(RICHMOND, VA)—In a major step forward, for the first time Virginia would set a deadline for farmers to install key conservation practices that lead to healthier waterways and benefit farmers under legislation being considered in the General Assembly. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is supporting Del. Ken Plum’s H.B. 1422 and State Sen. Monty Mason’s S.B. 704.
Governor Ralph Northam called for this legislation in Virginia’s watershed implementation plan released last year, which detailed actions needed for Virginia to meet its pollution-reduction commitments. The bills would set a July 1, 2026, deadline for farmers to fence cattle from all permanent streams and implement nutrient management plans on cropland. These practices have major benefits for clean water
“For years farmers have worked hard to clean up local streams and the Chesapeake Bay by installing farm conservation practices, which are the most cost-effective way to restore Virginia waterways,” said CBF Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner. “But a lot of work still remains to be done. Setting this deadline would be a major step towards Virginia finally achieving its commitments to reduce pollution under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.”
The legislation offers flexibility on several fronts. The deadline would apply only to farmers who own at least 20 cows or operate 50 acres of cropland in the Bay watershed. Less-expensive temporary fencing would be allowed. To pay for upfront costs, no-interest loans and grants are available. Farmers would not be found in violation if they apply for state agricultural cost-share funding to support the practice but have not received money by the deadline.
“Farmers are committed to following good conservation practices, but many can’t do it on their own. The legislation has been crafted to ensure no one will be penalized if the state does not provide enough funding to get the job done,” Sanner said. “Strong and steady investment in Virginia’s agricultural cost-share program is vital. We all reap the rewards of cleaner waterways.”
On many Virginia farms, when cattle are allowed to wade in streams their feces contaminate local and downstream waters. Fencing cattle out of streams prevents this unhealthy situation. Protecting streams with fencing also keeps cattle from trampling streambanks, which creates erosion and muddy water.
These practices also benefit farmers and the local economy. Herds kept out of streams are healthier, as dirty water can lead to infections like mastitis and cattle can be injured after getting stuck in the mud. Cattle that drink cleaner water can produce more milk and gain more weight, leading to higher profits. Local businesses that install fencing, sell lumber and supplies, and raise trees, benefit from cost-share funding. Farmers spend less money on fertilizer when they use nutrient management plans as they avoid overapplying fertilizer.
Forrest Pritchard, who raises cattle and other livestock at Smith Meadows farm in Clarke County, Virginia, has experienced the benefits firsthand after protecting his farm’s streams with cost-share funding.
“Successful operators know that soil fertility is like money in the bank. After we fenced off our stream twenty years ago, we saw dramatic improvements in forage yields, moisture retention, and animal health,” Pritchard said. “With cost share, the choice was simple: keep that fertilizer working for us in the fields, and out of the watershed.”
The bills are expected to be considered before the Feb. 12 legislative crossover date by the Virginia House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources and Virginia Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Natural Resources.