Watershed plan offers mixed bag for Virginia farmers

RICHMOND—Virginia’s largest agricultural advocacy group has mixed feelings about Gov. Ralph Northam’s recently released restoration plan for Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

“There are a lot of positive elements in the plan, but some of the mandatory requirements concern us,” said Martha Moore, vice president of governmental relations for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

The plan, referred to as the Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan or WIP III, was designed to meet the state’s commitments to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution and restore the health of the bay and its tributaries by 2025. The recent version was released April 5, and public comments were accepted through June 7.

WIP III includes a focus on providing farmers with improved financial and technical assistance by adding new resources for Virginia’s Agricultural Best Management Practices Cost-Share Program and the Agricultural Best Management Practice Loan Program. For fiscal year 2020, the state committed $73 million for the cost-share program.

The added funding for agricultural cost-share practices is one of the positives of WIP III, Moore noted. Also appreciated is flexibility in implementing conservation practices based on site-specific variations, and possible future expansion of eligibility for farmers to receive tax credits for conservation practices when cost-share money is not available.

One of Farm Bureau’s concerns with the WIP III is a change in how farmers’ applications for cost-share funding are ranked by soil and water conservation district offices. “We want to make sure a change in the application process doesn’t delay implementation of farm conservation practices,” Moore explained.

Another concern regards a stipulation in the WIP III that if Virginia doesn’t have nutrient management plans implemented on 85% of farms with 50 or more acres by Dec. 31, 2025, then the plans will become mandatory for all farms that size. The state’s nutrient management plan program is up for review next fall, so requirements could change.

“We just think this is premature,” Moore said. “The plan should focus on voluntary compliance. When cost-share money is available, our farmers step up to the plate and implement all of these conservation practices that contribute to the health of the bay.”

Of even greater concern is the stipulation that farmers must fence livestock out of perennial streams. Moore contends that Virginia farmers who receive cost-share funding when it is available continue to voluntarily fence their cattle out of streams.

Earlier in 2019, the Chesapeake Bay Program announced water quality in the bay had attained its highest level since monitoring began in 1985. Virginia agriculture met its 2017 midpoint goals for nitrogen and phosphorous under the bay requirements, contributing to enhanced water quality.

“We know the bay is improving, and that our farmers are contributing to that effort,” Moore said. “We appreciate that some of our comments were reflected in the revisions to the governor’s plan, but we don’t support mandates that will make it more difficult for our farmers to continue their conservation efforts.”

Virginia conservation fund surpasses 100 easements

BEALETON—The Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund reached a milestone by securing more than 100 conservation easements for working farm and forest land.

Through matching funds that support local purchase of development rights programs, the farmland preservation program empowers localities to limit development on the farm and forest land that each community has deemed a priority for conservation.

Jimmy Messick, a Fauquier County farmer and owner of Messick’s Farm Market, has enrolled 700 acres of farmland in the program. His farm was where Gov. Ralph Northam announced the achievement and issued a proclamation commemorating the milestone.

“We did the first plan six or seven years ago, and the second one about three years ago,” Messick explained. “It helped us retire some debt.”

He added that enrolling land in the PDR program allowed him to diversify his farm by adding a market and helped offset the cost of the new facility. “One of the benefits of the program is you realize the equity in your property without selling it. It also helps with rights of way and powerline easements and helps preserve the property.”

Northam said his administration has made farmland and forestland retention “one of our highest priorities, recognizing the significant contributions these lands make to our economy and the important role they have in Virginia’s history and outstanding quality of life.

“Together with our conservation partners, we are making the necessary investments in our communities to help maintain the rural and agricultural character of our commonwealth and ensure our working lands remain unfettered by development and available for continued agriculture and forestry production.”

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation legislative specialist Stefanie Kitchen said Farm Bureau has been instrumental in the creation of the farmland preservation fund as well as the Office of Farmland Preservation.

“We have continuously fought for money each year since its creation,” Kitchen said. “We believe this has been an important program to offer another method for farmers to work with people locally to preserve their farms. In 2012, the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission concluded that this program effectively leveraged both local and private funds, which makes those partnerships even stronger.”

