Photo courtesy of Tellus Agronomics
Virginia Nutrient Management Leadership Team
Given the win-win potential for nutrient management plans (NMPs) to improve both farm profits and water quality, the Virginia Nutrient Management Leadership Team (VNMLT) was convened in June of 2016 for the purpose of strengthening NMP efforts on farms throughout Virginia.
The VNMLT is a collaborative effort comprised of agricultural and conservation organizations, and state and federal agencies, with the following objectives:
1. Gather feedback from farmers and industry professionals to identify challenges to and opportunities to expand participation.
2. Develop recommendations to improve farmer participation.
3. Highlight nutrient management success stories.
4. Communicate results and support efforts to implement recommendations.
Farmers are interested in improving their nutrient management - not just for cost savings, but for water quality too. There are only about 45,000 of us on the Eastern Shore, and everybody knows each other and we all love seafood, swimming and boating. We really do care about water quality.
— Dr. Mark Reiter, Associate Professor and Director at the Virginia Tech Eastern Shore Agriculture Research and Extension Center
Farmers and nutrient management consultants surveyed
Recommended "Make plans easier to understand."
The VNMLT gathered feedback from 223 farmers and agricultural industry professionals. Questions asked participants about benefits of NMPs and services provided by planners as well as challenges to participation. Results highlighted strengths of Virginia’s program as well as areas for improvement.
Strengths of the program include the following:
- Farmers are working with certified nutrient management planners to develop NMPs: 90% of reporting farmers with NMPs worked with certified planners to develop plans they currently have or had in the past.
- Supports regulatory compliance and cost-share program participation: Supporting regulatory requirements was ranked by farmers as the primary benefit of NMPs.
- Agronomic and cost savings benefits: Both farmer and industry respondents rated agronomic benefits as the 2nd most important for the 5 categories of benefits to farming operations.
- Environmental benefits of NMPs: Farmer respondents cited environmental benefits as the third most important benefit for their operations and industry respondents rated this as the 4th most important benefit.
- Assistance with plan implementation: When asked how helpful nutrient management planners were in assisting with plan implementation; 39% of the farmer respondents said their planners were ‘very helpful’ and 39% of farmer participants said ‘somewhat helpful.’
- Valued nutrient management planning services: The top three NM planning services that farmers indicated as being most helpful were:
- Actively involved in keeping the plan updated
- Expertise in agronomy and crop production
- Clear explanations on how to implement the plan
Barriers to participating in the program (presented in roughly the order of highest response) include:
- NutMan software: Farmers and industry stakeholders brought up a number of issues around the NutMan software currently used as a basis for most of Virginia’s NMPs: Foremost, they suggested that the output of the program is too complex. When asked about factors that would encourage development and/or implementation of NMPs, farmers ranked “Make plan recommendations easier to understand” as the 2nd highest out of 9 choices. Industry stakeholders ranked “Making recommendations easier to understand” as the 1st priority out of 9 choices.
- Flexibility (plan updates and programmatic): When farmers were asked about factors that would make plan development and implementation easier, the top response out of 9 choices was “Make it easier and quicker to change and update the plan.” With respect to programmatic flexibility, when asked about challenges associated with developing and implementing NMPs, farmers ranked “concerns that NMPs are too inflexible” as the 1st reason out of 14 options. Industry representatives scored this as their 2nd highest of 14 options. Both farmers and industry stakeholder provided comments regarding concerns around programmatic flexibility.
- Potential for future government regulation. “Concerns that NMPs may result in future regulations” was ranked by farmers as the 2nd highest of 14 potential challenges or barriers to plan development and implementation, while industry stakeholders ranked this as the most important factor.
