Rep. Abigail Spanberger visited the mountains of Madison County, a new part of the 7th District, Thursday for a roundtable discussion with Piedmont area farmers at Graves Mountain Lodge, as lawmakers in Washington lay out priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill.
Topics of focus during the 90-minute program included farmers getting blamed for climate change, too much red tape in federal conservation programs, penicillin shortages and farmland preservation for the next generation.
The Democratic congresswoman in Republican territory heard feedback on maintaining federally subsidized crop insurance as well as giving grant award dollars upfront and not on the back end of conservation projects.
The third-term congresswoman received a relatively warm reception among the several dozen in attendance in one of her first official visits as representative for Madison County. Board of Supervisors Chairman Clay Jackson introduced her.
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Madison and Greene, rural farming locales, became part of Spanberger’s area last year through regular redistricting, and are the westernmost counties in the district that stretches east to Caroline.
Madison voters easily picked Spanberger’s opponent, conservative Yesli Vega, with 64% of ballots cast in the November election.
The 7th District also now includes part of Prince William County, an urban population center where Spanberger established an office and received nearly 68% of votes cast in November.
During the meeting, Spanberger received a “Friend of Farm Bureau Award” for work on behalf of the Virginia agricultural industry in the U.S. House.
Ben Rowe, national affairs coordinator with Virginia Farm Bureau, made the presentation, saying Spanberger has always been there for farmers since the very beginning.
Reauthorized every five years, the Farm Bill touches every facet of agriculture and forestry, paying for programs on ground, as well as education, Rowe said.
A large portion of bill is dedicated to nutrition, he added. As a member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, Spanberger will play an integral part in developing the legislation, Rowe said.
She is the only member from Virginia on the committee and a ranking member of the Conservation, Research and Biotechnology subcommittee and on the Livestock, Dairy and Poultry subcommittee.
“I have no background in agriculture,” Spanberger said. “I used to be an intelligence officer, but I love everything I do with the work on the committee … I am a blank slate and advocate for the things that matter to you.”
Spanberger said it was an absolute pleasure to meet in the new part of her district and takes her role advocating in Congress for Virginia farmers seriously. Agriculture is the No. 1 private industry in Virginia, tourism No. 2 and forestry No. 3, she said.
The 2023 Farm Bill, an omnibus package of federal funding for agriculture across the nation, is the first she’s worked on and a majority priority, Spanberger said. It will focus on continued participation by farmers in voluntary conservation programs as well as biotechnology and research.
“There’s a lot of differences between Texas agriculture and Virginia agriculture so making sure family farms and needs of district are represented,” she said.
Spanberger said she has toured farms around Virginia where they talked about cover crops, rotational grazing, upfront investments and the benefits of federal dollars to use conservation related practices.
Culpeper County Supervisor Susan Gugino, a Stevensburg poultry farmer, described her experience applying for conservation grants for these practices, saying she had to spend thousands upfront before she received any federal funding.
“To have to carry the debt for smaller farmers who don’t have large lines of credit puts a struggle on them,” she said.
Gugino said she likes that the programs are voluntary, but that the paperwork involved to apply is too lengthy and the access to funding, if approved, comes “way later.”
The Stevensburg Supervisor also mentioned supply chain issues related to access to antibiotics for her poultry flock. Her farm’s integrator cannot get penicillin — causing bird loss — following a reported fire at plant in China, Gugino said. A livestock veterinarian in attendance said she experienced a shortage of lidocaine.
Spanberger responded she would dig into the funding structures of conservation programs. She added penicillin is not produced in the U.S. and is primarily sourced from China or India.
It’s a major issue for large scale national security for the human population and certainly from a livestock perspective, Spanberger agreed.
Climate change will be part of the Farm Bill, one local young farmer acknowledged with trepidation.
“Barriers to agriculture (in) climate change will part of the Farm Bill that scares me to death,” said Coty Goodwin, a fifth generation farmer with Grandview Dairy, outside of Gordonsville in Orange County.
“You hear talk about it—agriculture is such a great percentage of climate change emissions, blame it on agriculture when really we are the carbon sequestration of the world … anything you can do to support farmers in our efforts of what we have done … day to day basics to help mitigate what goes on with climate change … we don’t want to see more mandates.”
