Time seems to slow down in the Shenandoah Valley, where the pastoral act of raising livestock for a living appears as unchanged by the years as the emerald-green hills on either side of Interstate 81. But almost a decade has passed since Virginia first set a goal to have farmers build fences along nearly every Chesapeake Bay-bound stream that livestock could otherwise access in the state.
As much as animals like to wade in and drink from the streams that cut across countless pastures here, their hooves and feces wreak havoc on local and regional water quality. For two decades, federal and state governments have provided varying levels of funding to reimburse farmers who install fences and alternative watering sources.
Such practices are among the most cost-effective ways for Chesapeake Bay states to reduce pollution heading into local streams and, eventually, the Bay. But cost and cultural preference are still formidable obstacles. A report released by the Environmental Integrity Project in April found that in the state’s two largest farming counties, both of which are in the Shenandoah Valley, just 20% of farms had fenced their animals away from streams as of 2017.
The results suggest the state is far away from its goal, which “seeks the exclusion of livestock from all perennial streams in the Bay watershed.” Its new Bay cleanup plan, released as a draft in April, seeks to dramatically ramp up support for initiatives aimed at getting livestock out of streams across the state.
The EIP report, though, is critical of those efforts because they fall short of making fencing the required method of exclusion. While the plan calls for a dramatic increase in fencing, it also includes a broader suite of actions such as providing “off stream watering” to cows, which gives the animals an alternative water source but does not guarantee they will stay out of streams.
EIP spokesman Tom Pelton faulted the plan for being vague, saying the state should stick to stream fencing rather than allow other measures to be considered similarly effective.
The plan also calls for legislation to require the exclusion of livestock from streams and provide a date by which farms must provide exclusion measures. Pelton raised concerns that the plan itself did not clearly require fencing nor establish a compliance date.
“We’re saying Virginia should require fencing. If that is politically implausible, we say ‘why not create a system of tax incentives for farms that are fencing?’ ” said Pelton, who also thinks Virginia should continue to share farmers’ costs as much as possible. “Virginia should say, ‘We’re going to pay for this, but you’ve gotta do it.’ ”
But fencing streams has long been controversial for some farmers because it not only denies cattle easy access to water, but also requires long-term maintenance. Maryland requires farmers to exclude cattle from streams in the state, though — in lieu of a strict fencing requirement — the measure also gives landowners wiggle room to install alternative watering troughs and vegetated buffers to discourage livestock from wading.
Russ Baxter, deputy director at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, said each new draft of the state’s cleanup plan is informed by the latest available data. Given the magnitude of stream mileage in the state, he said it was not practical to hold Virginia to the goal established years ago that focused solely on the amount of fencing.
“What I would say is that we are absolutely committed to excluding livestock from streams — and have spent millions of dollars to do that,” he said. “Our desire is to exclude animals from all perennial streams. The question is: How do you get that done? What will that cost, and what is the ability of farmers to do that?”
The amount of money farmers can receive from state or federal coffers for stream fencing and the practices that go with it — such as alternative watering troughs and forested streamside buffers — has varied from year to year. When the state told farmers that they could receive up to 100% reimbursement for the cost of stream exclusions if they signed up by mid-2015, officials found themselves with a backlog of hundreds of interested landowners. They’ve been chipping away at that list ever since, as staff and funding becomes available.
Virginia legislators approved a budget this year that allocates nearly $90 million over the next two fiscal years toward agricultural cost-share programs, an amount one advocate deemed an “unprecedented level of investment.”
In the Shenandoah
There is no better place in Virginia to see how such programs play out on the ground, where obstacles persist even when funding is available, than in the Shenandoah Valley. Cattle outnumber people in Rockingham and Augusta counties, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture released last month, making the region a focal point of state efforts.
Arlene and Glenn Reid learned about the urgency of keeping cows out of the creeks running through their 40 acres of pasture at a meeting about their local Linville Creek. The tributary to the Shenandoah River is impaired by high concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria, and a 2017 plan for improving its water quality found that only a small fraction of the creek had been fenced off from the cattle that dot the surrounding hills.
“We said, ‘We can do our little part here,’ ” Glenn Reid said from his front porch in Broadway, VA, from which he can see almost the entire farm on the cascading hill below.
After that creek meeting, the couple invited staff from the Harrisonburg office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to visit and write up a management plan. The plan incorporated several practices to improve water quality — stream fencing, cross-farm fencing to create more paddocks, alternative water troughs and water crossings, to name a few — while making their farm more productive. They made the changes over a few months in 2017.
