Farm Bureau Talks Facilities And Neighbors asked about how could and there’ not

Farmers Say There’s Two Sides To Water Quality Issues

Because the number of farms in Rockbridge County is shrinking, farmers are recognizing that there’s a greater chance for misunderstandings with their nonfarming neighbors.

These concerns were expressed at an Oct. 21 Rock-bridge Farm Bureau meeting, which focused on permits for agricultural facilities.

Sam Crickenberger, the director of community development for Rockbridge County, was the first to speak, and he set the tone by reiterating what, by now, must be well known to those in the business.

“Things have changed a little bit,” Crickenberger said. “And I’m not sure they’ve changed for the better.”

He noted that the number of farms in Rockbridge County was down by 10 percent from the 2012 census, that the land in farms was down by 20 percent and that the average size of farms was down by 11 percent. Average farm income, however, had increased marginally from 2012.

“Another statistic that literally jumps out,” Crickenberger continued, “and we see this in almost any business or industry these days is — we’re getting older. When you look at the brackets of 35 and under, it looks like you’ve only got about a little over 50 younger folks moving into farming.”

With fewer farmers in Rockbridge County, it might be that fewer people personally know a farmer and understand what they do. Nationwide, it has long been recognized that there’s a gap between consumers and what farmers would view as basic knowledge; in other words, where our food comes from, and what it takes to make it.

Even in a rural county - with dwindling numbers of farmers -there’s plenty of room for misunderstanding.

Essentially, the purpose of this Farm Bureau meeting was to help farmers avoid trouble with their neighbors and the local government.

The meeting addressed questions regarding required permits for agricultural facilities, and Virginia Right to Farm laws, which help protect farmers from lawsuits. These laws received stiff criticism in the past, because many believed that they were intended to remove barriers from corporate farming activity. Farmers asked about how they could avoid nuisances and pollution, and when they should notify a neighbor about the construction of a farm facility.

Crickenberger noted that the state and the county do make efforts to support farmers and farming. For local examples, he listed the land use taxation program, the fact that farm machinery is exempted from the machinery tool tax, the Ag and Forestal overlay district, and conservation easements.

Later in the meeting, though, it seemed like farmers were more worried about their non-farming neighbors than they were about governmental issues.

Those comments followed naturally after a presentation from Andrew Smith, an associate director at the Virginia Farm Bureau, who discussed nuisances in connection with Right to Farm laws.

He shared a personal story.

“Next county up from Augusta, a friend of mine was putting in two poultry houses,” Smith said. “And a neighbor was complaining, saying feathers were getting in her yard, but a bird hadn’t even been put in the barn yet — I guess she was, uh, foreshadowing.”

Some farmers also expressed frustration with “Troubled Waters: Building Bridges,” the three-part series of water quality talks sponsored this fall by Rockbridge Water Monitors, a group of concerned citizens allied with the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council and 50 Ways Rockbridge.

“These people that are harping on us so bad about what the cattle and livestock are doing to our waterways,” one Farm Bureau attendee said, “[they don’t know that] there’s numerous septic systems in this county that are over 50 years old ... where do these folks thing that their waste is going? It’s going right down beside their well in most cases.”

The crowd laughed.

“Yummy,” someone said.

Local Farm Bureau President Mack Smith also suggested that other factors besides cattle feces contribute to the impairment of water quality in Rockbridge. He wondered, for instance, where all of the recreational rafters and swimmers on the James River are going when they feel the urge.

“I really have a problem, not with the cattle in the stream, but with the people in the stream,” Smith said. “I see these thousands of people coming down the James River, and there’s not a port-a-john, or anything anywhere up and down that river, so think were that waste goes.”

“It’s time that we, from the farm side, show them some of the things that we’re concerned with,” one Farm Bureau attendee said. “They’re concerned with us because there are so few of us.”

Local dairy farmer Linda Leech also criticized the water quality meetings, stating that one of the speakers did not demonstrate a firm grasp of general farming knowledge. She suggested that local farmers should be a presence at those meetings.

Barbara Walsh, the executive director of the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, told The News-Gazette later that in RACC there has “never been any desire to alienate the farming community.” She also mentioned that RACC is a member of the Farm Bureau, and that she was pleased to hear that several local farmers had attended the last water quality meeting, which featured Swoope farmer Joel Salatin as the speaker.

Some government initiatives to clean up the Chesapeake Bay provide funding for farmers to change practices in order to improve water quality. For instance, there’s funding for farmers who want to build fences to keep cattle out. However, as one Farm Bureau attendee mentioned at the Oct. 21 meeting, farmers who want to build a fence still have to invest the time, energy and money first, and then wait to be reimbursed afterwards.

This program is set up so that Rockbridge can meet federal standards to clean up its streams by 2025.

“If we don’t, then all of those voluntary financial incentive programs for improving how we do things go away,” Walsh told The News-Gazette. “We’re very worried that our farming community is gonna be under the gun to do things without financial help and they will be required to do it, so we just thought this was a good time to take a deep breath, look around, look at the big picture and ask, ‘You know, what is our best path forward?’”

The local Farm Bureau itself will be addressing water quality at its next meeting on Jan. 16, a topic that makes good on Mack Smith’s Oct. 21 suggestion.

“We farmers will have a Farm Bureau meeting and we’ll invite those people to come in and hear what we have to say,” he said. “Because there are two sides of this thing.”

The News-Gazette

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