by Pat Calvert, Upper James Riverkeeper
Healthy, working farms and farmers are critical assets to the sustainable protection of the James River and its tributaries. Virginia's agriculture community provides the Commonwealth with economic well-being, beautiful rural landscapes, food and a deepened "sense of place." With little doubt, farming is a rich source of Virginia's cultural heritage. Well-managed farms which utilize "best management practices" (BMPs) are assets that recharge groundwater and that permit the slowed infiltration, filtration and purification of runoff to prevent potential river pollution. Much has been done by our federal, state and local governments to assist farmers in excluding cattle from creeks and rivers since the inception of the Clean Water Act 40 years ago. Countless farmers and land managers have enrolled in cost-share and rebate programs to ensure that their farms are effectively ensuring clean water on the farm and off.
Unfortunately, too many farms to this day do not contain necessary BMPs to prevent cattle from entering and defecating in our public waters. These cattle access points contribute significantly to streambank erosion, nutrient pollution and bacterial contamination ― major pollutants to the James River. These same farms attract the kind of unwanted negative attention with which the greater farming community must concern itself. Though old habits may die hard, the agricultural community is a necessary and crucial partner in James River restoration. This excellent publication (http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/442/442-766/442-766_pdf.pdf) from Virginia Cooperative Extension details how farmers can actively and affordably improve their herd, land and economic health through streamside cattle exclusion strategies.
Destabilized riverbanks resulting from heavy-hoofed cattle entering the James River.
Land conversion from agriculture/forestry to urban/suburban is irreversible. If farmland is not lucrative through growing corn, cows or hay, then that land is very likely to grow buildings, roads, stormwater drains, parking lots and septic tanks. Even the worst polluting farm can be made healthy through relatively low cost and effective means while urban stormwater can be much more expensive and difficult to mitigate. As the Upper James Riverkeeper, I am currently spearheading a project to identify farms where cattle have direct access to the James River, engage in discussion with land managers and farmers, and to proactively ensure that these farms are provided with the necessary resources and funding to successfully achieve a "cow-free James River." We all need healthy farms for a healthy James.