At a recent conservation-tillage tour, several Virginia farmers answered media questions as to their experiences and some of their successes with long-term conservation-tillage practices.

The topic was conservation-tillage, but ultimately the conversation got around to what’s the No. 1 topic on the minds of many Virginia farmers — the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

Question one: How did you decide which conservation-tillage practices work best on your farm from both an environmental and economic perspective?

John Mills, a grain farmer from Hannover, Va., says, “We farm right on the Pawmunky River and have numerous streams that run through the farm, and we have a cattle operation in addition to our grain operation. Those are some of the reasons we got into conservation-tillage many years back.”

Mills recalls a hurricane that came through their area of north-central Virginia and dumped 14 inches of rain on his farm in three hours. Cleaning up the land after the storm required some assistance from the Soil and Water Conservation Service.

“We have now started a mitigation bank on our farm operation, selling stream credits and wetland credits. When a contractor takes one acre out of wetlands, they have to replace each acre with two acres — that’s our primary market for these credits,” Mills explains.

Charles County, Va., grower Archer Ruffin says economics, pure and simple, got him interested in no-till. “We watched our neighbors and saw what some of their challenges with no-till and learned from their experience.

“We’ve been using conservation-tillage for eight years, and I don’t think we have nearly reached the potential it can mean economically. Things like nitrogen injection based on Greenseeker information has the potential to make us much more efficient,” Ruffin says.

Eric Randolph, who also farms near Charles City, Va., says, “I came back to the farm from college in 1995, and for me to fit in we had to expand our family farming operation.

“At that time we needed to add some equipment and to upgrade some of our other equipment. With more acreage, we had a need to cover more land in a shorter period of time, and no-till was the best way from an economic standpoint.”

Question two: It appears that farmers will be asked to do more to help cleanup the Chesapeake Bay — how can you do ‘more’ than you are already doing to meet some of these federal regulations that seem to be headed our way in Virginia?

John Mills says, “From our perspective, it’s hard to know what’s coming next with technology. After a year like 2010, drought tolerant varieties will allow us to do some different things.

“This year we used a swath control that turns itself on and off and prevents us from over-using fertilizer, pesticides, even seed. Every time we place seed more precisely and provide more precise amounts of nutrients we are helping clean up the environment and we are helping ourselves be more profitable,” Mills says.

Precision agriculture fits well

Randolph says, “A lot of the precision application technology got its start in the Midwest and it works well there. However, with our tabletop shape of many of our fields and the overlaps and funny corners of fields make swath control, autoboom and autosteer equipment more applicable here.”

The Virginia grower says it’s a fine line between getting enough nutrients in the soil to maximize crop production and avoid over-use of nutrients which isn’t good for the bottom line or the environment. “As we move forward with some of this new technology, I think we will become even more efficient,” Randolph says.

Ruffin says that new technology is out there — some of it probably hasn’t been fully developed. “We need more research at the university level to find and develop this technology.

“I think the next horizon that will help us be more efficient is genetics. It seems logical to me that drought tolerant corn is on the horizon. It seems possible that science will develop new varieties that use less nitrogen and other nutrients — the same chemicals that are causing problems with the Chesapeake Bay cleanup,” Ruffin says.

Question three: How do the Federal government and other organizations involved in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup get other Virginia farmers and farmers in other states that impact the Bay to your level of conservation farming.”

Mills says that’s a difficult mission to determine what other farmers will do. “For us, economics, things like cost-share and tax incentives on no-till equipment will entice farmers to try more conservation-tillage.

“The age of farmers is a big factor in adapting new technology. Too many farmers are near retirement age and their thinking seems to be — why should I invest in new equipment and change my practices? In our area, I don’t see a lot of young people getting into farming,” Mills says.

“We are in the York River watershed and the EPA is working on a total minimum daily load (TDML) of bacteria for that watershed. I’ve been to some of the fact-finding meetings, and I don’t think some of these folks have a real good idea of what the problem is.

Wildlife big contributor to problem

“For example, at one of the meetings they showed a chart showing what percentage of bacteria comes from which source. It showed over half was coming from wildlife, and the question was how do you plan to control wildlife. The answer is we don’t control that — we plan to reduce the TDML by placing restrictions on other areas, like agriculture,” Mills says.

Randolph contends (and research seems to confirm) that Virginia farmers are already doing more than their share of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. A recent Virginia Tech survey indicates over 90 percent of Virginia crop land that impacts the Bay is in some form of conservation-tillage.

Ruffin says the term ‘agriculture’ isn’t well defined by the people who are leading the movement to enforce President Obama’s decree to speed up the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

“All these nutrient loads that agriculture supposedly puts into the Bay need to be quantified. It’s like ‘non-source point pollution’. What exactly does that mean and how much of it can be attributed to grain farmers, versus cattle producers, versus industrial sites?

“I think agriculture has done a tremendous job in helping reduce pollutants that go into the Bay — just by adopting no-till farming. What impact does continuous no-till farming have on the level of pollutants that go into the bay, or the restriction of these pollutants — those type figures need to quantified and verified,” Ruffin says.

Question four: Injecting nitrogen has been mentioned several times as a way to make application more precise and reduce the amount of chemical that can get into streams that impact the Chesapeake Bay. Why isn’t fertilizer injection commonly used in Virginia?

“For one thing, we have a huge problem transporting large equipment, our farms are typically spread out over a large area, with a lot of small fields, so that’s been an issue with injecting fertilizers in the past,” Randolph says.

He adds that very little fall fertilizer is used, noting that most nitrogen used in southeast Virginia goes in during a 45-day window at the front end of the growing season.

rroberson@farmpress.com