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Written by Joan M. Comanor – a director with Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District, former chair of the Shenandoah Resource Conservation and Development Council, and long time member of Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River

Many local farmers are playing an important role in helping clean up the North Fork of the Shenandoah River.  They are applying conservation to their farm operations and using a variety of tools that are collectively known as “agricultural best management practices,” or Ag BMP’s.  Best management practices are a range of actions, and, in some circumstances, structures that are used to stop nonpoint source pollution from entering streams and rivers.  Scientific studies have documented the effectiveness of these BMP’s in agricultural settings in preventing sedimentation, animal waste, nitrogen, and phosphorus, in particular, from polluting our waterways.  Following is a discussion about how local farmers can and do help clean up the North Fork by using Ag BMP’s.

What are agricultural best management practices?

Agricultural best management practices (Ag BMP’s) are a specific set of tools that farmers can use to ensure their farming activities are carried out in a way to protect water quality and related natural resources.  They are designed to adapt to the farmer’s management objectives (grow crops, raise livestock, etc) and prevent eroding soils and pollutants from entering nearby streams while helping to increase on-farm productivity, by increasing fertility of the soil or livestock health.    The farmer using such practices becomes a steward of the land.  The practices are designed to keep soil on fields, build organic matter, and decrease compaction of the soil.  They help increase the absorption of water into the soil and slow storm water runoff;  help protect stream banks from erosion; provide buffers along streams that help prevent excess nutrients from entering the stream; provide alternative water sources for livestock, protect fragile areas such as wetlands or sinkholes, and restore woodlands.

Why are Ag BMP’s so important?

Ag BMP’s are very important for farmers to help protect our water quality from nonpoint source pollution.  They are designed for agricultural lands, while there are other practices targeted for urban situations (storm water management, sewage treatment facilities, etc).  Ag BMP’s are especially important in our area because we have so much farmland, and  we are part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  The streams in our area eventually empty into the Chesapeake Bay, which is a world-class natural resource that has major environmental problems.  Closer to home, more than 200 miles of the streams in Shenandoah County have been found to be impaired (e.g., not safe for drinking, fishing, or swimming), due to sedimentation, bacteria from animal and human waste, and/or excess nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen.  These sorts of pollutants come from our lawns and homes, towns, roads, and rural areas.   Wildlife are also contributors.  Some of our streams are so impaired that we should not eat the fish nor have extended contact of the water on our skin.

What sorts of activities are involved in Ag BMP’s?

The State of Virginia has more than 40 Ag BMP’s available to assist farmers, and there are cost sharing opportunities as an incentive.  Farmers voluntarily may choose to participate and receive payments that cover up to 75 percent of the costs of installing practices, and under some circumstances they can qualify for a state income tax credit of 25 percent.  A farmer who is interested may contact the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District (LFSWCD) (540-465-2435) and receive specific conservation advice tailored to the conditions found in each field on that farm.  A conservation plan with recommended practices is developed and may also include a schedule for installing multiple Ag BMP’s over time.

Practices can include reforesting of erodible crop or pastureland; developing a nutrient management plan for livestock or poultry operations; planting permanent vegetative cover; developing an alternative water system for livestock in pastures to keep them out of nearby waterways; building facilities to manage animal waste; or planting winter cover crops to protect bare soil in fields from wind or water erosion.  The objectives of all the practices are to keep nutrients on the land and out of streams, keep livestock out of streams, protect stream banks, and minimize the amount of time that bare soil on fields is exposed.

Do they really make a difference?  Who benefits?

There have been a number of studies that document the benefits of Ag BMP’s.  Properly installed and followed, they can greatly reduce the amount of nutrients or sediments that can enter streams from adjacent fields.  Installing buffers of permanent vegetation, such as trees, shrubs and grasses along a streamside has been found to capture excess nitrogen and phosphorus (it gets absorbed into the plants’ root system).  Providing livestock with alternative water sources has been shown to keep the animals healthier, particularly young calves, as well as preventing their waste from entering the stream.  The vegetative cover along the shoreline also helps maintain a cooler stream temperature by shading which is more beneficial for the fish and other aquatic life.

We all enjoy the rural setting of the Shenandoah Valley.  Undeveloped, open space lands avoid the adverse environmental impacts than result from paved surfaces and developed sites.  The farms using Ag BMP’s contribute to clean air and clean water, as well as provide locally-grown food.  In Shenandoah County alone, there are nearly 1,000 farms covering more than 133,000 acres.  Thus, when farmers put conservation practices on their land, we all share in the positive results.

How can farmers get more information and learn if they should install Ag BMP’s?

The Lord Fairfax SWCD office is in Strasburg, co-located with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  Each SWCD works in partnership with Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to offer the Ag BMP cost-share program.   The NRCS also has several federal cost share programs that may further aid the farmer in getting conservation on the land.  When a farmer contacts the SWCD, the District’s conservation specialist will set a time to meet with the farmer at the farm to review what the management concerns and opportunities are.  The specialist will then prepare a conservation plan for that farm, recommend the appropriate Ag BMP’s, and the process for qualifying for cost-sharing to put them in place.

Do many farmers in Virginia use Ag BMP’s?  How about in our area?

Since the mid-1980’s, Virginia DCR working through the local SWCD’s  has distributed more than $69 million to farmers and other landowners for Ag BMP’s.   In the last fiscal year, Virginia provided $12 million for AG BMP’s statewide, and Lord Fairfax SWCD provided nearly $840,000 of that to farmers in our area, with about $556,000 going to farmers in Shenandoah County.

Please call the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District if you are interested in installing best management practices and helping to improve water health on your land – 540-465-2435.