Cost-Share Program Attracts Interest and Concern

1/4/2014 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

A relatively new cost-share program in Virginia, covering the entire cost of fencing livestock at least 35 feet from stream banks, has attracted hundreds of applications within its first year.

The program, announced in December 2012, replaced a previous one that provided 75 percent cost-share funding for stream fencing — and associated upgrades such as alternative watering systems — with a 35-foot buffer. Since July 2009, a reduced-setback program has provided 50-percent cost-share for stream fencing installed 10 feet from the stream bank, although it has received far fewer applications over the past year.

Through the end of the 2013 fiscal year on June 30, soil and water conservation districts across the state received 379 applications for the new stream fencing program. In the first five months of the current fiscal year, at least 200 more have been received, causing some districts to run out of an entire year’s allocation of cost-share money very quickly.

Gary Moore, agricultural incentives coordinator for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, or DCR, said those numbers reflect significant levels of interest in the practice.

As of early December, the Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District or SWCD, covering Rockingham and Page counties, had only received eight applications for the program and still had cost-share money available, according to administrative coordinator Elizabeth Dellinger. She speculated that a number of factors contribute to the relatively low interest, including a large number of farmers in the area who don’t participate in cost-share programs for religious reasons, and the fact that stream fencing has been heavily promoted in the Valley for years — meaning many of those who are open to doing so have already fenced their streams.

Megen Dalton, Shenandoah Valley SWCD district manager, also said the 35-foot buffer requirement simply takes away more of their pastures than they’re willing to give.

“Some people just can’t, or won’t, for whatever reason, give up that land,” Dalton said. “At 35 feet, even at 100 percent cost-share funding, they’re just not interested.”

Kevin C. Craun, a dairy farmer from Bridgewater, Va., and a board member of the Shenandoah Valley SWCD, said the shape of some of his pastures and streams make fencing at a 35-foot buffer impractical.

“That setback on either side of the stream would take up too much of our land,” said Craun, who has fenced streams elsewhere on his farm. “It just doesn’t fit our situation in that instance.”

Dalton and Dellinger also said the creation of the new program has prompted some to speculate that 100-percent cost-share funding is a precursor to new regulations that will require streams to be fenced.

“I have to think many farmers have read the writing on the walls,” said Dalton, referencing the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, by which the EPA is requiring large reductions in nutrient and sediment pollution in the bay watershed. Dalton encourages any farmers who are considering fencing streams on their farms to take advantage of the state’s current offer to pay for the whole thing.

Craun doubts that will happen any time soon, although he said it could happen 10 or 15 years in the future. He also said he doesn’t particularly like the 100-percent fencing program, as he believes requiring farmers to make some investment in the practice creates a greater sense of ownership and responsibility.

According to DCR spokesman Gary Waugh, the state currently has no plans to require stream fencing on farms. The decision to up cost-share funding for 35-foot stream fencing from 75 percent to 100 percent, he said, is related to the fact that stream fencing is regarded as a “priority practice” for reducing water pollution.

“The intent is to make this cost-share practice as powerful as possible for as many farmers as possible, so that we don’t have to regulate stream exclusion,” Waugh said.

But because of Virginia’s obligations under the bay TMDL, he said if the current 100-percent cost-share approach doesn’t work, the state may have to consider making fencing mandatory.

“It’s really up to the agricultural community to see how widely they implement this practice,” Waugh said. “If this doesn’t work, then certainly we’ll look at other ways to try and get more stream exclusion.”

In Virginia’s current plan to comply with the bay TMDL, it has committed to fencing 95 percent of the banks of permanent streams that border pastures in the watershed by 2025.

James Davis-Martin, the state Department of Environmental Quality Chesapeake Bay non-point source coordinator, said the latest assessment found that 85 percent of those stream banks had already been fenced, putting Virginia fairly close to its goal. Davis-Martin cautioned, however, that the state’s method for measuring stream fencing is still a work in progress and likely isn’t very accurate.

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