At the edge of a stream on grassy farmland in the Shenandoah Valley, a small solar-powered unit protected by a plastic crate quietly pumps water to reservoir tanks some distance away. The half-dozen cows contently drinking at the end of the black above-ground piping are oblivious to the source and the technology that delivers the water to their trough.
The solar-generated watering system is just one of the alternative methods Virginia farmers are using with an eye toward being better stewards of the environment, saving money and boosting the local economy.
Agricultural Extension agent Matt Booher has been working on a solar pumping project with other technicians at Virginia Tech and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for the past four years. They began with a short-term experiment on a dozen farms and now operate units on five, on terrain that varies from steep mountain slopes to river-bottom valleys. Other than some trial and error with gravity flow and the fact that the units must be shut down in winter to avoid freezing, Booher says,
“I know this probably sounds overly optimistic, but we haven’t had any trouble since. I mean, they just work.”
The greatest challenge is the same one inherent with other solar-powered processes: cloudy weather. To prepare, some farmers have installed reservoirs large enough to store enough water for several days. “You just have to have a back-up plan,” Booher says.
A plug-and-go watering kit (pump and solar panel) for 30 to 40 cows generally costs about $2,000, and prices are going down. A panel lasts about 25 years, a pump about 10.
“You just plug it right in,” Booher says, “and everything’s ready to go.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit is the flexibility that comes with a portable unit. Booher estimates that up to 60 percent of Virginia acreage is rented, making it cost-prohibitive for a tenant farmer to drill a well and install water lines. A solar kit, on the other hand, can be easily moved to another farm or field.
In addition, solar watering can supplement other conservation initiatives and provide an alternative for landowners who prefer not to participate in cost-share programs. It can also be healthier for livestock because the water is cleaner than if the animals were standing in the same creek or stream from which they’re drinking.
What’s more, solar watering systems can reach upland pasture that might not otherwise get grazed.
“When cattle have access to the creek, and that’s their only source of water, they spend 95 percent of their time within a couple hundred feet of the water,” Booher says. “So the benefits to grazing management are huge, and that comes with feed cost savings and just utilizing the land better in general.”
Sharing the Costs
Since 1985, the Virginia Agricultural Best Management Practices Cost-Share Program (VACS) has distributed more than $200 million to farmers and landowners across the state. Delivered by local soil and water conservation districts and overseen by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, VACS offers more than 50 practices designed to conserve water and soil while increasing a farm’s productivity.
“The program is key to the Commonwealth achieving its pollution-reduction goals and restoring the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay,” says Ann Jennings, Virginia’s Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources. “It provides farmers with technical and cost-share assistance to implement conservation practices that can reduce runoff concerns while also benefiting the farm operation.”
Generally, up to $50,000 per year, paid at a flat or per-acre rate, or based on a percentage, is available for approved projects. Technical assistance is also provided.
Improvements such as reducing fertilizer runoff can also help farmers save money. Jennings points out a few of the most cost-effective VACS methods.
“Practices that are important for reducing excess nutrients and soil loss are cover crops, conservation tillage, nutrient and manure management, stream exclusion fencing and pasture management, as well as both grass and forest buffers,” she says.
The cost-share program also improves the local economy by creating jobs for contractors, nursery operators and others in the community.