Funding for agricultural cost-share programs is at an all-time high as Gov. Ralph Northam sent more than $3 million to the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District earlier this month.
To push best management practices focusing on preserving the Chesapeake Bay, Northam allocated a record $73 million to be split among the 47 different soil and water conservation districts around the state. Lord Fairfax, the local conservation district, received $3.4 million — more than twice as much as last year — according to Allyson Ponn, education and program support specialist for the district.
“With the increase in funding, we’ll be able to help more farmers,” Ponn said. “Now is the time if you’re interested or curious, now is the time to come into our office.”
Funding flowing down from the state is helping to implement phase three of a best management practices program that conservation districts have been working on for months. Ponn said districts have been providing recommendations for new projects and practices to the state over the last year. The state received more than 190 recommendations for projects, she said.
The cost-share program, Ponn said, is freeing up farmers and agricultural landowners to receive reimbursement for a bevy of projects designed to prevent run-off and improve overall water quality, including cover crops, animal waste storage and livestock exclusion programs.
At the center of the best management practices program is the Chesapeake Bay and, by extension, the rest of Virginia's water bodies and streams
Although Shenandoah and Warren county residents aren’t directly affected by the conditions in the bay, Ponn said they are directly involved in helping put the bay on a “pollution diet” and protecting water in their own backyard.
“What we do here impacts the rest of the Shenandoah and all across the state before it reaches the Chesapeake Bay,” Ponn said. “Anything that happens in this water is directly impacting our backyard water.”
Best management practices can be expensive and that’s why conservation districts are so excited about the increased funding, Ponn said. Every penny of the most recent injection of money is reserved for the cost-share program, creating an incentive for farmers and agricultural landowners to invest and partner with their local conservation districts.
“The way the cost-share works [is] the farmer foots the bill as the process goes on but once the project is completed, we are able to cut them a check for reimbursement,” Ponn explained. “That’s what all that funding is going to.”
Landowners do have to work with the conservation district throughout the project to be eligible for reimbursements, Ponn said. But the partnership, she said, is a beneficial one for everyone involved.
“We are kind of the middleman,” Ponn said. “We like to hear the farmer(s') or the landowners' vision and what they want to see happening and then seeing how we can come in and put in a conservation lens.”
In addition to cost-share programs throughout the district, Ponn said the Department of Environmental Quality is handing out low-interest loans for best management practices projects as well.
By partnering with the conservation district and taking advantage of low-interest loans, Ponn said, some landowners will be able to complete projects at almost no cost.