“For years, it was one big pasture and the cows would roam around wherever they wanted. It worked, but it wasn’t as productive as we wanted it to be,” Glenn Reid said.
Now, the Reids, who are in their early 60s with four children in college, can manage the cattle more easily on their own alongside a bustling greenhouse-based business.
“Before, trying to round up three or four cows was a job,” said Arlene Reid. But, with the rotational grazing methods that came with the plan, systematically moving cows through the paddocks to promote better forage, “these cows can’t wait for me to open the gate so they can get to the new pasture.”
Still, the Reids understand why their neighbors aren’t all eager to install fencing and the other practices that often accompany it.
While various programs have reimbursed the couple for most of their costs, the upfront price was about $35,000. Finding local contractors to drive in fence posts or bury pipes for watering troughs was easier said than done, with many booked up with projects for months into the future.
Many in the Reids’ community are Mennonite farmers who have reservations about receiving government funding. Other experts estimate that as much as half of the pastures in parts of the Shenandoah are rented by the farmers who maintain cattle on them.
“Without a long-term lease, a farmer is going to be reluctant to spend thousands on a long-term stream exclusion project,” said Matt Kowalski, a watershed restoration scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who works in the Shenandoah Valley.
The alphabet soup of programs that can help defray costs can be overwhelming for farmers, but the Reids said the local NRCS office helped walk them through the process. Bobby Whitescarver, a livestock farmer and champion for stream exclusion in Augusta County, said many of those programs are being tweaked, albeit slowly, to respond to what landowners need on the ground.
Certain types of fencing that qualify for state funds, for example, might not stand up to frequent flooding near the mainstem of the Shenandoah River, and a farmer who relied on state funding might not have help to rebuild it. The state’s draft cleanup plan calls for more flexibility in grant programs, which might make them more appealing and adaptive to certain farms. Some private granters are stepping into the gap for farmers who have exceeded their contract periods and want to continue maintaining fences.
Buff Showalter, a livestock farmer in Rockingham County who fenced off his streams years ago, said he feels that the low-hanging fruit — farms whose owners or landscape make them relatively easy places to fence livestock away from streams — has already been picked. At his farm, the main waterways are located near the back, where thick riparian buffers protect them.
“Some farms are more expensive and complicated to fence out, especially if people are philosophically opposed to the idea,” he said, a nod to farmers who are skittish about government programs or who simply prefer the traditional look of a stream unencumbered by trees and fences.
The EIP report suggests a few ways to overcome these obstacles, though some of them skew toward using laws to require fencing rather than sticking with the state’s incentive-based approach. If legislators can’t compel farmers to install livestock fencing, the report says, the state should consider adding tax-based incentives that would reward farmers who help improve water quality while reducing tax breaks for those who don’t.
Pelton said part of what drove the EIP report is that Virginia seemed unable to definitively track progress toward the stream-fencing goals officials had set earlier. Baxter and others at the DCR said they knew how many miles of stream fencing the state had helped to fund, but that those estimates did not include fencing installed by farmers without government funding.
To arrive at a more holistic number, the EIP combed through 2017 Google Earth images of farms in Augusta County, which were taken between January and October of that year, looking for evidence of pastures with fenced-off streams. Pelton said a team of analysts spent several months last year poring over the images, comparing them with county tax maps to determine farm boundaries.
“When a farm doesn’t have a fence, you can easily see the brown, muddy banks and the areas where the cow goes right into the river,” he said, noting aerial images included in the report as examples.
The report also synthesized similar data from a survey the Shenandoah Riverkeeper conducted in 2016 of farms in Rockingham County that concluded that just 20 percent of farms with livestock in that county fence them away from waterways.
Evaluating farm practices from aerial images has its shortcomings, which the report acknowledged. EIP analysts used “common sense” definitions of streams and farms that in some cases do not match the definitions the state uses to measure progress, so the data is difficult to compare. Also, tallying the number of farms with fences is not directly comparable to the number of linear feet of streams with fences because one large farm could contain several miles of streams while another has very few, for example.
But several sources said they would agree, based on what they see in these counties, with an estimate that 20–30% of farms have fenced livestock from streams so far.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I think it’s pretty truthful,” Whitescarver said. But, he added, “Twenty years ago, nobody was thinking about fencing cattle out of the streams. You could flip the coin and say, ‘Wow. Starting from zero, we’re doing pretty good.’ ”