- Potential impacts on yields: Farmer respondents indicated that promoting good yields was the least valuable benefit of the NMP process: while 21% rated this as ‘highly valuable,’ 47% rated it as ‘somewhat valuable,’ and 29% rated it as ‘not valuable.” Industry respondents placed greater emphasis on yield benefits: 52% rated it as ‘very valuable,’ 33% said ‘somewhat valuable’ and 10% said it was ‘not valuable.’ Comments that were provided expressed concerns that fertilizer recommendations could negatively impact yields.
Recommendations: the VNMLT offers the following recommendations to expand farmer participation in Virginia’s nutrient management planning program:
- Establish a Nutrient Management Stakeholder Advisory Group. Led by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the purpose of this group is to foster communication between stakeholders (including DCR, farmers, certified nutrient management planners, regulators, researchers and extension professionals, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and environmental NGOs). The stakeholder advisory group will focus on enhancing participation in nutrient management training and implementation, not regulations.
- Develop a “self-prepared nutrient management plan” for farmers that use only commercial fertilizer. The VNMLT supports and affirms DCR’s efforts to develop a self-prepared nutrient management planning tool and agrees that it will facilitate expanded farmer participation in Virginia’s NMP program. The VNMLT recommends that DCR consider a “self-prepared nutrient management plan” using fertility recommendations based on current soil tests and documentation of actual nutrient application rates.
- Improve the format and presentation of completed nutrient management plans to make them easier to read. The VNMLT recommends that DCR engage (through individual contracts or other means) professional communications experts to work with farmers, and nutrient management planners (potentially through focus groups) to develop a final nutrient management plan report that is easier for farmers to understand.
- Develop tools and processes to help farmers keep their plans updated. Most nutrient management plans are written for a three-year timeframe. However, changes in weather or fluctuations in commodity prices often result in the need for adaptive management that influences planned crop rotations. Hence, nutrient management plans often need to be updated throughout the life of the plan to keep them current.
- Create a “safe way in” to the nutrient management plan program for farmers managing fields with high soil phosphorus so that they can eventually implement a nutrient management plan. For example, one option could be to use a “continuous improvement” strategy for planning designed to move the farm incrementally over time towards full implementation of a nutrient management plan in the future.
- Publish a report on Virginia’s NMP program success and efforts to be used for education and outreach purposes. An annual or biennial report focused on the NMP program would support outreach efforts and provide information on growth in participation over time. The annual report DCR publishes on the Resource Management Plan (RMP) program serves as an excellent model, as it features farmer success stores and testimonials in addition to participation data.
- Promote Resource Management Plans (RMPs) as a way of increasing NMP participation and promote NMPs as the foundational building block of the RMP program. Virginia established the Resource Management Plan program to provide farmers that met basic conservation requirements with a “safe harbor,” a promise that they would not need to comply with any new regulations associated with Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts for nine years following implementation of their RMP plan. Participation in the Resource Management Plan program also affords additional consideration for cost share participation. Additionally, members suggested that stakeholders explore opportunities for marketing/branding for farmers who have fully implemented a Virginia RMP.
- Develop a public relations/outreach campaign to build on farmer participation and express the benefits of NMP adoption.
- As the relationship between the planner and producer is valued, equipping the planner with the knowledge needed to best provide for his/her client is of critical need. As such, the VNMLT affirms existing and encourages future DCR training efforts that provide training to certified nutrient management planners that:
- Shares the results of the Farm and Agricultural Industry Assessment allowing the industry to better understand perceptions and/or concerns from the producer angle.
- Provides planners with information and messaging to address farmer concerns and goals.
- Emphasizes and further encourages the need to keep the nutrient management plan updated to ensure it is a living document and meets producer expectations.
- Ensures planners are aware of training and education opportunities for farmers on NMP topics.
- Cross trains planners to encourage them to carry the message to producers that NMPs are a foundational practice for RMP participation and a key component of soil health.
- Engages planners in supporting peer-to-peer farmer discussions around nutrient management.
- Uses trainers as a conduit to identify top producers using NM plans to support award programs, field day events, and farmer-to-farmer mentoring.