Environmentalists and farmers have long been at loggerheads over agricultural best management practices. It’s where environmentalism comes up against tradition and self-determination, and where farm economics come into sharp relief.
So when government soil conservationist Bobby Whitescarver set out to romance Jeanne Trimble Hoffman, a ninth-generation beef cattle farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, it may not have been straight up Romeo and Juliet, but at least it wasn’t Hatfield and McCoy.
Despite a gap in farming philosophies, the two married in 2004. They’ve been closing that gap ever since.
Livestock fencing is a case in point.
On the Hoffman farm, there was never anything to prevent cattle from literally cooling their hoofs — and defecating, urinating and even calving — in the Middle River, which cuts right through their Augusta County property.
But during 16 years of marriage, the couple has come to terms on the need for fencing to keep the animals out of the river. They installed exclusion fencing and planted a 20-foot-wide strip of woods along the river banks to capture stormwater runoff from the pasture. Whitescarver wanted the buffer to be wider — 50 feet — but they negotiated a deal for the smaller buffer that both could live with.
“When we laid out the buffers … she wanted more grass and I wanted more buffer, so we had a great compromise,” Whitescarver said. “We compromise on a lot of things.”
Then last September, when the couple bought and relocated to a second cattle farm in Churchville, also in Augusta County, best management practices, or BMPs, took front and center.
They enrolled in the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Healthy Streams Farm Stewardship program and are not only installing fencing to exclude cattle from the unnamed headwater stream that runs through this property, but they’re also putting in stream crossings and watering corrals for rotational grazing. And they are preparing to plant acres of trees and shrubs to create a 35-foot streamside buffer.
They’re doing so with a mix of volunteer labor, free technical assistance, proceeds from a pollution settlement and government funds — including a recent boost in the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share Program, which now offers to reimburse as much as the entire cost of livestock fencing.
Whitescarver and Hoffman aren’t alone in benefiting from the fencing program. After Virginia increased the maximum reimbursement in 2019 from 80% to 100%, sign-ups across the state tripled.
From 2016 to 2019, an average of 290 farmers per year signed up for the program. When the increase kicked in for fiscal year 2020, signups jumped to 692. For fiscal year 2021, signups are on track to top 900.
And the majority of those signups are for farms located within the Bay watershed. In 2020, for instance, Bay signups totaled 399. In 2021, Bay signups so far total 263, versus 201 outside of the Bay drainage area.
It’s a far cry, Whitescarver said, from options available to farmers 31 years ago, when he began his career as a soil conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“I’m so proud of [the conservation service], because they adapt and change,” Whitescarver said. “When I started in Virginia in 2001, it was a completely different program than what we have now.” Now, he said, they listen to farmers.
The couple is also benefitting from another new state initiative to help farmers create vegetated buffers along their streams, providing upfront payments for as much as $80 per acre per year, maxing out at 15 years. Planted with trees, shrubs and other native vegetation, the buffers serve as natural filters to keep manure and other pollutants from entering waterways.
Whitescarver said he’s not sure yet if all of the BMPs under way on the new farm will be fully covered through the various reimbursements or grants, “but it’s enough.”
‘Give Virginia a lot of credit’
If Virginia is to meet its own goal under the 2010 Chesapeake Bay cleanup agreement to protect virtually every stream that runs through livestock farms by the end of 2025, it still has a lot of fencing to do.
In 2019, the Environmental Integrity Project and Shenandoah Riverkeeper released a report based on aerial surveys of Augusta and Rockingham counties showing that only 19% of 1,676 livestock farms with streams or rivers running through them fenced cattle from waterways. Augusta and Rockingham are the biggest farming counties in the state.
“We looked into it because Virginia was not looking into it,” EIP director of communications Tom Pelton said. “EPA was not looking into it. Even the Chesapeake Bay Commission — no one had looked into the question of how many farmers are actually doing this.”
Among other recommendations, the report urged the state to conduct its own investigation and fully reimburse fencing projects.
Soon after, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation conducted its own aerial survey of Rockingham County and in May 2020 released its own report. It found that 41% of livestock farms fenced their cattle from streams.
The difference in percentages? The state considered only perennial streams — waterways that flow year-round — while the EIP and Shenandoah Riverkeeper also counted seasonal streams.
Virginia lawmakers then pumped more money into its livestock fencing program, which now offers full reimbursement to farmers who sign the lengthy contract and meet certain criteria, like creating 50-foot-wide buffers.
“I have to give Virginia a lot of credit here,” Pelton said. “They responded to a negative report with some really positive steps that have made a difference.”
The last time the state offered farmers full reimbursement for fencing and buffers, the demand was so great that three years’ worth of funds were committed in just the first year. The state had to whittle down the backlog through special appropriations year after year.
