Farm Bureau: Farmers remain committed to bay preservation, but with concerns

As Virginia outlines its third phase of measures to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay, farmers are concerned that a wave of stringent regulations could wash them out of business.

On April 5, Gov. Ralph Northam released a draft of the state’s Watershed Implementation Plan III for public comment. Nicknamed WIP III, the plan will affect all farmers in the bay watershed, and it has implications for farmers statewide. Several agriculture and forestry organizations provided input and insight for the plan.

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest agricultural organization, “has advocated for adequate, stable and reliable funding for cost-share practices, equitably distributed between bay-related goals and other water quality goals; flexibility in implementing conservation practices based on site-specific variations; and more efforts to appropriately document farms’ voluntary conservation measures,” explained Martha Moore, VFBF vice president of governmental relations. “Our focus for the watershed plan is providing more incentives for voluntary compliance, and avoiding mandates that could threaten farms’ ability to operate.”

Moore said Farm Bureau is pleased that the WIP III draft includes adequate and consistent funding for the Virginia Agriculture Cost Share Program and for technical assistance. It also calls for better coordination among state agencies that help farmers, and some increased incentives.

But the draft is not without concerns for the state’s farmers. Among the gravest are proposals to expand the Chesapeake Bay Act and its related mandates to farms west of Interstate 95; boost mandatory use of nutrient management plans on all cropland; and mandate those plans for all farms over 50 acres. There’s also a proposed mandate that farmers exclude all livestock from perennial streams, but little assurance of cost-share funding. There is an additional proposal to encourage citizens to be “pollution patrols.”

“I have dairy-farmed and raised beef cattle, and the benefits of fencing animals away from streams and stream banks are not lost on farmers,” said VFBF President Wayne F. Pryor, who farms in Goochland County. “But fencing part of a farm is never inexpensive. And animals that are fenced out of streams or rivers require pump-fed watering stations for their drinking water—an additional expense.”

Stream exclusion fencing and other conservation practices are on many farmers’ to-do lists, Pryor continued. “But not every farm can make those improvements without assistance. And a mandate to do so could push some farms to the point where they are no longer viable.”

Having that struggle play out in front of neighbors looking for faults in a farm’s stewardship “will add insult to injury.”

Historically, Moore noted, when Virginia has provided funding assistance for conservation practices, “farmers have stepped up and implemented them. But in the past decade, they’ve lined up for a roller coaster of cost-share funding, not knowing when it will be available, or for what practices.”

The past 18 months have been particularly challenging for producers nationwide, she said. Trade disputes have throttled markets for soybeans and other commodities, and milk prices have dropped to nearly half of what they were five years ago. Other sectors have seen similar woes.

In a recent commentary to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, Pryor said Virginia’s farmers “are keenly aware that we’re all upstream from someone else, and many of us are upstream from one of the nation’s most precious environmental resources. But we need lawmakers to realize we’re also swimming upstream, economically.

“We’re going to keep treading water as long as we can. We’d appreciate a hand, as opposed to a mandate set in stone that could sink us.”

The Chesapeake Bay Program announced March 26 that water quality in the bay met its highest level since monitoring began in 1985. In 2017 Virginia agriculture met the program’s midpoint goals for nitrogen and phosphorus runoff reduction.

Buyers, producers ‘pleasantly surprised’ by condition of wheat crop

RICHMOND—About 20 grain buyers, mill representatives and Virginia Cooperative Extension staff inspected the quality of Virginia-grown wheat May 30 during an annual spring tour.

“This event affords an opportunity to assess this year’s crop just prior to harvest and gather yield and quality information—something millers will use when planning their upcoming purchases,” said Robert Harper, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation grain manager. “It also gives us an opportunity to showcase some of Virginia’s premier wheat growers.”

This is the fourth year Virginia fields have been included in the mid-Atlantic tour. Participants examined wheat on 18 farms in 10 counties in the northern piedmont, Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula to take sample test weights, estimate yields and check for signs of disease.

Harper said they were “pleasantly surprised to find a crop that looks to be in line, from a yield perspective, with what Virginia normally grows.” He described the crop as “a little better than average, which is a lot to be thankful for in a year that was full of weather challenges.”

Wet conditions late last fall delayed wheat planting on many farms, and rainfall earlier this year made it difficult to apply crop nutrients and protectants in a timely manner.

Harper noted that excessive rainfall appears to have negated some nitrogen applications, which growers make according to their farms’ nutrient management plans. It’s likely, he concluded, that heavy rains caused the nitrogen to leech down into the soil profile beyond where the wheat could get the full benefit.

On a positive note, he continued, fungicide applications appear to have been well-timed. “We saw very little disease pressure on May 30,” which could mean more milling-grade wheat will be harvested.

Potential yield on the tour’s northern piedmont and Northern Neck farms averaged 65 bushels per acre.

Most wheat grown in Virginia is the soft red winter variety, which is used in flour for bread, pastries, cakes and crackers. Winter wheat grown in the state typically is planted in October or November and harvested in late May through June.

