Mandatory bay regulations could shut down Virginia farms

RICHMOND—If new legislation is passed reauthorizing the Chesapeake Bay Program, some Virginia farmers might have to close up shop.

Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin’s proposed legislation to reauthorize the bay program will make some agricultural best management practices mandatory, costing farmers millions of dollars and potentially putting some of them out of business.

For example, many farmers in the state have voluntarily paid for fencing to keep their livestock out of their streams, said John Goodwin, a Spotsylvania County dairy and beef cattle producer.

“These practices are voluntary at this point, and … we know we’ve done the right thing but now the federal government is telling us it’s not enough,” Goodwin said.

He estimated the cost of fencing on an average farm to be as much as $100,000. “Most average farms are not going to be able to afford that kind of hit,” Goodwin said.

For years, Virginia farmers have been implementing voluntary practices that contribute toward cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

“I don’t think the federal government is taking into account all the voluntary participation they’ve had in the last five to 10 years,” Goodwin said.

The proposed legislation amends section 117 of the Clean Water Act, which governs the Chesapeake Bay Program. The act uses a Chesapeake Bay computer model to determine what practices are affecting the bay.

But that model doesn’t take into account any voluntary practices that farmers use on their land or measures for which they’ve received cost-share funding.

“A significant amount of money comes through federal dollars, but those dollars aren’t being counted in the bay model, so farmers aren’t getting credit for the good work they’ve been doing,” said Wilmer Stoneman, associate director of governmental relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

“We’ve got dairy farmers that are in a crisis, and adding a mandate to say you shall do certain practices may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back with those particular farmers.”

Many farmers already use best management practices, or BMPs, including fencing cattle out of streams and using nutrient management plans to control erosion and minimize runoff of fertilizer into waterways.

“But many of these measures simply haven’t been counted by the current bay model, which blames agriculture for up to 50 percent of the pollution load in the watershed,” Stoneman said. 

“Before Congress passes expensive and costly regulations on Virginia farm families, we need to make sure our scientific facts are accurate and make sure we’re taking the correct steps to reduce runoff, not just pointing fingers.”

Contact Stoneman at 804-290-1024.

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