Virginia proposes putting more funding behind ‘whole-farm approach’

Program allows farmers to apply for assistance for more than one pollution reduction measure

By: - May 9, 2023 12:03 am

A farm in King William County in April 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

King and Queen County farmer Robert Bland  remembers when his grandfather, who was also a farmer, told him he was “getting too dumb to farm.” 

His grandfather laughed when he said it, and Bland laughed too. “But from his point of view,” he said, “things changed so much that today he would’ve been lost compared to what he did in his day.”

Over the past few decades, farming has become increasingly complex, with more techniques and technologies producers can use and new state efforts to incentivize farmers to reduce the amount of nutrient pollution that runs off fields into waterways. Now, Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation is proposing to reallocate about $20 million within its agricultural cost-share program to its “Whole Farm Approach” in an effort to make it easier for farmers to take steps to meet state goals. The Soil and Water Conservation Board will vote on the proposal later this month.

Virginia’s agricultural cost-share program puts varying amounts of state funds toward helping farmers adopt practices that meet broader environmental goals, such as reducing water pollution by fencing cattle out of streams and installing forested buffers around waterways. Last year, the program received a record amount of funding following flush state revenues.

The whole-farm approach being piloted by Virginia allows farmers to submit one application to receive cost-share funding for numerous nutrient reduction efforts rather than applying for funding for each individual practice, a process that can be time- and energy-intensive. Whereas cost-share includes a wider range of practices, such as stream fencing and forested buffers, the whole-farm program applies to a subset of practices focused on nutrient management plans and the planting of cover crops.

James Martin, director of DCR’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation, said in an interview with the Mercury that the whole-farm approach broadens the number of farmers who could apply for assistance and receive some level of funding.

[Read more: Record funding to reduce agricultural pollution expected to aid Bay cleanup]

“Should we have a recession, an economic downturn, or what have you, moving forward, the whole-farm approach could continue,” said Martin. “It would be a way more producers, more participants are able to get funded in the program even though it may mean those that would historically have been winners may get funded at lower levels than they would have otherwise.”

Bland said the whole-farm approach has allowed him to grow cover crops and implement nutrient reduction practices across the entire acreage of his farm. Those practices have saved him money, he said, by limiting the amounts of nutrients he applies and preventing extra work to remove excess nutrients from the ground.

“I’m sold on it,” Bland said. “It’s been a very good program to help all the producers get involved in these conservation programs.”

Martha Moore, vice president of government relations with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said her organization is working on building trust with farmers to encourage their participation.

“We’re trying to get the word out to let people know that the districts have dollars,” Moore said. “We’re encouraging them to go sign up. I know a number of farmers that got frustrated because every time they went, they ran out of money or the money wasn’t available.” 

The extra $20 million Virginia’s Soil and Water Conservation Board is proposing to redirect toward the whole-farm approach would cover any cost overruns that may result from the state expanding its existing pilot from seven soil and water conservation districts to 11. 

Currently, farmers can apply for whole-farm funding in the Three Rivers, Eastern Shore, Shenandoah Valley, Tidewater, Holston River, New River and Halifax districts. The new proposal would expand the program to the Northern Neck, Peanut, Clinch Valley and Blue Ridge districts.

“Part of the reason for the huge [funding] step-up is some of the districts that are going to participate,” said Christine Watlington Jones, DCR policy and district services manager, at a recent Soil and Water Conservation Board meeting. The Northern Neck and Peanut districts, she said, are expected to have “significant” participation.

As the state expands the whole-farm effort, Kendall Tyree, executive director of the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Districts Association, said concerns remain about whether there is adequate staffing at the local soil and water districts to effectively carry out the program. 

Staff who provide technical assistance to farmers to install best management practices have to undergo a two-year certification process and often benefit from an agricultural background, Tyree said. While the association is working with DCR to provide that training, demand may be higher than what qualified staff can fill.

“I don’t see it slowing down,” she said.

While one of the drivers behind the whole-farm approach is the push to reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, the pilot isn’t just limited to the watershed, but extends into the more western parts of the state where livestock grazing is more prevalent. 

“The same nutrient pollution loading trends we see in the Chesapeake Bay exist in the Southern Rivers, it’s just the estuary they feed into are farther away,” Martin said. “Certainly Southwest [Virginia] flows into the Tennessee River, and the Mississippi and down into the Gulf of Mexico.”

While Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist Matt Kowalski said his organization, a leading player in Bay cleanup efforts, supports the expansion of the whole-farm approach, he cautioned that policymakers shouldn’t shift focus from other, longer-lasting practices like stream fencing and buffers.

The whole-farm approach “are necessary practices. It’s a great program to recruit farmers to make use of these [practices] if they’re not already using them,” Kowalski said. But fences and buffers, he continued, “go on the ground and continue to work.”


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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.