Letter: ‘Resilient’ farmers will restore the Chesapeake

As a conservation-minded farmer, I strongly support the Chesapeake Clean Water Act, and have written and called my senators expressing my support. Your article, [“Chesapeake cleanup challenged,” Oct. 21] didn’t speak for farmers like me. The Virginia Farm Bureau isn’t the voice of all Virginia agriculture, and the opposition between farmers and environmental groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is a false one.

There are exciting things going on in sustainable agriculture in our county, state and region, and the most successful and up-and-coming farms are those who choose to farm in innovative ways that won’t continue to degrade our environment until it’s beyond repair. I believe that farms can play a key role in restoring the Chesapeake Bay and that the Chesapeake Clean Water Act contains provisions critical to helping farmers take a leadership role in this effort.

Chris Parrish, who is quoted in the article as our county’s Farm Bureau president, claims that if farmers have to fence their cattle out of streams and take other conservation measures, they won’t be able to “make it” anymore and will leave farming. Mr. Parrish might not realize how adaptable and resilient farmers who truly love working with the land can be. Sometimes being made to adapt to a new situation and work through adversity can strengthen a farm.

Our farm was blindsided by adversity, in the form of 100 bales of herbicide-treated hay that was sold to us for mulch in 2006. The hayfield had been treated that spring with the broad-leaf herbicide Grazon, containing the chemical Picloram, which is in “Agent Orange.” We used it to mulch about two acres of our vegetable farm in the spring of 2007. Those two acres, about a quarter of our farm’s fields, were contaminated with herbicides and we were faced with many staggering problems.

First, we had to remove many tons of hay. We were able to do this with the help of many community members and our own crew. Then we had to grow as much as we could on the remaining acreage we had, trying to make the most of the season at hand.

Finally, we needed to figure out how to rehabilitate the damaged land, which meant taking those two acres out of production and growing cover crops for another full growing season. The surprising thing, in hindsight, is that being forced to take those acres out of production had many positive ramifications on our farm. It opened us to the possibility of adding a summer cover crop to our rotation, which has benefitted our soil’s health. We also had to look hard at which crops to trim and which to keep, which has led to a more streamlined farm system for us. We continue to keep some fallow fields in our rotation, and this allows us to have egg-laying chickens turning the soil, fertilizing, and eating pests right in our fields. We believe that our farm is better after having been dealt that blow.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Act gives farmers the opportunity to rethink their farms before disaster — in the form of a collapsed Chesapeake Bay ecosystem — strikes. It offers landowners plenty of support in the form of individual consultations and cash for farm improvements like fencing. It doesn’t unduly single out farmers — rather, it will help us all to enjoy an improved environment and bay for ourselves and our children.

Rappahannock County has many successful and vibrant farms like ours that prove that farming can be both economically profitable and gentle on our environment. Hopefully, the fear-driven position of the Farm Bureau will be overtaken by a more forward-thinking one, the Chesapeake Clean Water Act will succeed, and we’ll all benefit from it.

Rachel Bynum, co-owner
Waterpenny Farm

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