increased and begun to stabilize. Cost-share and technical assistance received $83.7 million for fiscal year 2020, $56.3 million for FY2021 and $79.8 million for FY2022, according to budget data provided by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Darryl Glover, director of DCR’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation, said that if state and federal funding remains at FY2022 levels every year through 2025, that will “give the agricultural sector a solid chance to meet the pollution reduction goals.”
Others are more skeptical. Years of shortfalls in funding have never been made up, Shreve said.
“If every year you don’t hit the target set by the needs assessment, that leftover total gets rolled into the next year, so it really becomes a compounding problem,” he said. “It really does need to be a full-fledged, full-court press in order to get it done.”
Voluntary or mandatory?
Getting Virginia to its 2025 goals isn’t just a matter of dollars, say people working on the state’s agricultural cleanup. It will also require continued buy-in from farmers.
Many of Virginia’s most heated agricultural debates in recent years have centered on a fundamental question: Should pollution reduction practices like stream fencing and nutrient management plans be voluntary, something the state incentivizes farmers to do, or should they be mandatory?
After hours of hearings in 2020, Virginia settled on the voluntary course — for now. A law that would have made both fencing and nutrient management plans mandatory was amended to allow the practices to remain a choice until 2025, when they become a requirement if reduction targets haven’t been met.
Shreve said that was the right course: “You are going to get more participation and industry buy-in by continuing to incentivize rather than the opposite, in which you are mandating things,” he said.
Not everyone agrees.
“There is a riparian right the state could enforce, and I think that’s where this needs to go,” said Ward. “Why isn’t it the law to keep your cows out of the creek?” Pullaro said he urges other farmers in Albemarle to institute the reduction practices now, “while funding is available, because one day in the future it might come out of your pocket and be mandatory.”
In the meantime, Virginia is tweaking its cost-share program to make it more appealing to farmers.
Over the past three years more than 100 changes have been made to the program “to significantly increase the available options and flexibility of many best management practices in order to encourage as many farmers and ranchers to participate … as possible,” wrote Glover in an email.
One particularly notable effort has been a “whole farm approach” pilot in the Three Rivers Soil and Water Conservation District at the western edge of the Middle Peninsula. Instead of requiring farmers to apply for reimbursement for each pollution reduction strategy they used, the pilot let them combine different practices under one cost-share application. The reduction in paperwork “has been very appealing to farmers,” said Glover, and his agency has seen “a very significant increase in the number of acres participating” in the cost-share program in the district.
Many farmers suggest the state’s preferred management practices are actually far more widespread than officially recognized. They aren’t alone: Glover said his agency “believes that certain agricultural nutrient reduction practices are underreported, especially cover crops and transport of poultry litter out of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay watershed.”
Depending on how extensive the underreporting is, it could have a big impact on the state’s pollution reduction calculations — and how close it gets to its 2025 targets.
To ferret out the problem, the Department of Conservation and Recreation teamed up this spring with groups including Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia Farm Bureau to survey farmers on their practices. Results are likely to come out this fall.
Still, the state can’t force reporting: “Farmers have certain rights to privacy, as we all do, and if they don’t want to report, that’s a position they can take,” said Sanner.
In Ward’s view, many of the challenges facing Virginia as it approaches the 2025 cleanup deadline can be met head-on by spreading the word.
“Information and getting it out to those guys, the landowners and farmers, that’s the trick,” he said. “All of us tend to stay in our shells.”
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