(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—An innovative program that helps livestock farmers increase per-animal profits while also reducing agricultural pollution will expand in three states, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and its partners. The grant will increase the number of grass-fed livestock operations in the Bay watershed where animals spend the majority of their time on pasture, rather than being confined. A key element of the program is farmer to farmer mentoring.
"This program is about farmers talking common sense to other farmers, and a whole community reaping benefits. Raising livestock on pasture produces healthier animals and reduces costs. Manure fertilizes the pasture rather than running off into nearby streams. Everyone downstream gets cleaner water for drinking and swimming," said Michael Heller, manager of CBF's Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
The new grant will expand outreach and technical assistance for farmers who graze livestock in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and provide opportunities for current and new grazing farmers to share information. The program will include activities such as two-day Grazing Schools and field days, an annual state-specific planning calendar for grazers, a regional conference, a quarterly electronic grazing newsletter, and an update of the "Amazing Grazing" Directory for direct marketing of grass fed products. The hope is to create a regional network of more than 250 grazers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, as well as enrolling an additional 1,400 acres in pasture farming.
"Making sure that the land is covered with growing plants will reduce runoff, it's as simple as that. The density of pasture plants versus crops does impact water quality. If farmers can find a way to economically do that, then I think it is a win-win because they also will find in many cases, that it helps their bottom line," said Susan Richards, executive director of one of CBF's partners in the project, Capital Resource and Development Area Council, Inc. in Pennsylvania.
"Future Harvest CASA runs a program for beginning farmers to train them in practices that are profitable, but also that protect land and water. Programs like this are critical for ensuring their long-term commercial success as well as ongoing stewardship of their farms' natural resources," said Dena Leibman, Executive Director of Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, a Maryland partner in the project.
"Many producers are motivated to sign up for developing grazing systems through financial assistance programs, but that is just the beginning. These funds are critical for partners like the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council (VFGC) to provide grazing field days and outreach efforts to network with beginning grazers, then follow up and teach principles of good grazing management through grazing schools in different parts of the state," said J.B. Daniel, Forage and Grassland Agronomist for the NRCS, a Virginia partner. "The VFGC is a producer run organization that welcomes everyone interested in better management of forages and livestock on farms in Virginia."
Agriculture remains the largest source of pollution to local streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. But farm conservation measures also are the most cost effective means of restoring water quality compared to upgrading sewage plants, retrofitting stormwater systems, and other strategies. Helping farmers, and holding states accountable for farm conservation is a critical component of cleaning up local water, and the Bay.
Putting livestock back on pasture as farmers did for generations rather than raising them in confined pens where manure piles up is one of the best means for restoring both farm profits and clean water. It also has greenhouse gas benefits by reducing use of fossil fuels, fertilizer, and increasing soil carbon. Because of these dual environmental benefits, CBF is able to leverage an existing partnership with WGL Energy and Sterling Planet that provides funding for practices that benefit water quality and reduce greenhouse gases via WGL's CleanSteps Carbon Offset program. In addition, as part of the grant, CBF and their partners will be quantifying these environmental and economic benefits, then sharing the results to encourage more farmers to convert to grazing systems.
The grant is for $492,000. Partner groups will match that funding, providing nearly $1 million in all for the program.
The program is targeted to the following counties:
- VA - Amelia, Augusta, Buckingham, Nelson, Page, Prince Edward, Rockbridge, Rockingham, and Shenandoah counties on the Western Shore and Northampton and Accomack on the Eastern Shore.
- MD - Washington, Frederick, Carroll, and Baltimore.
- PA - Lancaster, Franklin, Adams, Cumberland, and Lebanon.
But farmers across the watershed are encouraged to participate. Farmers interested in signing up for the quarterly newsletter and learning about field days and other events should contact Michael Heller at 443-482-4393.
Project partners include: Future Harvest — Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, Virginia Forage and Grassland Council, University of Maryland, Red Barn Consulting, World Resources Institute, Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research, Water Stewardship Inc., Capital Resource Conservation, and Development Area Council, Inc.