As Virginia’s farmers gear up for a new growing season, the state is developing a system to track their voluntary efforts to protect water quality.

Currently, such a system doesn’t exist in the Chesapeake Bay’s six-state watershed, "and except for maybe some unique watersheds it doesn’t exist at all," said Jack E. Frye, division director for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. Frye spoke to farmers at the Northern Neck Agriculture Summit, outlining Virginia’s plan to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandates in the Bay watershed.

In late December the EPA established a "pollution diet," also known as a total maximum daily load or TMDL, for the Bay. It sets limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that can flow into the Bay from farms, sewage treatment plants, urban and suburban streets, parking lots and lawns in the bay watershed.

The agency also in late December accepted Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan, submitted by state officials in November.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation and other agricultural organizations have long opposed the TMDL plan, asserting that the EPA relied on inaccurate assumptions and on a scientific model it admits was flawed to establish the TMDL limits. The AFBF filed a lawsuit Jan. 10 in federal court to block the TMDL’s implementation.

While there is some record of water quality best management practices for which Virginia farmers received state or federal grant or cost-share funding, it is not comprehensive, Frye noted, and many BMPs for which farmers did not receive assistance go untracked entirely.

"The real truth is we don’t know where we are" in terms of how many total BMPs are in place on Virginia farms to protect water quality.

Frye said a new tracking system would be administered by soil and water conservation districts and would rely heavily on producer participation.

"We hope to have that system piloted by the end of this year," he said, "and allow the stewardship ethic that farmers have to be given some credit. The true success of this is going to be to what extent we learn (what BMPs are) on the land and get credit for it."