A group of Virginia farmers traveled to Capitol Hill in late September to hand-deliver 18,000 letters protesting Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin’s Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act of 2010.

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation producer members from as far away as Lee County delivered packages of shrink-wrapped letters to Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb, neither of whom have signed onto Senate Bill 1816 yet.

"Even without the letters, your Farm Bureau leadership has been crystal clear on how you feel about the bill," Warner said to the 35 farmers gathered in a Senate conference room. "Some of the concerns you’ve raised have been taken into consideration, and I think you’ll see a lot of changes in the next draft of the Cardin bill."

Farm Bureau members have been speaking out against the bill since it was introduced last year because it significantly expands U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulatory authority over their farms, and because they believe it is based on flawed data about conservation practices on farms in the Bay watershed.

"We don’t want a federal takeover of our farming operations; it would be a nightmare," David Hickman, an Accomack County farmer and member of the VFBF board, told Warner.

The Farm Bureau supports an alternative bipartisan bill, H.R. 5509, sponsored by Reps. Tim Holden of Pennsylvania and Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.

Farm Bureau’s efforts to oppose S. 1816 culminated with a late-summer letter-writing campaign. Members in each of the 88 county Farm Bureaus in Virginia were encouraged to contact the state’s congressional delegation. During August and September, Farm Bureau members made more than 27,400 contacts via letter, phone and e-mail.

Letters from farmers who believe the bill will threaten their ability to farm were delivered to congressional offices across the state, and on Sept. 23, producers delivered 9,000 letters to Warner and 9,000 to Webb’s chief of staff.

"This is a test for all of our Virginia elected officials to see their commitment to agriculture," said William Lloyd, one of the youngest members of the group that traveled to Washington. The Liberty University sophomore lives in the Holston Watershed in Washington County, where he plans to farm with his father after graduating from college.

"I’m not an established farmer yet, and this bill will affect me more than anyone because it may prevent me from establishing myself as a farmer," Lloyd said. "I may not be in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but I’m still concerned."

Goodlatte, who attended the farmers’ meeting with Warner, acknowledged Virginia farmers’ commitment to conservation. "There’s no one here who doesn’t want to clean up the Chesapeake Bay," he said. "But this bill is the guinea pig for the rest of the country. Once they get it passed here, they’ll do the same thing in other watershed regions across the United States."