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Progress Down on the Farm

Much in the news are stories about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, pollution diets, state watershed implementation plans, and a Farm Bureau lawsuit against EPA.

M Wastler But far away from the headlines and heated rhetoric, good people are quietly doing good work to improve water quality and their farms. That’s the view of Mark Wastler (left), a Chesapeake Bay Foundation restoration field technician and working farmer reaching out to farmers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Wastler’s job is to engage farmers in conversations about conservation. He tries to convince them that there are practical, affordable ways to employ clean-water practices that benefit local stream health and their farms.

His focus is a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant project targeting three streams in Rockingham County: Cooks Creek, Muddy Creek, and Lower Dry River. All have multiple cattle and poultry farms in their drainage areas, and all three streams are polluted by bacteria and sediment or have unhealthy benthic (bottom) conditions. The goal of the grant project is to fence out livestock along the lengths of the three streams.

Wastler has initially concentrated his efforts on Cooks Creek, a rural stream that meanders 13.7 miles through farm country but also receives runoff from urbanized areas in nearby Harrisonburg and Dayton. There are 31 farms in the Cooks Creek watershed, and since he started the job 10 months ago, Wastler has visited 29 of them. He does it the old fashioned way – “cold calling” on the farms to introduce himself and establish a personal relationship with farmers and their families.

Many of the farms along Cooks Creek are small dairy operations owned by Old Order Mennonite farmers, who for reasons of faith and conviction do not accept government subsidies that typically help farmers afford conservation practices like stream fencing. But that hasn’t deterred Wastler, himself a former Mennonite, an ordained Episcopal priest, and a farmer who operates a 34-acre spread in Bentonville, Va.

“There’s a strong conservation ethic among some of the Old Order leadership,” Wastler says, noting that several of the Mennonite farmers had already fenced their streams at their own expense before he came calling. “Nearly all of them are open to discussing the importance of conservation. All are concerned about water quality and ‘downstream thinking’ – the impact on farmers farther downstream.”

Working in partnership with the local Soil and Water Conservation District office, Wastler is seeing Paddle_for_the_Bay_2008 011  results. Today, 23 of the 31 farms along Cooks Creek have either fenced their livestock out of the creek or have projects under way to do so.  As the singer said, two out of three ain’t bad.

Wastler frankly admits he likes and admires the farmers he deals with. “They’re committed to farming, to their way of life, and making their part of the planet healthier.”

A big concern is manure management. Dairy and poultry farm animals produce prodigious amounts of manure, which has traditionally been spread as fertilizer on pastures and crop fields. As a result, Manure however, the soils in many parts of Shenandoah Valley now have an excess of phosphorus, which can contaminate ground and surface waters and contribute to the Bay system’s nutrient pollution woes.

Federal and state water quality officials and conservation groups like CBF are rightly concerned about the problem. As a result, CBF and others have partnered on research and development, looking to identify new markets for the manure, to find alternative uses for it, or even to convert it to biofuel. The problem of excess farm manure persists, however. That’s a big worry for the farmers Wastler talks to.

“They fear that someone is going to prohibit using manure as fertilizer and leave them with no options,” he says. “They fear they will lose their farms, that it will be the end of their way of life.”

That’s why he and CBF are committed to finding practical, workable solutions to help farmers achieve clean water and remain economically viable. Ultimately, “It’s about one-on-one relationships and helping each other,” Wastler says. ”Conservation and water quality improvements will happen only if we help local communities.”

So, Bay Daily readers, what to do? As in every arena of life, the devil is in the details, and behind all the headlines are real people in real communities with individual issues that need individual attention.  I suppose we can either work through these issues amicably, as Virginia’s Bay cleanup plan proposes, or spend years in litigation and rancorous debate.

But regardless of how you feel about the cleanup, for Bay water quality to improve, farmers will need to be a part of the solution.  CBF and folks like Wastler are dedicated to making that happen. 

Chuck Epes
Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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