Albemarle farmer recognized for conservation

Farmer Dave Norford always tells his wife that he’s the happiest man in Virginia.

And it appears that the joy the manager of Piedmont Manor brings to his work is being recognized by others. In November, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors recognized Norford as an outstanding conservation farmer.

“Farming is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Norford said, while unlocking the gate to a paddock of 2-year-old cows, “and I count myself lucky to do it.”

Piedmont Manor farm, located along Route 20 in northern Albemarle, also was selected by the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District as the Clean Water Farm Award recipient for 2011.

Norford’s nearly 170 Angus and Hereford cows graze on the pastoral postcard of rolling hills, streams and green grasses, and Norford’s commitment to conservation has a lot to do with that.

So far, the results of Norford’s efforts include 2.6 miles of fenced stream, 20 well- and spring-fed watering troughs and an ongoing nutrient management plan, designed in partnership with the district.

These measures prevent erosion and improve water quality in streams and rivers by keeping livestock from entering the waterways to drink, and they provide healthy drinking water and forage for the cows.

Additionally, he’s subdivided the farm’s large pastures into 25 smaller paddocks; fertilizes with poultry litter when available; and now moves his cows on a one- to three-day rotation system that prevents over-grazing and allows the grass to replenish itself.

These conservation efforts have not only benefitted the land and cows that graze it, they also have benefitted Norford’s operation economically.

“The fencing has allowed us to increase per-acre cow production because we can now run more cows on the same amount of acreage,” Norford said.

“And it has made managing the cows easier,” he added. “Now it takes less time to round them all up. Before the paddocks, rounding the cows up was like an old rodeo.”

“Many of our conservation practices contribute to increased farm productivity,” district manager Alysson Sappington said. “We see healthier cattle and more productive pastures.”

While Norford began fencing streams and subdividing pasture at his own expense, funds from the district’s Cost Share Program made much of the recent conservation work possible.

The Cost Share Program, financed through the state’s Natural Resources Commitment Fund, encourages the implementation of agricultural conservation practices by paying for up to 75 percent of the cost of things such as Norford’s fencing and water troughs.

The remaining 25 percent falls to the farmer or landowner, who then qualifies for a 25 percent tax credit for their out-of-pocket expenses.

“[The distribution of funds] are primarily based on environmental benefit like protecting a species or water quality,” said Emily Nelson, a district conservation program manager. “The greater the environmental benefit, the greater the likelihood of approval.”

The maximum amount the Cost Share Program will distribute to an individual is $50,000. However, that number increases to $70,000 if the farmer is fencing livestock out of waterways and utilizing animal waste practices.

In the 2011 fiscal year, the district allocated $524,790 through the Cost Share Program.

“[Norford] exemplifies the type of farmer that we try to work with,” Sappington said. “He cares about the environment and farm productivity.”

But Norford insists that the credit does not rest squarely on his shoulders.

“The [district] has been great to work with,” he said. “And the Piedmont Manor Land Trust supports the work we’re doing and contributes financially, so they really deserve full credit.”

When a farmer or landowner agrees to be considered for funds from the Cost Share Program, inherent in the agreement is the understanding that the farmer or landowner will cover all the upfront costs before getting partial reimbursement.

Additionally, farmers and landowners are taxed on the reimbursement. So, while a farmer might support conservation practices on their land, the additional costs can be a deterrent.

“Finances are often an impediment to get the work done,” Nelson said. “But we do get a fair number of farmers who believe that it’s the right thing to do.”

Norford, who leases the 600 acres of pasture from Piedmont Manor, said that the practice has to fit the farm.

“I always take a pragmatic approach,” Norford said, parked beside a newly planted fescue pasture he plans to use in the coming seasons. “There’s a lot of room between a good idea and getting it on the ground. But I’m happy we’re doing it.”