Since 2008, 16 localities have used state funding to purchase 102 conservation easements covering 13,917 acres at a cost of $32.9 million. Participating localities contributed $15.2 million toward those projects, with the Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund providing $11.9 million and the remainder coming from a combination of federal, state and private funds.

Conservation easements supported by the fund perpetually guarantee that properties, like Messick’s will remain working farms and forests.

The Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund was created by the Virginia General Assembly in 2001 to educate the public on the importance of farmland preservation, to help farmers preserve their land and transition their business between generations, and to assist local governments in developing additional farmland preservation policies and programs.

‘Fall decorating is serious business’

PINEY RIVER—When temperatures start to cool, home décor heats up—often using Virginia-grown products like chrysanthemums, cornstalks, pumpkins and gourds.

“Fall decorating is serious business, second only to the Christmas season,” said Sonya Westervelt, sales manager for Saunders Brothers Nursery in Nelson County. “For us, mums are kind of what get the season started, but we’re growing cabbage and kale, and we do a tremendous pansy and viola business.”

Decorative plants are part of the state’s green industry, a major sector in Virginia’s $70 billion farm economy. The 2017 Census of Agriculture collectively ranked nursery, greenhouse, floriculture and sod businesses as the state’s fifth-largest agricultural sector, generating a total of $328 million.

Last year 2.8 million hardy garden chrysanthemums were raised in Virginia, with a wholesale value of $6.4 million. Another $9 million worth of pansies and violas were sold by producers to retail outlets like garden centers, according to the 2018 floriculture report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“So far, this mum season is pretty straightforward,” Westervelt said. “Weather can affect their blooming time, and we have no early blooming or late-blooming plants, so everything is on schedule. “There are operations that finish their mums in the greenhouse, but we start them outside and finish them outside, so good weather is a bonus.”

Growers are always trying to attract more buyers, so mums are being bred for different flower shapes, colors and even blooming times. “You can find a mum variety in bloom from August through November if you hunt for them,” Westervelt said. The goal is to keep the plants in bloom and offer continual color at retail stores and in home landscapes.

“The best way to ensure you’re getting a good plant is to buy local and buy from a trusted store,” she added. “You can tell a lot about the health of a plant by the leaves. The flower is the show-stopper, but if the leaves don’t look good, it may not be healthy.”

Other fall decoration products raised by Virginia farmers include pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn, dried cornstalks and straw bales.

Explore ‘Farm Bureau Land’ at the State Fair of Virginia

DOSWELL—Visitors to this year’s State Fair of Virginia will have the chance to learn about agriculture from the state’s largest farm advocacy group.

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation will have indoor and outdoor displays at the Meadow Pavilion during the fair, which will be held Sept. 27 through Oct. 6.

“Just look for the big red barn,” said Kelly Roberts, VFBF assistant director of member engagement and co-chair of the fair exhibit. “You can’t miss us.”

This year’s outdoor display has been dubbed “Farm Bureau Land” and will include hands-on agricultural activities and educational displays for adults and children.

Highlights of this year’s booth include the James River Equipment “Touch a Tractor” exhibit, an interactive corn crib area for kids and a standing cutout frame for picture-taking.

Inside the sandbox-like corn crib structure, children can play in the corn with small tractor toys provided by James River Equipment. The “Touch a Tractor” exhibit will offer fairgoers the opportunity to explore and touch a tractor and hay baler.

There also will be a 360-degree video exhibit called Farm360 that allows viewers to digitally engage with scenic farms around the state.

“We have videos of a poultry farm with little baby chicks and a dairy farm with cows. There’s a scene where a cow comes right up to the camera, and it feels like the cow’s coming up to kiss you,” Roberts said. “You really feel like you’re standing there and seeing it all happen before your eyes. To see people’s reactions, it’s amazing; that’s something we’re really proud of.”

This year’s Farm360 exhibit will include two new videos, made possible through a partnership with Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom. One video will showcase an apple orchard in Nelson County, and the other features a Southampton County cotton harvest.

Additionally, fairgoers will have the opportunity to talk to real Virginia farmers and inquire about local food, farm equipment and other farm-related topics.

“We really want to encourage that interaction between farmers and the public in case they have questions about where their food comes from,” Roberts said. “It’s all about creating a positive experience.”

More information about this year’s fair is available at StateFairVa.org.