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USDA chief praises local ‘farm of future’

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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack talks with Gerry Silver about the success of his cover crops at Silver Ridge Farm in Fredericksburg, Va. on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack took a break from the office on Thursday to do a little field work in Stafford County.

The occasion was a gathering on Silver Ridge Farm in White Oak to praise the Silver family’s conservation efforts, which are helping to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and to announce a new report suggesting that farmers in the region are doing their part.

“This is the farm of the future,” Vilsack said, standing before a portable podium set up on a lush, green hillside overlooking Belle Plains Road.

“In order to survive for over 100 years in the farming business, you have to evolve,” Vilsack said. “Farming is different than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 100 years ago … and this is a great example of someone who understood the importance of conservation.”

Prior to his remarks, Vilsack rode with farmer Jerry Silver to a large, new rectangular building across a field next to a feed lot. The covered manure-storage site will help keep two nutrients—nitrogen and phosphorus—from running into nearby streams and, eventually, the bay.

Nutrients are a major source of bay pollution and are responsible for creating large “dead zones” during summer months. The chemicals feed massive algae blooms that rob oxygen from the water when they die.

The dry-storage building was built with funding from the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program.

Vilsack said such efforts by farmers—including no-till planting and cover crops—are making water quality improvements across the six-state bay watershed.

The report, part of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project, estimates that, since 2006, farmers and landowners have cut the amount of nitrogen leaving fields by 20 percent—49 million pounds a year. Phosphorus was reduced by 46 percent, 7 million pounds a year.

And field erosion was down by about 15 million tons annually—a 60 percent drop from 2006. The report noted that’s enough soil to fill 150,000 rail cars stretching 1,700 miles.

Soil and sediment washing into the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers affect water clarity needed by aquatic grasses, and can smother shellfish such as oysters.

“Soil eroding diminishes soil health, takes out phosphorus and nitrogen and puts it in rivers and streams,” Vilsack said, adding that 97 percent of cropland within the watershed now has some form of erosion control.

The USDA, he says, has committed $350 million toward conservation practices in the bay watershed. More than 17 million people live in the watershed, which includes 84,000 farms and ranches, according to the report. Agriculture contributes about $10 billion annually to the region’s economy.

Vilsack noted that a House–Senate conference committee was meeting in Washington on the proposed farm bill, which he called “so important to Jerry’s operation, the Chesapeake Bay area, and all of America. We need a farm bill, and we need it now.” The current bill has expired.

Silver told the group that Silver Ridge Farm, encompassing about 1,000 acres, has been in the family since 1870, and that one of his first conservation practices was no-till farming. That reduces plowing and erosion, “and I like the benefits it brings to the farm. It helps maintain moisture in the summer,” he said.

Nodding toward the green field behind him, he added, smiling, “This is an example of a pretty daggone good cover crop—even if it is mine.”

In addition, livestock is fenced out of streams and ponds, and the family has conservation easements on part of the property.

Silver farms the land with his son, Mike, and two employees.

He said farming and conservation go hand-in-hand.

“When we were kids, I remember ruts in a field so deep we had to take a block of wood and put it in to pull a wagon over it,” he recalled.

“Water going down that bare field caused problems. Now I don’t have that problem,” he said, and neither do nearby streams.

ABOUT THE REPORT

Highlights of the report:

  • Conservation practices by farmers and landowners since 2006 have cut nitrogen from fields by 49 million pounds per year, or 26 percent.
  • Phosphorus, another nutrient, has been reduced by 7 million pounds, or 46 percent.
  • Sediment caused by erosion during the period dropped by 15 million tons annually, a 60 percent reduction.

Read the full report at: nrcs.usda.gov

 

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com

 

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