Farmers, Citizens Talk Water Quality

TOM STANLEY, agricultural Extension agent for Rockbridge County, introduces the panel of local farmers at last month's forum on water quality issues. Panelists (from right to left) Jon McDonald, Beau Leech, Margaret Ann Smith and Allen Strecker listen. (Colin Whitmore photo)

TOM STANLEY, agricultural Extension agent for Rockbridge County, introduces the panel of local farmers at last month's forum on water quality issues. Panelists (from right to left) Jon McDonald, Beau Leech, Margaret Ann Smith and Allen Strecker listen. (Colin Whitmore photo)

Conservation Programs Discussed At Forum

Rockbridge County farmers and citizens packed the Appomattox Mezzanine at the Virginia Horse Center last month to discuss water quality and other ecological issues that local farmers are facing.

The Jan. 16 meeting was titled “Showcasing Agricultural Stewardship in Rockbridge County, Reaching for Water Quality Goals While Confronting Economic Realities.” The forum featured presentations from Robert Hickman and Charley Simmons.

Hickman is a conservation specialist with the Natural Bridge Soil and Water Conservation District, and Simmons is the district conversationalist for the Virginia Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Following the presentations, local farmers Beau Leech, Margaret Ann Smith, Jon McDonald, Wally Beckner, Glenn Szarzynski and Allen Strecker all shared their advice for eco-friendly farming, and experiences working with SWCD and NRCS programs.

Rockbridge County Farm Bureau President Mack Smith helped organize the meeting sponsored by the local Farm Bureau. “We thought it was time the greater Rockbridge community get a picture of what’s going on in the farming community related to these issues,” Smith said. The focus of the meeting was preventing waterway contamination. Both Hickman and Simmons highlighted the broad array of cost-effective programs their organizations sponsor to help farmers do this.

“Recently, our focus has moved towards fencing cattle out of waterways,” Hickman said. “We try to look for ways to help farmers improve their farms in eco-friendly and cost efficient ways.”

Hickman explained that while the programs aren’t perfect for everyone, they are worth considering. “We offer cost-share, flat-rate, percentage, and combination programs to help farmers finance fencing and other related projects.”

Simmons explained that while his organization tends to be more broadly focused, they work together with the SWCD to help Virginia farmers improve soil, water and other natural resource maintenance systems.

Some of the most common NRCS-sponsored projects include building electric and barbed wire fence, installing rotational grazing systems, developing natural springs, providing cover crop assistance, eliminating invasive species and stopping erosion around streams. In all, Simmons estimated the NRCS spends nearly $600,000 per year in projects.

Margaret Ann Smith, who runs Southlex Cattle Company, has used SWCD and NRCS programs many times for farm improvement projects. She commended the programs’ work, but said there is still room for improvement.

“The cookie cutter approach of these programs doesn’t work; it may work in other counties, but it doesn’t in Rockbridge,” she said. “These programs have become more flexible, but we still need more financial credit for some of the work we’ve already done. If we decide to go fence off a stream with money out of our own pocket, we get no credit as it currently stands.”

Leech, who runs Ingleside Dairy Farm, said he has used the programs for crop cover, manure storage, and animal lot maintenance. “I think the farm is better now because of these programs,” he said. “There are ways they could improve, but there’s probably something for everybody if you look into it.”

Beckner, who farms in the Brownsburg area, said conservation is something he’s been passionate about for a long time. “The last time we did any sort of tilling was probably 1985,” he said. “I don’t think I would know how to use tillage equipment today.” Tilling was once a common practice, but research shows it drastically accelerates runoff, disrupts soil structure, and leads to poor soil quality.

Glenn Szarzynski and his daughter Becky run Mountain Glen Farm in Raphine. Szarzynski says he’s done quite a bit of work with the NRCS to build water troughs and establish effective rotational grazing systems. “We do intensive rotational grazing,” Szarzynski said. “We try to move the cattle every day.”

Veterinarian Allen Strecker said one of the major benefits of rotational grazing is that it helps prevent cattle from ingesting the fescue endophyte fungus. The endophyte causes major problems in the cattle’s thermoregulatory system and leads to heat exhaustion, especially in the summer.

Strecker says rotational grazing helps contain the endophyte because most of the toxin is concentrated in the seed head. “If you don’t let it get tall, it’s not as much of a problem,” he said.

“Almost every time you see cattle standing in a body of water, it’s because they have ingested the endophyte and are trying to get cool,” Strecker said. “If we can keep them from getting the endophyte, you’ll rarely see them standing in water and ultimately damaging water quality.”

Another issue addressed at the meeting was the absentee landowner problem. “When land is being rented and the renter wants to pursue one of these programs, it’s unclear whether the renter or landowner pays for the project,” Margaret Ann Smith said. “This is a problem that needs to be addressed.”

After the panel spoke, citizens who attended the meeting asked how they can influence lawmakers in Richmond.

“It will have to be a political grassroots movement that starts with us,” said Mack Smith. “We need to start contacting our representatives about these issues because we have the potential to make things better.” Smith also encouraged citizens to engage with these issues on Farm Bureau’s blog page called “Plows and Politics.”

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