Farm

Farming in Virginia: Let the Earth Heal

In 2018, the Coalition was approached by its Virginia members to help communicate about the benefits of the Commonwealth’s Agricultural Cost-Share Program. This program helps farmers implement best management practices (BMPs), like stream fencing, tree plantings, and well installation, on their land by helping to offset the costs of these projects. The amount of money available for these projects varies from year to year and, in some areas of the state, the demand exceeds available funds. As part of our effort to educate the public about the importance of this funding, the Coalition embarked on conducting a series of recorded interviews with farmers who have used the funding on their land.

Driving through the hills of western Virginia, I couldn’t help but think back on everything that we had done to get to this point. For months, our Coalition members and the local Soil and Water Conservation District representatives had worked to find farmers who had benefited from the Commonwealth’s Agricultural Cost-Share program and were willing to talk about it to a total stranger (me) and on camera. I understand. I don’t know how much I would enjoy some random person coming to my home and recording me walking around my property while asking me questions about my work. However, once we were there it wasn’t hard to get folks talking about all of the work they had done on their land.

The first visit we went on was a late addition to our shooting schedule and I am SO thankful that we were able to make it work. Not only was it the only sunny day out of the two filming days, but the farm manager, Tony Pullaro, was incredible to meet. Tony grew up on a family farm in New Garden, Virginia, but has been managing Edgemont Farm for the past 25 years. I was shocked to learn that Edgemont Farm has been around since 1796 and is home to one of the last residential buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson. The property also includes more than 500 acres of farmland.

Tony has been working with the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District since 2003, when they installed their first stream exclusion fencing and planted their first buffer. Touring the property, you can see the difference 15 years of conservation makes. The trees are tall, strong and healthy, and Tony has noticed more fish and other aquatic life showing up in the stream. The last project was just installed in 2017, which installed more fencing to exclude all the remaining streams and, in partnership with the James River Association, planted trees in the new buffer.

In total, Edgemont Farm has received $63,531.92 from the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share Program, which has enabled them to install roughly 16,000 feet of stream exclusion fencing and created 40 acres of buffer. They also installed nine water troughs in conjunction with the stream fencing to create a 10 paddock rotational grazing system.

This is why the Coalition and its Virginia members support increased and steady funding for the cost-share program. To learn more about this program, visit www.vcnva.org/agriculture/

Family, Faith, Farming and Clean Water

The Caseys and the Smuckers– two Pennsylvania families with a rich history in different lines of work, but with a lot of the same interests: family, faith, farming and clean water. I was lucky enough to be part of a great day where two scions of these well-known families spent a few hours together looking at conservation problems and solutions on an Amish farm in Lancaster County, PA.

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) is the senior Senator from Pennsylvania and a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. His father was governor of Pennsylvania. Joe Smucker has taken over his family’s dairy farm outside of East Earl; the farm has been in his family for generations.

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Jenn Quinn (PennFuture) and I laid the groundwork for the tour earlier in the year when we were visiting Pennsylvania Congressional offices on Capitol Hill. In our meeting with Senator Casey’s Senior Policy Advisor we first thanked the Senator for his past support for full funding for the Chesapeake Stewardship Grants.  Then, we pitched the idea of getting the Senator out to look at some projects that were already funded. That offer, after some lengthy negotiating and a few date changes, is what led to this tour on a perfect summer day in early August.

The conservation practices on the Smucker Farm came from many sources – funding and/or technical assistance from an array of agencies and organizations, as well as the vision of Joe Smucker and his family. We focused on a Chesapeake Stewardship Grant that had been given to the Stroud Water Research Center, which in turn worked with a number of farms and farmers in the region. We had folks from Stroud, TeamAg, Lancaster County Conservation District and PennFuture join with those of us who organized the tour. The National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), who administers the grant programs, hosted the tour. We were joined by Russ Redding , Secretary of Agriculture for Pennsylvania, as well as a number of neighboring Amish farmers who wanted to see what was going on at the Smucker Farm. We were also joined by a reporter with the Lancaster Farming newspaper. Click here for his take on the day.

We were met by the entire Smucker Family – Joe, his wife Martha, most of their kids (some were still working in the field), Joe’s father (Joe Smucker, Senior) and their neighbors. Senator Casey arrived and spent time chatting with the Smuckers, including their children, and all the neighbors.

