By LAURENCE HAMMACK, The Roanoke Times
WIRTZ, Va. (AP) – The herd of Black Angus cows that approached Alex Hunt at his Franklin County farm, hoping for a grain donation, seemed quite benevolent.
But if left free to roam 430 acres of fields and forests, cattle would surely head to one of the territory’s four streams. There they drank the water, ate the vegetation, and wallowed along the banks, digging large pits of mud from which sediment would be washed downstream.
“I can say without a doubt that in ranching areas like Franklin County, Augusta County, and Rockingham County, the number one water pollution problem is cattle in the backyards. water,” said Bobby Whitescarver, a retired government conservation official who now runs a consultancy firm that works to restore watersheds.
“You’re talking about 1,000 pound cattle digging into the creek bank with their hooves,” he said. “They absolutely destroy the water quality.”
There is a solution, and Hunt is part of it.
With financial assistance from state and federal agencies, the third-generation farmer had nearly 10 miles of barbed wire fencing installed to keep cows out of streams — and, therefore, sediment out of water.
The project also involved planting trees on 8 acres of land by the creek and building alternative watering points for his cows, who now drink well water pumped from water troughs.
“I think the payoff was worth it,” Hunt said on a recent May afternoon as he stood next to a head of about 85 cows that had gathered at the shady trees a safe distance from an unnamed tributary of Maggodee Creek.
Hunt remembers having reservations when he started work about eight years ago.
“I was younger when I did that,” the 40-year-old said. “I was borrowing a lot of money and I wasn’t 100% sure of getting my money back. It was a bet. »
“But I think in the long run it’s money well spent.”
The upgrades cost about $100,000, which has since been fully reimbursed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and federal agencies such as the Farm Service Agency and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.
Earlier this year, Hunt’s farm was one of nine statewide to receive a Clean Water Farm Award from the DCR and local soil and water conservation districts.
“These farms are shining examples of the farming community’s commitment to improving water quality,” said Darryl Glover, deputy director of the state conservation agency, in an announcement of the awards.
With the advent of more severe storms attributed to climate change, the risks posed by erosion and sedimentation in streams and rivers are gaining more attention in Virginia and across the country.
When mud and silt – whether caused by cows, construction projects, or runoff from city streets and parking lots – seeps into bodies of water, it can threaten fish, invertebrates and wildlife. aquatic vegetation.
Moving downstream, sediments can also affect drinking water supplies and cover the bottom of rivers and lakes with a gradually thickening layer of silt.
From Hunt’s farm, surface water flows into Maggodee Creek, which then joins the Blackwater River on the way to Smith Mountain Lake and beyond.
Also known as non-point source pollution – meaning it comes from multiple locations instead of just one industry or construction site – sedimentation has been identified as a major quality risk. water by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Another problem is manure from cows, which particularly like to wallow in stream and river beds for relief from the summer heat.
Virginia is stepping up efforts to encourage farmers to follow Hunt’s example and dedicating more funds to the conservation program, Glover said.
The General Assembly approved $74 million in the current fiscal year for efforts to reduce farm sedimentation. The money was distributed to 47 local soil and water conservation districts, which are responsible for receiving applications and awarding grants.
The Blue Ridge Soil and Water Conservation District, which serves Franklin, Henry and Roanoke counties and the city of Roanoke, received about $642,000 this year.
The district nominated Hunt Farm for this year’s award, said chairman Roger Holnback, because “they were truly dedicated heart and soul to doing the right thing.”
Participation in the program is voluntary and more registrations are needed, said Whitescarver, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation officer who now runs a private consulting firm, Whitescarver Natural Resources Management.
“On a more positive note, there is more public funding,” he said.
While budget details for the upcoming fiscal year have yet to be finalized, Glover said the amount for Virginia’s Agricultural Best Management Practices Conservation Program is expected to be well over $74 million. current.
The exact percentage of farms that have chosen to take advantage of the program to date is unclear, in part due to the ever-changing number of farms in Virginia.
But in the Chesapeake Bay area, a drainage area that comprises about 60% of the state, work was completed on 37% of stream images targeted for improvements through last June, Glover said.
Efforts to reduce sedimentation in streams and rivers are not limited to farms. In Roanoke, for example, the city council in 2013 imposed a stormwater utility fee based on the square footage of all impervious surfaces (driveways, parking lots, etc.) owned by residents, businesses, and government entities. .
Fear that such a mandate would eventually be imposed on farmers was one of the reasons Hunt decided to take advantage of the state program when he did.
As he drove his white pickup truck through the hills of his farm, Hunt explained how the upgrades have increased the number of deer, turkeys and other wildlife that now have better habitat.
While the cows were allowed to roam where they wanted on the property, the only two areas where they can now access a stream are narrow passages that have been made more resistant to erosion with geo-fabric and gravel.
“It just makes a farm look better,” Hunt said. “And the people down the line, I’m sure they appreciate it. They don’t see cow turds floating in front of them.
Protecting the farm was important to Hunt, whose life was built and shaped by the land he grew up on. “It’s my comfort zone,” he said of the wide-open space largely untouched by development.
The work has also added long-term value to the land, although Hunt has recently scaled back farming to save time for a new venture as an estate agent for a firm specializing in large rural plots.
A herd of approximately 150 beef cattle, which now has a new owner, remains on the farm. Hunt keeps a dozen near his home, the farm he grew up on.
A faint smile crossed Hunt’s face when asked what the cows thought of the new arrangement, which prevented them from accessing their favorite waterers.
“Honestly, they probably don’t like it that much,” he said. “But there are sacrifices to be made.”
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