Bridge-Building on Tangier Island

1/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

Bay Visits Lead to Strong Relationships Between Farmers, Chesapeake Bay Foundation



The next time farmers and environmental groups find themselves at odds over water quality issues, they might consider spending a weekend together on the water.

It’s an approach that’s paid off well for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and Virginia farmers who have participated in CBF-sponsored trips to Tangier Island.

Over the past decade, several hundred farmers — most of them from the Shenandoah Valley — have visited Tangier Island to learn about challenges and issues faced by bay watermen, who live downstream and whose livelihoods depend on a healthy bay ecosystem.

According to Libby Norris, a watershed restoration scientist with the CBF who organized the bay visits, the trips have led to strong, mutually beneficial relationships between her organization and the agricultural community. Norris also attributes some of the progress made in recent years toward meeting Virginia’s water quality goals to the trips, which emphasized the similarities between farmers and watermen.

“Everyone wants to be able to raise a family and make a living in a clean, healthy environment,” said Norris, in a press release issued to accompany a new video highlighting the impact of the trips.

Mike Bazzle, one farmer featured on the video, returned to his farm in Rockingham County with a new appreciation for the challenges facing bay watermen — ones that sound all too familiar to most farmers.

“They’re dealing with the exact same issues that we deal with — labor, regulation, permits, the economy,” said Bazzle, in the video.

Another participant on one of the the trips said it served as a good reminder that other communities’ welfare depends on clean water.

“It certainly reinforced things that I was already attempting to do (on my farm),” said Buff Showalter, who also farms in Rockingham County. “It helped me realize once again that none of us are an island unto ourselves. What we do certainly affects other people.”

Norris said the most important legacy of the visits to Tangier Island has been the development of trusting relationships between CBF staff and farmers she and her colleagues have gotten to know through the trips.

“It really has helped open up some opportunities to do some different things,” Norris said. “It’s been all about relationships between people.”

The trust established between Norris and farmers she’s gotten to know have allowed for candid discussion about various projects the CBF has been involved with, and about policy and legislation it attempts to influence, she said.

Much of the organization’s agenda in Richmond each year during the General Assembly is influenced by conversations with farmers who have been on one of the bay trips, she added.

Showalter agreed that the decade of visits have built significant trust, saying Norris’ efforts have seen uncommon success in developing beneficial relationships between farmers and an environmental organization.

For now, Norris said, the CBF has no trips to Tangier Island planned for 2013. Instead, she hopes to build on the relationships established over the past decade in a variety of ways. One idea she hopes to pursue is using small, informal discussion groups to gather input from farmers on ideas the CBF has for new programs and projects, as well as bigger policy goals.

She added that she hopes the conversation will not just flow in one direction, and that the small group discussions will provide farmers with an opportunity to benefit from the resources and conservation programs the CBF has to offer.

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