Augusta farmers want to implement conservation practices

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

By Bradley Dunsmore

As the second largest agricultural county in Virginia, our farmers’ livelihoods are dependent on the land. They want to do everything in their power to implement conservation practices that protect their land and the Chesapeake Bay.

For years, our farmers have voluntarily installed conservation practices that are making a difference in meeting the state’s water quality goals. In a Feb. 11 guest column, “Support excluding cattle from streams,” the author said he supported SB 704 and HB 1422. Both bills in their original forms would have mandated stream exclusion fencing and nutrient management plans for livestock farmers with 20 or more cows by 2026.

After listening to dozens of farmers at Senate and House agriculture committee hearings on Feb. 4 and 5, legislators agreed that it didn’t make sense to implement regulatory backstops when progress was being made with voluntary conservation practices. The Senate Agriculture and Conservation and Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved a substitute version introduced by Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., which removed those mandates. Del. Kenneth R. Plum offered Hanger’s substitute bill as replacement for his HB 1411, and the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee voted 19-1 to approve that version.

The amended bill would establish it as policy of the commonwealth that Virginia will meet the nutrient reduction goals and create a stakeholder advisory group. The group will work collaboratively to determine the best methods of voluntarily achieving water quality goals and set reasonable expectations for meeting them. Farmers are not refusing to implement conservation practices because they “fear government intrusion” or “don’t want change.”

Farmers want to be good stewards.

In 2015, Virginia farmers were offered an extra incentive for fencing cattle out of streams. Through that program, farmers fenced almost 2,000 stream miles and kept more than 100,000 cows out of waterways.

In March 2019, the Chesapeake Bay Program announced that water quality in the bay met its highest level since monitoring began in 1985. That means our farmers’ voluntary efforts are working.

But fencing livestock out of a waterway — and installing an alternate watering system — can cost $20,000 to $300,000, and not every farmer has the resources to do that.

I’ve spent more than $30,000 to install streamside fencing and alternative watering systems for my cattle. I had to pay the entire amount before a portion was reimbursed by the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Not all farmers are in a position to do that.

Some people believe that taxpayers help pay for conservation practices, but if the governor doesn’t include funding in the state budget, no one pays for them.

The governor’s current proposed budget only includes half of the total funding needed for farm conservation cost-share funds in fiscal 2021 and 2022. And it lacks adequate funding for soil and water conservation districts to hire appropriate technical staff to help our farmers.

We want to fence our cattle out of streams, and we want to implement nutrient management plans. However, we can’t do it alone.  Cost-share funding and technical assistance can help buoy farmers so they are not drowning in regulations.

Bradley Dunsmore is a cattle farmer in Augusta County and president of the Augusta County Farm Bureau.