Greenfield Farm. Photo by Brenda Gladding.
Just as several members of Congress are drafting a new reduced five-year Farm Bill, which will likely include significant cuts to critical conservation programs, we talked with several Virginia farm families who have learned how important these conservation programs are both for their and their communities' livelihoods as well as the health of the environment. The following is the second of a series of blogs from those conversations adapted from an article in the Essex County Countryside Alliance 2011 Report. Stay tuned for Part Three tomorrow. View Part One here.
Restoring the Great Green Filter
There's an old saying that over the past 400 years, we humans have converted much of the Chesapeake watershed from "The Great Green Filter"� (virgin forest that caught and filtered rainfall on 95 percent of those 64,000 square miles) to "A Greasy Gray Funnel"� of roadways, parking lots, and rooftops that concentrate stormwater and send it flowing directly to Bay tributaries with little or no treatment. When practiced with conservation in mind, though, farming can serve as a surrogate Green Filter.
One of the very best techniques for protecting waterways like the Rappahannock's network of high-value tidal creeks is planting buffers along field edges, especially where the soils are highly erodible. Twenty years ago, Bob Baylor enrolled a number of Port Tobacco's buffer areas in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). He has just renewed the contracts for another ten years.
Bob does not, however, depend entirely on government cost-share funds. He has actually gone above and beyond the minimum, installing beautiful warm season grass buffers up to 100-feet wide. They are sown with weeping lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). He also sows cover crops to protect his soils in the winter and soak up excess nitrogen and phosphorus left after crop harvests.
Jay Hundley crystallized "above and beyond the minimum"� with the remark, "It just seemed like the right thing to do."� He was referring to fencing Clover Field's few head of beef cattle away from the shores of the farm's 32-acre pond that drains to Farmers Hall Creek. Jay might be accused of an ulterior motive there--he loves to fish for the big largemouth bass that live in that pond--but he simply cares about keeping the pond ecosystem healthy. His family's stewardship of the pond also shows in the healthy tidal freshwater marshes full of wild rice just below the pond's dam. Marshes like that one make this part of the Rappahannock a magnet for waterfowl each winter.
As with Port Tobacco, the land farmed by Clover Field Enterprises includes a number of grass waterways and buffers, though the latter are not as wide as Port Tobacco's broad swaths. The Hundleys plant cover crops and accept cost share funds for some of them, but some government programs do not make sense for their operations. "I don't care whose money you're spending, you'd better spend it wisely,"� Jay remarked in a recent, wide-ranging conversation. He knows that cost-share funds are scarce and wants them spent as efficiently as possible, even if it means they go to other farmers and he plants buffers and cover crops without them.
The 1985 Farm Bill emphasized cost-shared planting of grass waterways and buffers, laid out around a whole-farm conservation plan. David, Bill, and Bryan Taliaferro rented a no-till drill and sowed warm-season grasses on 31 acres of their operation. David says that at first, he resented taking that much land out of production, but over time, he began to see how much these practices helped to retain soil. On a recent tour of Montague Farms, he showed off several grass waterways built on highly erodible soils in hilly fields. "We located and shaped the waterways broadly so they'll hold water and retain soil,"� he explained. He maintains them carefully now. Preserving soil fertility has become one of his key farming goals.
--John Page Williams
Stay tuned tomorrow for more on how these Virginia farm families have successfully incorporated strong conservation efforts--such as planting stream buffers and fencing cattle--into their farming practices. Read Part One.
In a matter of days, several members of Congress will pass along recommendations to the "Super Committee"� for a new reduced five-year Farm Bill, which will likely include significant cuts to critical conservation programs. Please help us prevent this from happening. Protecting this funding in the Farm Bill means not only an opportunity for cleaner streams and healthier rivers throughout the Bay watershed, but stronger economies and a growing workforce as well. Please act today for a chance to save this critical funding for clean water in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.