Beginning July 1, the state will also offer a new stream exclusion option: portable stream fencing. Darryl M. Glover, director of the Division of Soil and Water Conservation, said the option answers a real need.
“A lot of beef cattle in Virginia are on rented land, and some property owners who lease their land out for pasture are hesitant to have permanent [fencing] erected on their property,” Glover said.
Also in July, the state is introducing a “small herd initiative” that will pay up to $25,000 in fencing costs to farmers in the Bay watershed who have 20–35 head of cattle.
Bay cleanup 101
Livestock fencing helps protect the environment, the public and even the livestock, Pelton said.
“If you have cows that are wading into the streams, they defecate directly into the streams, creating a lot of fecal bacteria that is dangerous for swimmers or people in inner tubes or rafting or enjoying the Shenandoah,” Pelton said. “It’s also bad for the cows themselves. They can get infections if they’re in water that’s full of bacteria all the time. They can get sick.”
A cow in labor will also often wade into a nearby waterway to give birth, risking drowning her newborn calf.
Agriculture is the biggest source of nutrient and sediment pollution in local streams and the Chesapeake Bay, so livestock fencing, Pelton said, is “Bay cleanup 101.”
Virginia’s cost-share program is administered by the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Board and Department of Conservation and Recreation, and it is managed by 47 local soil and water conservation districts. The program encourages a host of agricultural BMPs and offers technical assistance on anti-pollution measures.
Funding for the program has been inconsistent, though, fluctuating wildly from year to year, depending on the priorities of lawmakers. Since 1988, the state estimates that it’s spent more than $171 million on agricultural BMPs on thousands of farms. For fiscal year 2020, lawmakers were far more generous, allocating an unprecedented $83.8 million. Now, lawmakers have allocated nearly $61 million for fiscal year 2021 and about $65 million for 2022.
From 2010 through 2019, Virginia cut the amount of nitrogen pollution reaching the Bay from farms each year by about 167,100 pounds, according to Chesapeake Bay Program computer model estimates. To meet its 2025 cleanup commitment, it will need to cut 6.9 million more.
If the state and its agricultural sector don’t meet that runoff reduction goal, the state could make stream fencing mandatory.
“But you know what? It’s very doable,” Pelton said of voluntary fencing. “It’s not that hard, and it’s something Virginia can definitely achieve. And they’ve shown that just in the last year with this incredible resurgence in farmers taking advantage of this program.”
Running the numbers
Not wanting to engage in what he called “gross oversimplification,” Glover declined to estimate what a farmer might pay for fencing. “It depends on where you are, how many water troughs you need, how many stream crossings you need, whether they’re going to plant trees or not,” he said.
Costs vary not only from farm to farm, but from one soil conservation district to the next. Every year, each district draws up its own costs list for farmers for different components of BMPs.
But Whitescarver, who blogs about farming best practices, outdoors and environmental issues, recently posted a rundown of his BMP projects, expected costs and reimbursements.
Installing a 3,500-foot woven wire fence with a 35-foot buffer, for instance, will cost $4.50 per foot, totaling $15,750. The Headwaters SWCD will reimburse 90% of that through the cost-share program, while the remaining 10% is coming from a $42 million settlement fund established in 2017 after mercury seeping from a DuPont plant in Waynesboro contaminated the South River.
Installing a $2,500 watering trough is likewise covered through the conservation district and the DuPont settlement.
The forested streamside buffer will be planted this fall — 6 acres of native hardwoods and shrubs. The Virginia Department of Forestry and Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay helped with the design, and volunteers from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Friends of Middle River, along with students from James Madison University, will help with planting. The Alliance is also providing funds to hire a contractor to maintain the buffer.
The cost-share program for buffers paid the couple $7,200 ($80 times 6 acres times 15 years) — money they plan to use to upgrade their watering corrals by adding guardrails.
Without such assistance, Whitescarver said, they couldn’t have undertaken such projects.
While interest in the cost-share program is surging, many farmers remain reluctant.
“I think the main reason more farmers don’t enroll in these programs is that they don’t want to change,” Whitescarver said. “And they don’t want the government … telling them what to do. It’s the same old story: ‘We’ve always done it this way, we don’t want to change now.’ And they don’t think they’re contributing to the problem of pollution in the streams.”
Whitescarver retired from the conservation service in 2011. If he were active today, he knows how he’d try to change hearts and minds about BMPs like livestock fencing.
“I guess I would start by listening to the farmers to see what their needs are,” Whitescarver said. “We have to listen to the farmers.” n
For more information about stream fencing, contact a local soil and water conservation district office. Go to https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/soil-and-water/ to find your district.
To learn more about the cost-share program, enter "Program Year 2021 Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share BMP Manual" in your search engine.