Each year starting in January, the Alliance staff keep their eyes on Richmond for legislation that could affect our Valley land, water or way of life. This year, the issue of fencing cattle out of streams to improve water quality captured much attention.
We strongly support livestock stream exclusion and streamside tree planting as practices that benefit herd health and restore clean water for drinking and recreation. We believe the most effective way to get these practices on the ground is through a public-private partnership, with state matching funds available to farmers for installing the fences and trees.
Despite strong bipartisan support and widespread benefits, however, Virginia has never provided sufficient funds to meet farmers’ demand. The Governor’s proposed budget falls far short of the state-assessed need of $100 million in funding for voluntary best management practices. Additionally, neither the House or Senate during this year’s General Assembly recommended that funding be increased to meet the mark.
Why will this work?
Best management practices for farming are a win-win-win. They are good for farms by improving soil quality, herd health, yields, and the strength of our local food system. They restore local water quality for drinking, recreation and tourism, not to mention for those downstream from us. And it is a lot cheaper to install best management practices on farmland than it is to upgrade our drinking water treatment systems.
The way it works is that the state funds local Soil and Water Conservation Districts to offer up a suite of conservation practices that improve farm operation and water quality. The farmer is responsible for reaching out to the agency, determining what can be implemented on their land, and funding the project. Once it’s complete, the District will reimburse the landowners (usually at 75% of the project cost). We’re advocating that the state fully fund the program at $100 million, which pays for the District technical staff and reimburses the farmers for their projects.
And here’s the thing – most farmers WANT to farm in a way that best respects their land, water quality and is good for their bottom line. But it’s not as easy as just slapping up a fence and being done with it. There’s a lot to consider – how will the herd get water? – if a stream bisects a field, how can you still use both sides for grazing? – what do you do with the land between the fence and the stream so that invasive plants don’t take hold and cause further issues in your pasture? – can you afford to pay for the project and wait for state reimbursement? – who will help you design the project so it meets the state specifications for reimbursement? – can you afford to replace the fence if a flood takes it out, because otherwise, you have to pay the state back…
Full funding at the state assessed needs will address these questions and enable farmers to install the practices that are best for their operation and improve water quality downstream for all of us. It will ensure the agencies that assist farmers in navigating these details are adequately and consistently staffed. Full funding will help us meet the state water quality goals by the 2025 deadline, which is even more important with new legislation requiring livestock exclusion if the goals are not met. Finally, if you remember, the Alliance just received a $1 million dollar grant that will leverage this state funding that we plan to use for outreach to farmers and to help cover the funding gap between the state and federal cost share program reimbursement amounts that remain a barrier to some farmers.
In short, we’re all primed to do the work – we just need the state to put the money where its mouth is!
If you haven’t already, use this form to write the committee today.