Agriculture covers the largest land area of any industry in Virginia. Not surprisingly, it is also the largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution reaching local streams and the Chesapeake Bay. Even though many well-operated farms employ sound conservation practices that protect water quality, many more farmers would like to put these practices in place but need technical and financial support.
That's where Virginia's Agricultural Cost-Share Program comes into play. Established in 1984, this program has helped thousands of farmers implement conservation practices that prevent pollution from reaching waterways. These "best management practices" or BMPs include fencing livestock out of streams, planting buffers of trees and native plants along waterways, nutrient management plans that ensure farmers use the right amount of fertilizer, and many other practices essential to protecting our streams and the Bay. The program also provides technical support to help farmers properly install these projects in the best locations. When working with farmers, CBF field staff often recommend this program as a source of assistance.
Investments in these practices lead to cleaner water, create jobs, and help the local economy. A network of small businesses—from contractors to lumber yards to tree nurseries—benefit when a farmer installs a one of these projects. Nutrient management plans allow farmers to maximize yield so they save on fertilizer costs while maintaining production. Studies have shown that implementing farm conservation practices at levels necessary to restore the Chesapeake Bay would create nearly 12,000 jobs and that every $1.00 invested in Bay restoration will generate $4.00.
How Virginia's Cost-Share Program Works
VACS is administered by the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation through 47 local soil and water conservation districts. The primary source of funding for VACS is the Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF) and the Virginia Natural Resources Commitment Fund (VNRCF), a sub-fund of WQIF created in 2008 to specifically support agricultural best management practices.
Each soil and water conservation district is allocated a set amount of cost-share funding. Projects are prioritized on a district by district basis, with decisions on project approval made by the local soil and water conservation board. The boards are made up of local community members.
Cost-share payments vary by practice, from 50 percent up to the full cost of implementation, and there is a maximum payment of $100,00 per year for an individual. To be eligible, projects must be on farms that cover at least five acres and earn $1,000 of income, and they must address an existing water quality problem.
VACS funding has historically fluctuated widely from year to year. The state estimates that investments in agricultural best management practices through the program have totaled $171.6 million since 1988. The General Assembly allocated $83.8 million to support VACS in fiscal year 2020, an unprecedented level of investment.
Why Agricultural Cost-Share is Important to Meeting Virginia's Blueprint Goals
Virginia reduced the amount of nitrogen pollution from its agriculture sector by approximately 760,000 pounds between 2010 and 2018. To reach its Clean Water Blueprint goals by 2025, the Commonwealth is relying on farms to cut an additional 6.6 million pounds of nitrogen. That amount accounts for 77 percent of the remaining nitrogen reductions statewide.
VACS is a critical part of Virginia's plan to meet its pollution reduction goals by 2025. It helps farmers across the Commonwealth adopt sound, cost-effective conservation practices such as installing cover crops, as well as projects with long-term benefits, including fencing cattle out of streams and planting streamside trees and grasses. These are among the best steps Virginia can take to restore the Bay and local streams.
While there have been many positive improvements to the VACS program in the last several years, robust, reliable funding for best management practices is essential for meeting the water quality goals outlined in the Commonwealth's final Clean Water Blueprint. The plan estimates that nearly $100 million will be needed for cost-share annually. The Blueprint also notes that, in order to accelerate the implementation of agricultural conservation practices, a higher percentage of cost-share funding should be directed to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Video courtesy Choose Clean Water Coalition