WEYERS CAVE — The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation sponsored Tuesday’s regional agriculture networking forum, bringing together farmers, state officials and members of the Environmental Protection Agency to share ideas for scaling up nutrient and sediment reductions in the agricultural sector.
More than 80 people attended Tuesday’s forum that provided updates on how farms may be impacting the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The forum began with a session tackling Phase III of Virginia’s Watershed Implementation Plan followed by a session on soil health practices being important for managing water quality throughout the Bay.
“The commonwealth is thrilled the NFWF is here in the Shenandoah Valley,” said Ann Jennings, deputy secretary of the Virginia Department of Natural Resources. “The conference has been informative, educational and inspiring.”
Jennings said the forum provides an opportunity to share challenges and solutions, as well as emphasizing “how appreciative Virginia is that the NFWF has sort of focused its resources and energy in the Shenandoah Valley.”
For Jake Reilly, the Chesapeake director for the NFWF, the forum helps to advance the shared work of trying to achieve the same goal: Viable and sustainable agricultural economy for the bay watershed as a whole and water quality.
“This really is about environmental resource and really trying to figure out how can we continue to advance all interest into those shared goals,” Reilly said.
Jennings spoke on behalf of Secretary Matt Strickler during a panel on Phase III of WIP, providing an overview of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s goals for WIP.
“The bay is important for water quality, the environment, our health and it’s very important to Virginia’s economy,” Jennings said. “This effort to restore the bay is a priority for the Northam administration.”
The draft of Phase III of WIP was released in April with a comment period ending June 7.
“We received a wide variety of comments,” Jennings said. “We are still working through reviewing all of the responses. We should be providing a response by Aug. 9.”
During the session, Jennings discussed a number of practices that require the greatest effort and lift to operationalize the WIP in the Valley.
“The focus of the conversation were practices that include nutrient management planning, cover crops, animal waste storage, pasture management, livestock stream exclusion and stream side buffers,” Jennings said. “Those are the specific agriculture conservation practices that help the bottom line for the agricultural operation and also provide clean water benefits.”
Some of the resources needed to implement those practices include funding for Agricultural Best Management Practices, or BMP’s — a cost-share program that provide incentives and assistance to farmers.
“It is a longstanding program that will be the driving force in improving the health of the Shenandoah River and Chesapeake Bay,” Jennings said. “On July 1, we will have a historic level of funding through that program.”
Reilly said the NWFW “typically tends to compliment” larger state cost-share programs and incentive programs.
Despite the forum focusing on how farmers are impacting the nay, Jennings said “everyone has a role to play.”
“Pick up after animals, plant trees, reduce turf on land, use rain barrels … these are all things everyone can do to improve water quality,” Jennings said.
Reilly’s focus for the forum was highlighting the grant program provided by NFWF.
“The NFWF is a grant making organization established by Congress in 1984 and our mission is to support fish and wildlife habitat restoration conservation through grants,” Reilly said. “We have about a $12-15 million grant program for the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed. In the agricultural cost-share program, it’s $74 million.”
With sessions lasting for one day followed by a tour of three local farms, Reilly hopes attendees leave the forum feeling inspired.
“We want stakeholders, the folks really working on the ground, to feel empowered and inspired,” Reilly said. “We want them to walk away with new insights, new solutions and new approaches, and lastly we want folks to walk away with that idea of partnership and collaboration.”
The Agriculture Networking Forum in the Shenandoah Valley is convened to bring together agricultural and conservation partners who are working with and supporting producers across the region in the delivery of BMP’s, according to Mike Smith, CEO of Green Smith Public Affairs.
“These funding mechanisms include Farm Bill programs, state cost-share and grants from partners like NFWF,” Smith said. “Participating in the forum are experts and practitioners from Soil and Water Conservation Districts, National Resources Conservation Service, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Environmental Protection Agency, Virginia Cooperative Extension and a number of non-governmental organizations from across the region.”
Today’s farm tour is jointly convened by NFWF with the Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Workgroup. Attendees will visit the Coffman Farm, the Riverhill Farm and the Cave View Farm.
In addition to the farm tour, the Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Workgroup will hold its quarterly face-to-face meeting in Harrisonburg on Thursday.