Bay Journal

Virginia rolls out new agricultural program to improve water quality on farms

McAuliffe launches program to improve farmer’s – and state’s – economic bottom line

  • By Leslie Middleton on August 26, 2014
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe launches Resource Management plan program at Cave View Farm, Weyers Cave, VA (Photo/Leslie Middleton) VA Sec. of Agriculture, Todd Haymore, looks on while Governor Terry McAuliffe talks with Gerald Garber, Cave View Farm, about dairy operations. (Photo/Leslie Middleton) Senator Emmett Hanger trades friendly barbs with Governor McAuliffe about politics in Richmond during his introductory remarks at Cave View Farm. (Photo/Leslie Middleton) Cave View Farm, Weyers Cave, VA, has multiple best management practices, including livestock exclusion from streams (and wetlands) and livestock crossings, shown here. (Photo/Leslie Middleton)

Virginia Governor McAuliffe, joined by key cabinet members, state legislators, and agricultural and environmental representatives August 25 at a dairy farm in Weyers Cave to launch a new program aimed at reducing pollution from agricultural while providing agricultural producers in the program nine years of “safe harbor” from having to meet future state water quality regulations. . 

Referring to his administrations slogan, “Growing a new Virginia economy,” McAuliffe said that both agriculture and tourism, the top two economic drivers in the commonwealth, would benefit from the new program.

Farmers participating in the voluntary program must have a state-approved plan that describes a suite of agricultural best management practices (BMPs) that they will implemented and maintain that will improve water quality. McAuliffe said, “It is the farmer who selects the best mix of practices to meet the necessary standards.”

With Cave View Farm’s towering feed silos as backdrop, Gerald Garber, one of the co-owners of the 500-head dairy farm said that the resource management plan (RMPs) program is the next step for the agricultural sector to contribute to cleaner waterways in Virginia. Garber’s farm is the second of six “early adopters” of the program, which the state hopes to have fully up and running by the end of 2014.

McAuliffe said that Virginia’s largest industry is agriculture, with over 46,000 farms generating $55 billion dollars towards Virginia’s economy. As news of declining state revenues has lawmakers in Richmond nervous about the upcoming budget cycle, McAuliffe said, “Agriculture obviously plays a huge role in creating opportunity, growing jobs, and diversifying the economy.”

But, said McAuliffe, this “common sense program” will also help the participating farmer’s bottom line. McAuliffe spoke about sustaining family farms, encouraging younger generations to go into farming, and the importance of exporting Virginia agricultural products.

The program came out of 2011 legislation designed to provide ways for the agricultural sector to contribute to Chesapeake Bay tributary and statewide water quality goals. The implementation details have been worked out over the last three years. (See http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/laws_and_regulations/lr7.shtml.)

Delegate Ed Scott (R-30), one of the sponsors of the 2011 legislation that created the program said, “We’re seeing something today that’s been debated in the halls of Richmond actually out on a farm in Virginia, and that make this a very special day.”

Though the mood amongst participants was celebratory – speakers took turns slinging jokes across the partisan divide about the manure underfoot in Garber’s horse field where the event took place -- the budgetary impacts were not far from anyone’s mind.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation will need funding to administer the program and to pay for additional technical assistance provided by soil and water conservation districts. Many of the management practices that farmers will commit to under the resource management plans are eligible for state and federal cost-share funding, but those dollars are not guaranteed.

One BMP that participating farmers will be required to implement is livestock exclusion from streams with a 35-foot buffer, a practice which is now eligible for 100% cost-share in Virginia.

McAuliffe said that livestock exclusion is a “poster child for a win-win solution for agriculture and the environment,” and encouraged farmers to take this step, “even if you cannot fully implement an RMP right now.” RMP is the acronym for Resource Managemen Plan, the program's name.

However, funding in 2014 for stream exclusion has been depleted, and policy managers and legislators are struggling to identify a reliable, ongoing source of revenue to help farmers implement this practice.  [See Bay Journal: Successful signups for stream fencing leave Virginia looking for funds.]

Russ Baxter, Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources for the Chesapeake Bay, said that not all farmers want the obligations that come with being in a government cost-share programs, but they do want “certainty” that that new regulations will not force them to undertake more practices. 

“That’s OK,” said Baxter, “because you don’t have to take cost share money just to be in the resource management plan program, you just have to implement the practices to meet the standards.”

The resource management plans will also provide new data to policy and lawmakers. “We want to make sure every practice is accounted for,” said Baxter, noting that Virginia’s commitments to reducing nutrients and sediment under the Chesapeake Bay Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL), or cleanup plan, must be documented. Virginia farmers have long been dissatisfied that many of the water quality protection practices voluntarily undertaken have gone “uncounted.”

Scott Ambler, program manager for DCR who is developing the administrative processes of the new program, said that, based on what he’s seen on farms, there’s a good chance that the whole agricultural sector will be seen in a new light once the “voluntary” practices are accounted for.

In spite of uncertainty about meeting the program’s fiscal needs, Katie Frasier, president of Virginia Agribusiness Council, said that the program would help everyone better predict what the needs really are for cost-share and other funding. “If you have a long term plan, you’re going to implement it in steps,” she said, but the plan will show which steps, and when, during the 9-year commitment cycle – and help the state better predict resources needed to support the farmers and the program.

The program details are a result of intense negotiations between environmental groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and agricultural industry representatives  – and not all farmers present at the event wholly endorsed the program.

One farmer from the piedmont region of Virginia said that if he were to put in 35-foot stream buffers on his farm fields, he wouldn’t have any room to run his cattle, given the topography and land cover of his fields.  But, he said, the program could help keep EPA “off our backs” for a while.  EPA, in conjunction with the six Chesapeake Bay states and the District of Columbia, has developed the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, which defines nutrient and sediment reductions required by each sector (agriculture, urban stormwater, wastewater).

McAuliffe pledged financial support, saying, “this isn’t just a roll-out of some new program ... We are dedicated to this, this is a high priority of this administration.”

Senator Emmett Hanger (R-24), co-sponsor of the 2011 legislation agreed. “This is a significant part of our watershed implementation plan, and we’re going to have to deliver the funds.” Virginia’s financial picture will be better in December, said Hanger. “I think it’s going to have to be a priority, but it’s going to be tough," he said.

For more information about the new Resource Management Plan program, see:
http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/soil_and_water/rmp.shtml

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About Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Read more articles by Leslie Middleton

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