Goodwin’s family got out of the dairy business last year after milking cows for a hundred years.
“Needed to happen, tried to grow and expand, but needed a whole lot of other things to supplement it,” he said.
Goodwin said farmers want to be good stewards of the land, but they need a seat at the table.
“We ask you to stand up for us,” he told Spanberger.
The congresswoman agreed saying farmers are an “easy blame” for climate change when actually they are “the first conservationists,” something one said to her when she first got elected that has stuck with her, Spanberger said.
The 7th District, by land mass, is majority agriculture, she said, while the population is majority suburban. It may be easy to blame agriculture and cattle in particular for carbon emissions, Spanberger said, “But when you look at what is happening in Virginia (with conservation farming), I am happy to have that fight with anybody.”
Goodwin said their operation, before closing, cut their use of water by one-third, decreased fuel use and produced more milk per cow and yield of beef than before.
“We always get a bad rap because there are less than 1% of us in the population that do it and don’t have a chance to defend ourselves,” he said.
Spanberger responded it would be the agricultural producers that have an incredible impact on ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Producers are also impacted by extreme weather events.
“When we don’t have food in the U.S., we have a bigger problem,” she said.
Graves Mountain Lodge owner James C. “Lucky” Graves Jr.,, president of the Madison County Farm Bureau, said in a phone call Friday he felt the roundtable discussion at his establishment went pretty good.
“Anytime you can get a congressperson to come listen to a bunch of farmers, it’s a win-win situation,” he said.
Graves Mountain Lodge — in the family since the 1850s in Shenandoah National Park — currently farms beef cattle, apple orchards, vegetables, hay, corn and soybeans, Graves said. Formerly represented by Republican Bob Good of Lynchburg, Graves said Thursday was the first time he met Spanberger.
“She seems very pleasant,” he said. “We’ll see if she listens to us.”
Spanberger received the Farm Bureau Award since 70% or more of the way she votes in the U.S. House aligns with Farm Bureau policy, Graves said.
“So far, she’s doing pretty good, there’s some other things she has to learn about yet.”
Sometimes it’s better to have a representative with no personal knowledge of farming, Graves said, versus one who thinks they know all about it.
“Harder to get them to listen—hoping she will listen to us.”
The biggest thing, said Graves, is the amount of time and paperwork it takes to receive federal support for best practices farming.
He said what should be in the Farm Bill is a loaded question.
“One thing is most of the things the government puts on farmers needs to be a voluntary deal, not mandatory. They expect for you to pay for it right now, a lot of farmers, the crop doesn’t come in for a whole year and they don’t get paid until next year.”
Cut through the red tape to make it easier for farmers to participate in conservation programs, Graves said. The paperwork is too time-consuming for farmers with limited hours away from daily duties.
Graves Mountain plants cover crops annually with federal funding support. Environmentally, it helps decrease erosion and decreases nitrogen runoff into the waterways, the local farm bureau president said.
Gugino at the end brought up “constantly fighting solar developers” who want to take farmland they deem marginal, but has been farmed or forested for years, on which to build large solar generation plants.
Several in attendance spoke about environmental impacts to water and the land, saying it will not revert back to farmland at the end of a solar plant’s life.
Goodwin agreed saying he’s bombarded weekly by groups wanting to put solar on his family’s land.
“Something that sounds great, will throw big numbers around … could sit back and retire now, but what are the long-term effects?” he said.
According to Rowe, some 60,000 acre of farmland have been put into big solar projects in Virginia and that number is growing. The Farm Bureau meets with solar developers all the time and not one has completely decommissioned a project. The answer from them is always the land will revert back to farmland, Rowe said.
“It’s not going to go back. Utility scale, the biggest barrier, they rent the land and fence it in. They don’t want anyone going in there.”
Federally subsidized crop insurance is drastically important to Goodwin’s operation as input costs have doubled in the past two years for raising corn, grain and hay for feed, he said. Their farm uses a private firm to cut through the red tape of the program.
“The headache they save me is well worth it,” Goodwin said.
Protecting farmland was another concern raised, how to get it from one generation to the next, noted a female farmer at the roundtable. She suggested government cost share for estate planning and programs promoting farmland staying farmland.
“We got to do something—before it’s houses everywhere,” the woman said.