WEYERS CAVE — Farmers, conservationists and other stakeholders gathered this week to discuss what more can be done to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

For 2019, the Regional Agriculture Networking Forum — which alternates each year between Pennsylvania and Virginia — returned to the agriculture-heavy Shenandoah Valley, including visits to three farms in Augusta and Rockingham counties, with the final stop Wednesday afternoon at Cave View Farms outside Weyers Cave.

On Thursday, the Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Workgroup met in Harrisonburg for its quarterly face-to-face meeting to wrap up the week.  

All Cave View’s streams have been fenced off to keep the more than 500 head of dairy cows that graze on the roughly 2,000-acre farm from fouling the water, which enters the South Fork of the Shenandoah River watershed. Stream fencing is considered a best management practice for reducing the amount of polluted runoff that eventually makes its way into the Chesapeake Bay.

Gerald Garber, an Augusta County supervisor who co-owns Cave View with Keith and Paul Wilson, said even if “the bay didn’t exist, I wouldn’t want my cows in the stream” for the health of his herd.

Garber, whose farm has been recognized previously for its clean water and conservation efforts, told the more than 60 folks who made the stop there’s “no advantage to an animal standing in the mud, standing in the water.”

Stream fencing is considered a key method of reducing runoff from entering the bay’s watershed. When livestock enter streams, fecal matter from manure harms the quality of water in the rivers and tributaries that flow into the estuary.

Garber also pointed to the downspouts on the farm’s barns and outbuildings. None of the rainwater flowing through the spouts touches the ground; instead, all the water drains underground, eliminating the potential for carrying away polluted runoff.

Cost is an obvious factor in the equation for most farmers when considering adding fencing. But, Garber said, another question should be asked:

“What’s the cost of not doing that?” he said.

The networking forum, sponsored by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation with funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, brings together ag and conservation partners who work with farmers across the region on conservation practices, including Farm Bill, cost-share and grants programs. U.S. Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Conservation Service officials took part in the three-day event, which included panel discussions.

Virginia Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources Ann Jennings and Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, also attended the forum, which Headwaters LLC, a Richmond-based conservation group, helped coordinate.

Jake Reilly, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chesapeake director, was among Wednesday’s participants. Reilly said the Shenandoah Valley is really important to any effort to restore the bay.

Sound environmental practices don’t have to come at the expense of farmers’ already tight profit margins, he said.  

“We hope to hear what’s working and what’s not,” Reilly said. “Every day, producers are making improvements benefiting water quality and, most importantly, benefiting the bottom line.”

Restoring the health of the heavily polluted Chesapeake Bay has been a yearslong battle on the part of activists and governments. Those efforts in recent years have shown signs of paying off although still falling well short of the goal of a “saved” bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in its State of The Bay report for 2018 released in January, noted a slight decrease in its overall score for the bay’s health, due largely, the foundation said, to increased pollution and poor water clarity caused by last year’s record regional rainfall. 

In 2014, six Mid-Atlantic states — including Virginia — and Washington, D.C., entered into the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement to meet Environmental Protection Agency mandates aimed at cleaning up the estuary.

The agreement spells out how much nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment pollution enters the watershed from each of the six states and D.C. The compact also requires each of them to set goals for habitat restoration and conservation, while also establishing plans for how they will accomplish their mandate.

While agriculture has been the target of much of the cleanup efforts, states also have been working to address urban and suburban runoff, often through stream restoration projects and costly upgrades to wastewater and stormwater systems.

Restoring the bay has at times created a contentious relationship among farmers, activists and government officials.

This spring, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project released a study focusing on farms in Augusta and Rockingham counties, highlighting what it termed to be a failure of volunteer efforts to fence off waterways.

In April, the Charlottesville Daily Progress reported that EIP, basing its findings on data from 2016 and 2017, found that 81 percent of Augusta County farms with livestock, 680 out of 835, had not fenced off all their waterways. Rockingham was similar, where about 20 percent of farms had 100 percent stream fencing, according to the Daily Progress.

But Garber, speaking before Wednesday’s tour, pointed out that the EIP’s report can be misleading because it focused on farms that had previously fenced off their streams. Many farms, he notes, may have some or even a significant portion of their property fenced.

Through the Virginia Agriculture BMP Cost Share Program, multiple options are available for fencing projects with cost share ranging from 55 percent to 100 percent depending on the type of project, according to Jennings. 

Virginia officials, in the state's new Watershed Implementation Plan unveiled earlier this year, say the state intends to meet all its pollution-reduction targets by the end of 2025, including nutrient loads from agriculture. The state, though, now wants to meet that goal through a range of actions that farmers can take to prevent livestock from entering streams, not just by installing fences.

The public comment period on the plan ended last week. The deadline for the final Watershed Implementation Plan is August 9, Jennings said.

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