Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watershed

Ways to Protect Our Watershed

Sustainable Agriculture
A Workshop Held August 27, 2004, at Belle Meade Schoolhouse


The mission of RappFLOW is to help preserve, protect, and conserve watershed in Rappahannock county. Challenges facing agriculture are central to watershed protection. How to preserve agriculture?

The discussion today will provide input to the next RappFLOW activity, a workshop in September to consider all the input that RappFLOW has been gathered over the past two years of forums.

Jim Hurley, professional in organizational development from Arlington, introduced the questions to be discussed:

  1. What are the challenges facing the agricultural community?
  2. What types of resources, etc are farmers using currently--what works, doesn't work?
  3. Do existing cost share programs that help protect water quality benefit farmers? Why/why not? What would help solve #1 above? What would farmers most like to see? What would help farmers be more able or likely to help protect our water resources?

Gray Coyner recounted some of the challenges he has addressed as a farmer and conservationist since the 1950’s. He provided examples of ways in which viable agriculture is essential to environmental health, and identified several cost-sharing government programs that have assisted him on the 3,100 acre farm in Fauquier County he managed for several decades, and on his own farm. He discussed the critical roles of personnel in the cost-sharing programs in interpreting the programs, tailoring to meet specific farmer’s needs.

A. Challenges to Rappahannock Farmers

The following challenges were identified by the group:

  • Global trade and increasing agricultural imports at low commodity prices are making it impossible for farmers to make a profit.
  • Large international cartels control market prices and farmers have no control over what they can charge for their products.
  • Rappahannock County is not the best farmland.
  • The average farmer in Rappahannock Co makes $16,000 per year selling commodities.
  • Many farmers have to take an outside job in order to stay in farming.

Cultural challenges: “People who have been farming for generations are hesitant to accept any government assistance.” “Families spent lifetimes clearing land (along streams) and now are being asked to let it grow up.”

B. Usefulness of existing cost-share programs

There are about 300 farms in Rappahannock County. There are 24 Rappahannock farms in CREP program. Issues concerning cost-share programs included the following:

I. Lack of flexibility in program implementation. “Cost sharing programs such as CREP work in some situations but not others.” “Programs are not necessarily designed for our situation. Examples:

  • lots of tiny streams, if you fence off all of them you have no land left for the animals; shade is around the streams. That is important for the animals. Don’t want to fence off the shade.
  • Programs do not make a distinction between permanent grazing and rotation methods.
  • Programs do not make a distinction between a little tiny stream and a big river. Meaning, you have to fence of the same 35-foot buffer around a little trickle and the Rappahannock River. If you live in the headwaters, you have many more streams running through your property, so you have to fence out a lot more land than someone who lives along a bigger river or tributary.

II. Requirement for long term commitment. Participants cited several effects of the long term commitment in cost sharing programs:

  • “Cost share programs require you pay up front and get the cost sharing over time.” “ The programs are long term commitment by the farmer.”
  • “Riparian buffers take time to grow.”
  • “You are required to plant trees you could never get income from. If farmers required to plant trees that are not profitable investment, they cannot do it. “ There was some ambiguity about whether trees could be harvested and how much discretion there is regarding tree species to plant.
  • “You are paid at the most 15 years. After the rental time runs out, you don’t have the income and you don’t have the grazing land.”
  • “After you get your money, you are still responsible for maintaining the fences. Not feasible to lease that farm due to cost of maintaining all the fences.”

There was discussion of the voluntary nature of these current cost-share programs, and the belief that by 2010 the watershed management practices may become mandatory. “ If programs become mandatory, some farmers will subdivide and sell.”

C. What changes in the programs would make them more usable?

Giving program staff more flexibility to make judgments about how much buffer is sensible from conservation viewpoint as well as from the point of view of agricultural viability. If program staff could do that, more farmers would agree to join the program.

Having pro-active program staff who assist farmers in understanding and tailoring the programs to their situation is critical.

In addition, the book “Sources of Conservation Funding” describes all the various funding programs. Available from PEC.

D. What other programs or actions would be helpful in keeping agriculture viable in Rappahannock County?

Participants discussed programs that do assist farmers, and ways in which such efforts could be strengthened.

One major mechanism available to help Rappahannock County farmers maintain their land, is the land use taxation program. Not only does this program make it feasible for farmers to keep their land, but it also enables some farmers to obtain free use of additional farm land owned by absentee owners and weekender farmers. Several issues were discussed concerning land use taxation:

  • It limits county revenue. Combined with the commonwealth’s composite index, the result is constraints on school funding from both local and state sources.
  • Easements result in land use taxation to the land owner but are better for county revenue due to the way in which the commonwealth computes the composite index.
  • The need for public education concerning the merits and benefits of land use taxation for all citizens of the county. According to one estimate, fifty percent of the public does not favor land use taxation. Many taxpayers do not understand that full market value is paid on the house and surround, even when the overall farm is in land use taxation program. Efforts to foster better public understanding of land use taxation could be a useful step in retaining farmland and therefore in watershed protection.
  • The importance and implications of enforcing the rules of eligibility for land use taxation. Some participants felt that strict enforcement is politically essential; others felt the penalties are too severe and thus takes too much risk with farmland preservation.
  • Ways the program could be strengthened to further assist farmers in keeping their land. For example, barns could be taxed based on their use rather than market value.
  • Possible alternatives to, or augmentation of, land use taxation, such as purchase of development rights.

There was brief mention but little discussion of alternatives to traditional commodities production for Rappahannock farmers, i.e. niche products such as organic vegetable farms, horticultural products, grass-fed beef, or forestry products.

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