This column written by VFBF President Wayne Pryor ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Friday, Feb. 7.
For years, Virginia’s farmers, conservation groups, and soil and water conservation districts have worked diligently to address legitimate barriers to farmers being able to adopt on-farm conservation practices. Those include stream exclusion fencing and nutrient management plans.
And because good stewardship is part of good citizenship, farmers have made great strides in voluntarily introducing those practices and others.
Barriers to the practices have included a lack of adequate cost-share funding in recent years; a lack of funding for soil and water conservation districts to provide adequate technical assistance; and a lack of flexibility to address legitimate site-specific issues that farmers encounter.
Farmers went to the General Assembly over the past two weeks to voice concerns about Senate Bill 704 and House Bill 1422, now before state legislators. As introduced, both bills would have mandated specific conservation practices by 2026. We found lawmakers willing to listen to our concerns, and we are appreciative.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta; Dels. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax; David Bulova, D-Fairfax; and Robert Bloxom, R-Accomack; and legislative members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, as well as Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, worked to really understand the challenges farmers face in navigating the system to get assistance. Plum and Mason’s bills now provide a roadmap to figure out solutions. This is a heartening recognition that a partnership and teamwork will yield more results for improving water quality than a heavy-handed regulatory mandate.
The commonwealth offered farmers an enhanced incentive for stream exclusion in 2015. Farmers rose to the occasion and fenced more than 1,858 stream miles, redirecting approximately 119,000 animals.
Fencing livestock out of a waterway — and installing an alternate watering system — can cost $20,000 to $300,000. Not every farmer has the resources to get this done on his or her own. With the 2015 incentive program, it took five years for the commonwealth to reimburse all the farmers who participated.
We have worked to develop solutions such as a low-interest loan program to help get the work started. Something not everyone realizes is that cost-share program participants must expend dollars and install fencing before being reimbursed. The loan program helps to bridge that gap.
In the first four months of the loan program, it was maxed out at $11.8 million, and the cap had to be increased to respond to farmers who want to implement structural conservation practices but can’t pay up front and wait for reimbursement.
There’s no disputing that, given a tool to address a challenge, Virginia’s farmers will respond by using that tool.
In fiscal 2019, the state agricultural conservation cost-share program helped farmers to keep 10,162,924.94 pounds per year of nitrogen, 3,625,401.82 pounds per year of phosphorus and 784,438.51 pounds per year of sediment from reaching the Chesapeake Bay. They made that progress by using available resources.
Unfortunately, that kind of assistance is not available at a level that will help farmers fully achieve established water quality goals for the bay watershed. Gov. Ralph Northam’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.
So now farmers will refocus their attention to the budget writers in the General Assembly, and keep making the case that we need an additional $46 million for fiscal 2021 and $55 million for fiscal 2022 to make sure producers receive the help they need.
Farmers are committed to renewed water quality in the bay, and to clean water in our communities. We’re striving to meet water quality goals while keeping our businesses afloat. A helping hand would be more useful than a broadly cast mandate that could drag us under.