Following Critical Studies of Low Fencing Rates in Shenandoah Valley, State Boosts Subsidies in 2019 and Triggers Wave of Applications.
$2.26 Million More in State Funds Approved Today for Virginia’s New “Small Herd Initiative”
Washington, D.C. – The number of Virginia farmers signing up for a livestock fencing program to protect the Shenandoah River and other waterways from pollution – a key step in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup – doubled in 2019 and 2020 after the state boosted reimbursement rates.
While an average of 290 farmers a year installed livestock fencing with partial state reimbursement from fiscal years 2016 through 2019, that number jumped to 692 in fiscal 2020 (from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020) and is on a pace for more than 900 in fiscal 2021, according to new data from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“This is a significant improvement and great news for keeping manure, sediment, and fecal bacteria out of the Shenandoah River and its tributaries,” said Mark Frondorf, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper. “We had been seeing only a small percentage of farmers fencing their livestock out of waterways, but Virginia now appears to be moving in a better direction with the increased payments to farmers.”
The change happened on July 1, 2019, when the state increased reimbursement rates for farmers who installed streamside fencing. The rates rose from 75 percent, to between 85 and 100 percent, depending on the width of streamside buffers and the length of time farmers promise to maintain fences.
On top of this, Virginia also started offering farmers additional payments of $80 per acre per year for creating strips of trees and vegetation along waterways to act as natural green filters to keep manure and other pollutants out of waterways, according to the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
“Virginia deserves praise for stepping up and really taking action to address a chronic water pollution problem that has been making many waterways unsafe for swimming because of E. coli bacteria,” said Tom Pelton, Director of Communications with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). “The Commonwealth remains far behind in its Bay cleanup goals for streamside fencing. But these increased payments to farmers and reimbursement rates appear to be working to help close the gap.”
To further strengthen the fencing reimbursement program, today (December 16) the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board voted in favor of $2.26 million in state funding for a new program, called the “Small Herd Initiative,” which will start on July 1, 2021. The new program will provide owners of small cattle operations (20 to 35 cattle) even more money to install streamside fencing – up to $25,000 per farmer in some cases, depending on the specifics of the operation.
“What we are attempting to do through the Small Herd funding is offer extra incentives,” Darryl M. Glover, Director of the Division of Soil and Water Conservation at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, told the state board during an online public meeting today.
In April 2019, EIP and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper released a report, based on aerial surveys, that documented for the first time that only 19 percent of 1,676 livestock farms with streams or rivers running through them in Virginia’s biggest farming counties, Augusta and Rockingham, had fenced their cattle out of waterways. This was despite the fact that Virginia had promised EPA in 2010 it would protect 95 percent of streams through pastures with fencing by 2025, as part of a Chesapeake Bay cleanup deadline.
In response to this report, Virginia followed two of the report’s recommendations and boosted reimbursement rates for fencing projects to 100 percent (as they had been from 2012 to 2015.) The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation also performed its own, independent aerial survey, which was released in May 2020.
This state study concluded that 41 percent of the farm parcels with livestock in Rockingham County (or 419 out of 1,023) had fenced their cattle out of perennial streams. The state survey reached a slightly different result than the EIP study because it used a different definition of streams. The state study examined only streams that run year-round, as opposed to EIP’s study, which also included streams that flow part of the year.
In the aftermath of the increase in funding for farmers in July 2019, the number of farmers in Rockingham County signing up for the fencing program doubled, from an average of about 8 per year from FY 2016-2019 to 12 in fiscal 2020 and 20 in the first five months of fiscal 2021, which started on July 1, 2020, according to state figures.
In Augusta County, the number of farmers signing up for the program rose form an average of 12 per year in fiscal years 2016-2019, to 26 in fiscal year 2020, and 27 so far in the fiscal year that started on July 1.
Statewide, the number of farmers enrolling in the program more than doubled to 692 in fiscal 2020 and are on a pace for more than 900 in fiscal 2021, according to statistics from the Department of Conservation and Recreation. More than half of these farms (379 in fiscal 2020, and 173 so far in fiscal 2021) are installing extra-wide 50-foot buffers, which are more protective of water quality than the standard 35-foot buffer.
Although excluding livestock from public waterways is currently voluntary, a state law signed by Governor Northam on April 11, 2020, (SB704), could mandate streamside fencing starting in 2026 if farmers fail to meet state goals of reducing runoff pollution from farms by the Chesapeake Bay cleanup deadline of 2025.
To sign up for the fencing reimbursement program, farmers should contact the Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District at firstname.lastname@example.org or other local conservation districts in their counties.
Journalists seeking data on the Virginia fencing program can contact Darryl M. Glover, Director of the Division of Soil and Water Conservation at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, at email@example.com
The Environmental Integrity Project is an 18-year-old, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., that protects public health and the environment by investigating polluters and strengthening public policy.
Shenandoah Riverkeeper is part of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, a member-supported nonprofit organization founded in 2,000 whose mission is to protect the public’s right to clean water in the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.
Media contacts: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Fritz Schneider, Potomac Riverkeeper Network (301) 728-4811 or email@example.com