Study shows farmers’ commitment to environment in bay watershed

PORT REPUBLIC—As Americans celebrate the environment 41 years after the first Earth Day, Virginia farmers are looking back and noting how far they’ve come in that same time period.

"Going green is nothing farmers haven’t been doing for years," said Stephen Saufley, a Rockingham County cattle producer and Virginia Farm Bureau Federation board member.

Saufley lives and farms on the Shenandoah River and knows many farmers who’ve taken steps to protect their soil and water quality.

"There are a lot of best management practices out there installed by farmers, like fencing off streams (to keep out livestock)," he said. "Some of them were installed with BMP cost-share programs, and there are those who also do it on their own. This has been going on for years."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service released a study last month that highlighted the progress that’s been made in protecting water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. According to the Conservation Effects Assessment Project, 88 percent of the cropland in the bay watershed is under some sort of conservation tillage, with 48 percent of the land in no-till production.

Conservation practices from 2003 to 2006 reduced edge-of-field sediment losses by 55 percent. The amount of nitrogen in surface water runoff has declined by 42 percent and phosphorus runoff has dropped by 40 percent.

Dave White, NRCS chief, says this shows that past voluntary conservation programs are having a major impact. Yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to pin at least 50 percent of the blame for runoff into the bay watershed on farmers, Saufley said.

"And that bothers me, because there’s a whole lot that has been done, but has not yet been credited to the farmer or included in the EPA’s model. As a farmer, I don’t mind helping with the solution. But I don’t like being blamed for the entire problem," he said.

"Folks up in the (Shenandoah) Valley and in Virginia’s rural areas understand that we’re making progress. But urban folks only know what they read," he said. "My question to the EPA would be, ‘Where are you going to go when the farmers have done all they can do? Where are you going to go when all the farms are gone? If we have continued regulations to the point that profitability has gone, where will the farms be?"

Saufley believes the continuing population boom in the Chesapeake Bay watershed means farmers and farmland are more important than ever in mitigating the effects of suburban growth on the environment.

"When we can strike the right balance in environmental regulations, we can achieve what needs to be achieved to protect water quality without forcing farmers into unprofitable situations. Then it’s a win-win situation," he said.

Contact Saufley at 540-249-4765 or Norm Hyde, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146.

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