Forum Brings Conservation Nonprofits to Valley

3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

Field Trips Showcase Farmers’ Perspectives on BMPs

WEYERS CAVE, Va. — On a damp, chilly morning March 5, just hours before two feet of snow started falling on the Shenandoah Valley, about two dozen representatives of conservation groups and public agencies visited Cave View Farms for a hayride and nutrient management discussion.

During the tour, Cave View Farms owner Gerald Garber showed visitors the various projects he’s completed over the years to keep nutrients cycling on his farm and through his 525 dairy cows, rather than escaping down the Shenandoah River and into the Chesapeake Bay.

Garber discussed his experience with cost-share programs he’s used for some, but not all, of the best management practices on the farm, including manure storage, stream fencing, rotational grazing, grass-covered waterways to drain fields and numerous others.

Garber told the group that one of his nutrient management strategies is to have enough manure storage capacity to allow his spreading to be dictated by his needs and good weather, not lack of space

“You have to have dialogue,” said Garber, who hosts about five or six such tours of his farm each year, in the hope of improving communication and understanding between farmers and conservation organizations that work on agricultural issues. “We can’t afford to look bad, and we certainly can’t afford to look bad if it’s over a misunderstanding.”

The field trip was part of an annual Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Networking Forum hosted by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, or NFWF. About 120 people from around 60 nonprofits and state agencies that receive grant funding from NFWF attended this year’s forum in Staunton, Va.; the event rotates each year between Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

In recent years, NFWF has awarded grants totaling between $8 million and $12 million for conservation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, with about one-third of that total devoted to agricultural conservation programs, according to Amanda Bassow, director of NWFW’s Chesapeake program.

After the visit to Garber’s farm, the field trip made a second stop to discuss nutrient management at North Point Farm in New Hope, Va. There, Kevin Phillips, one of four brothers that owns and operates the farm, and NRCS agronomist Richard Fitzgerald discussed the value of maximizing yield to allow for high rates of nutrient application and nutrient removal.

Fitzgerald reviewed Phillips’ nutrient management plan with the group, and noted the importance of thinking about whole-farm nutrient cycling rather than simply looking at nutrient application rates.

As an example, Fitzgerald pointed out that the relatively high rate of total nitrogen application for corn on one of Phillips’ farms — 228 pounds per acre, including dairy slurry, starter and sidedress fertilizer — was offset by a yield of 35 tons of corn silage per acre that removed 333 pounds of nitrogen.

Fitzgerald emphasized that when taken alone, Phillips’ rate of nutrient application could raise red flags, but when considered in context of nutrient cycling on the whole farm, it represents one component of a profitable and environmentally conscious management program.

“Part of what we were trying to do this year was to have farmers be a little more front and center,” said Jim Baird, mid-Atlantic director for the American Farmland Trust, and one of the leaders of the field trip to Garber’s and Phillips’ farms. “An (important thing) is for organizations to understand BMPs from the farmer’s point of view.”

Simultaneous field trips took other agriculture networking forum attendees to valley farms to learn about manure-to-energy systems and stream fencing. Later in the day, the forum hosted a panel discussion that gave several farmers an opportunity to discuss balancing conservation and profit, and field questions from an audience mostly made up of nonfarmers who work to promote economic and environmentally beneficial farm practices.

“We’re particularly interested in how to make conservation practical for farmers, and to hear directly from them about issues that are barriers to adopting these conservation programs is valuable,” said Bassow, the NWFW Chesapeake programs director.

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