The Virginia portion of the wheat tour was organized by Farm Bureau in partnership with Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Culpeper Farmers’ Cooperative. Participants included representatives from Gavilon Grain, INTL FCStone, Meherrin Ag & Chemical, Mennel Milling Co.’s Old Dominion Grain, Perdue Agribusiness and The Scouler Co.

Statewide, Virginia farmers expect to harvest 7.13 million bushels of winter wheat this year, according to the Virginia field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. That forecast represents a 23% decrease when compared to the 2018 harvest. Yields, however, are forecast up slightly—62 bushels per acre, compared to 60 bushels in 2018.

Wheat growers seeded 180,000 acres last fall; they predict 115,000 acres will be harvested for grain, while the other 65,000 were planted as a cover crop or will be cut for silage or hay.

The state’s top counties for wheat production in 2018 were Northampton, Caroline, Accomack, King William and Westmoreland. The counties with the best bushels-per-acre yields were Accomack, Middlesex, Northampton, Hanover and King William.

Blueberries bursting with flavor this summer

DRY FORK—Blueberry season has begun, and this year’s berries are bursting with flavor.

Steve Carty, owner of Foxridge Acres in Pittsylvania County, said this year’s berries are as good, if not better, than last year’s.

“The berries are big and have lots of flavor as long as you pick the ripe ones,” McCarty exclaimed.

Dr. Jayesh Samtani, small fruit specialist at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center, said that’s a “pretty accurate” assessment statewide.

He said several growers in the Virginia Beach area and one in Williamsburg have reported that the blueberry crop “is looking great this season.”

McCarty started planting blueberries soon after moving back to his family’s farm in 2014, when he accepted a job as a Virginia Farm Bureau insurance sales agent in Henry County. He said he and his wife, Judy, knew they wanted to plant something, but weren’t sure what.

“My wife and I had been to a pick-your-own blueberry farm and enjoyed the experience,” he recalled. “She said, ‘How about we plant blueberries?’ She was thinking 15 to 20 plants, and I was thinking more like 250.”

They ended up with 1,000 after visiting their local Virginia Cooperative Extension office for more information. “The very next day the Extension agent emailed me and said Virginia State University was offering a grant for small farmers who wanted to plant blueberries.”

The couple applied for the grant, and that October they picked up more than 1,000 blueberry bushes, along with supplies for a drip irrigation system from VSU. Carty said it took about a month for him and his entire family to get the plants into the ground. “It was quite an adventure.”

The bushes are planted in 18 200-foot-long rows on 1 acre of land. There are plenty of customers who come and pick blueberries at the farm from the beginning of June through the end of July. Carty sells the berries at one local farmers market and a retail location as well.

Virginia is not among the top blueberry-growing states, but the 2017 Census of Agriculture counted 456 blueberries farms here.

More Virginians seeking help for conflicts with wildlife

ETTRICK—Black bears, deer, foxes, racoons, geese, vultures and coyotes continue to be a problem for Virginia’s farmers. They often eat crops and create ruts in fields, or prey on livestock, killing sheep, calves, goats and chickens.

Anyone experiencing an issue with wildlife has a resource at their fingertips—the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline. “We knew wildlife issues were increasing because the human populations were increasing,” said Jennifer Cromwell, assistant state director for USDA Wildlife Services Program. She spoke at a June 4 Wildlife Interactions Workshop at Virginia State University.

“We wanted to see how we could help,” she explained. “A lot of times callers got passed around, and there was inconsistent messaging. So we consolidated, and this helps save time.”

The hotline is a joint effort of USDA Wildlife Services and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Established in 2013, it has received more than 57,000 calls. In fiscal year 2014 a total of 8,485 calls were answered, and in fiscal year 2018 there were 14,950 calls.

“More people are aware of the hotline now, and the populations of species also are increasing,” Cromwell said.

The top localities from which the hotline received calls about wildlife concerns are the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield, Fairfax, Prince William, Hanover, Bedford and Roanoke and the cities of Richmond and Chesapeake. The most problematic species were black bears, with 2,348 calls; white-tailed deer, with 1,684 calls; racoons, 1,179 calls; red foxes, 1,009 calls; and coyotes, 580 calls.

“In addition to being a resource for people seeking assistance with wildlife conflicts, the hotline is a valuable source for data collection,” said Stefanie Kitchen, assistant director of governmental relations for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s important for farmers to take the time to report crop and livestock damage so that our wildlife agencies know where to focus their efforts.”

Anyone experiencing an issue with wildlife on their property—whether they live in a rural, suburban or urban area—can call toll free at 855-571-9003.

Additionally, Chad Forehand, coordinator of USDA Wildlife Services’ Feral Swine Project, encouraged participants in the VSU workshop to report feral pig activity to the wildlife hotline. Any pig that is not claimed by someone is feral, he noted, and classified as a nuisance animal.

Feral swine can cause extensive damage to farm fields and animals, and if they have food, water and shelter and no pressure to move, they will take up residence.

Forehand said the Feral Swine Project’s goal is to map out where feral pigs are located and address the problems, including testing them for diseases that could have an impact on livestock.