Are stream fencing bills ‘major step’ or jettisoned partnership?

Cows crossing a stream on a farm. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

By Wayne F. Pryor

The Jan. 29 commentary “Setting a deadline for farm conservation practices would be a major step for Virginia water quality” might describe a bold stride. But for Virginia’s farmers it feels like a betrayal of trust.

For years, farmers, conservation groups and soil and water conservation districts have worked diligently to address legitimate barriers to farmers’ being able to adopt practices like stream exclusion fencing and nutrient management plans. Those barriers include a lack of adequate cost-share funding year after year, and a lack of funding for soil and water conservation districts to provide adequate technical assistance.

None of those concerns are addressed in SB 704 and HB 1422, which would mandate specific practices by 2026.

Rather than being “exactly what is needed” to meet Virginia’s water quality goals for the Chesapeake Bay, these bills read like heavy-handed attempts to cut the amount of cost-share funding the commonwealth is committed to providing. If setting the deadline were “simply what needs to be done,” there would be more effort on the state’s part to ensure farmers’ successful participation.

Why spend time and resources to find solutions, only to enact a law that implies the state doesn’t believe farmers can get the job done voluntarily?

The subtext of these bills appears to be “We don’t trust you, and we don’t want to commit to actually providing you with necessary resources.” This indicates to farmers that the ongoing discussion about creating a system to reduce nutrients in the bay will be sidetracked by developing regulations and permits with uncertain parameters in the bills.

While the benefits of practices like stream exclusion fencing and nutrient management plans are crystal clear, the potential effects of SB 704 and HB 1422 are a little murky. They would require farmers to make significant financial commitments, under compliance rules that are not well-defined and could change at any time before the 2026 deadline. That includes important details like the definition of a perennial stream.

Additionally, the bills would require the Department of Environmental Quality to develop regulations for stream exclusion, and it’s unclear how those will correspond with the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s existing agricultural best management practices cost-share program. Many farmers rely on the cost-share program to help them continue to be good stewards of their land.

Most importantly, the bills do not include language to indicate the commonwealth has an obligation to fund mandated nutrient management plans. Neither do they guarantee full funding for farmers to enact mandatory stream exclusion fencing. They may include a full-funding provision for “hardship” cases, but the criteria for eligibility is unclear.

It’s worth noting that the governor’s proposed budget includes only half the total funding needed for farm conservation cost-shares in fiscal 2021 and 2022. The budget also lacks adequate funding for soil and water conservation districts to hire appropriate technical staff.

This tells us the state’s overall mission was not to do what is needed to help farmers reach water quality goals, but to slap them with total regulatory control.

When cost-share funding has been available, Virginia’s farmers have stepped up to voluntarily implement conservation practices. Rather than supporting their efforts, these bills divert resources to create additional bureaucracies at the state level. They also ignore completely the fact that many farmers are struggling to keep their businesses viable in depressed and dwindling markets that have resulted from trade tariffs and rising input costs.

Virginia farmers are committed to the path toward renewed water quality in the bay, because good stewardship is part of good citizenship. But, given the economic conditions in which we are currently working, these bills would throw us in the deep end without tools to stay afloat.

Wayne F. Pryor, a Goochland County hay and grain producer, is president of Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, a non-governmental, nonpartisan, voluntary organization committed to supporting Virginia’s agriculture industry.