Joe Smucker led the tour and showed us a new manure stacking area. He told a story about the large open manure pile that served as the farm’s “storage” area right next to where we were standing.  He noted that every time he walked by the pile it bothered him because he knew that when it rained the manure washed down the hill into the creek in the valley on the farm. As soon as he was able to get assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), he fixed this problem. We also looked at a forested riparian buffer that was recently planted along the small creek (headwaters of the Conestoga) in the farm’s valley. We learned about the Smucker Farm use of no-till farming techniques and cover crops, and their conservation plan. All of these conservation practices depended on financial and technical assistance from an array of sources, including Stroud and NFWF.

Joe Smucker was asked if he would be going around talking to other Amish farmers and encouraging them to install many of the conservation practices that he had. He gave a calm, reasoned and eloquent response – that started with “No”, but that he was willing to “lead by example” and would be happy to show what he did and talk to anyone who contacted him about it.

Senator Casey was very interested in many of the aspects of the conservation practices that were being used on the Smucker Farm, including how to get more of those practices onto other farms in Pennsylvania.  Senator Casey also interacted with the Smucker children, including their young daughter, where he related a story about being the father of four daughters.

At the end of the day Secretary Redding and I had a few minutes to discuss a proposal by Governor Wolf(D-PA), where he was seeking $10 million from USDA for conservation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed portion of the state. We urged Senator Casey to weigh in with the Obama Administration in support of this proposal.  Shortly after this tour, Senator Casey sent a very strong letter to the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and the Council on Environmental Quality, both in the White House, urging the Administration to provide additional support for conservation practices on farms in the Chesapeake Bay portion of PA. We’re hoping to learn the fate of this proposal by October 4, when the Chesapeake Executive Council (Bay watershed governors, EPA Administrator, DC Mayor and Bay Commission chair) has its last annual meeting during the Obama Administration.

Eastern Shore Farm Tour Shows it Takes a Village to Save the Bay

If you are anything like me, you didn’t exactly excel in the “hard sciences” while in school. Maybe that’s why you studied the humanities in college and ended up in law school? Yep, me too. If either of these realities sound like you, then you would probably react to someone showing you a handful of “bioreactors” and in-ground “phosphorus slag filters” the same way that I did: open-mouthed confusion and a profound realization that I should have paid more attention to Mr. Olsen in chemistry class. However, if you’re like me and crave opportunities to learn something new, I imagine that you would have had just as good a time as I did on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

On Monday, about two dozen environmentalists and I were given a tour by Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy of “On-Farm Water Quality Enhancement Projects” within the Choptank River Watershed. Despite the beating sunshine and oppressive humidity, the few hours we spent traipsing through tall grasses and down dirt farm roads were both exciting and fascinating.

Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy drove us to and walked us through three different farms in and around Ridgley, Maryland where Best Management Practices (BMPs for the uninitiated) have been installed. Mae Vue Farm, Mason’s Heritage, Cedarhurst Farm, and each of their respective owners were gracious hosts and were doing great things by allowing these BMPs to be put in place and continue to both monitor and filter harmful nutrients from entering nearby waterways.

Now, in addition to the heat, my head was spinning for a whole set of other reasons while on the tour. I frantically jotted down terms of art which I later Googled and Wikipedia[d] with equal fervor. Terms like: denitrification walls, woodchip bioreactors, anaerobic processes, and tile line. I will not go into any great depth about what these terms mean specifically—my own understanding is tenuous at best—but what I can tell you is that these practices and the interplay between them work. Since 2013, these agricultural best practices have seen annual reductions of roughly 15,941lbs. of nitrogen, 222lbs. of phosphorus, and 1,675lbs. of total suspended solids. These are impressive numbers, and with Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy and their partners’ continued efforts, the numbers and ultimately the Bay will only get better.

I’ll say it again: I’m not a numbers guy. I want to save the Bay through persuasion and policy. Some do their part by developing devices which use bacteria underground to transform Nitrate-nitrogen into dinitrogen gas and release it safely into the air instead of surface waters (look at me now, Mr. Olsen). Others get their hands dirty and dig the trenches needed to house these devices. And some are farmers, providing for their family and their community, who take risks and allow these practices on their land for the greater good of the environment and the Chesapeake Bay. The point is, it takes all types of people to make a difference, and I for one am proud to be part of that group.