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Conservation district receives top honor for work with volunteers

conservation district
Virginia Dare SWCD District Manager Kathleen Sullivan (second left) and Conservation Specialist Cory Hoar (with trophy) share a presentation day moment with (from left) NRCS Chesapeake District Conservationist Trenton Howell, State Conservationist Jack Bricker and SWCD Chairman Mario Albritton. Photo courtesy USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Virginia Dare Soil & Water Conservation District has earned national recognition from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The district recently received the National Association of Conservation Districts/NRCS Earth Team Award for assembling a diverse group of volunteers to help implement practices, educate students about their watershed and support novel community outreach programs.

District Manager Kathleen Sullivan and Conservation Specialist Cory Hoar have led and inspired a diverse contingent of 117 conservation and community partners, citizens, local government representatives and farmers to contribute 1,281 hours of volunteer time in support of district activities.

Conservation Education

With two paid staff, the Virginia Dare SWCD relies on Earth Team volunteers to help plan and deliver annual Farm Days programs. Last year, representatives from 12 different organizations teamed up with local residents to donate 881 hours to help educate over 1,900 first graders on agriculture and conservation. Many of these students come from urban areas and no doubt have little knowledge of or exposure to farming prior to the program. The district also engaged partners like Chick-Fil-A and the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association (SUDIA) to supply milk and yogurt for the students as well as gift cards and beverages for participants during the four-day educational event.

In another outreach initiative, the district engaged volunteers from gardening, beekeeping and farming groups to participate in Chesapeake Public Schools’ “Reading in the Classroom” during Agriculture Week. The team read “Right This Very Minute: A table-to-farm book about food and farming” to educate more than 1,500 elementary school students about what farmers and ranchers are doing (right now) to produce the food they eat. The seven volunteers contributed 22 hours reading and area producers connected with students to teach them about their operations and local agriculture. Virginia Farm Bureau also donated a book to every school the team visited.

Service Projects

In addition to planting the seeds of agriculture and conservation in young student populations, Earth Team volunteers help the district plan and conduct community conservation events. Tire Days is one of their most successful collaborations. Each year, the Virginia Dare SWCD and partners remove thousands of tires from wooded areas to be recycled. A local landowner lent equipment to the team and provided them with a homecooked meal at the day’s end. An inmate workforce joined the volunteers to collect and remove five tractor trailers full of tires from this year’s designated site. The 105 volunteer hours of donated time serves as another testament to the far-reaching impacts of the district’s tiny team of two and its fantastic array of volunteers.

Innovative Approaches

The district doesn’t just employ volunteers for youth conservation education, however. They have also engaged producers and partners in a growers’ group to develop customized soil health building strategies for local grain farmers. Established through an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), the Southeast Virginia Farmers’ 20/20 Club includes a cross section of forward-thinking Chesapeake and Virginia Beach farmers who confer with soil-health-minded farmers producing like crops in similar soils. They then experiment with conservation practices to help them increase current cash crop yields by 20 percent and develop a 20/20 vision for the future.

Robert White is one of the seven participating farmers who have volunteered more than 270 total hours to help change the landscape of local production and ultimately become better stewards of the land. A core group of advisors and subject matter experts from NRCS and VCE is collaborating with the group to assist with multi-level soil sampling for nutrient management and taking initial soil health samples for analysis. Like other “club” members, the progressive farmer on Virginia Beach’s Pungo Ridge received a penetrometer purchased through the grant to measure changes in compaction from improved soil management. White even offered his farm for a recent field tour and networking event with NRCS Chief Matt Lohr.

“Our district takes pride in our Earth Team volunteers, and we cherish the time and resources they provide for us,” Sullivan says. “We would not be able to coordinate or implement outreach programs without them.”

Lohr announced the award at the NACD National Meeting in Las Vegas, Nev., in February. Sullivan and Conservation Specialist Cory Hoar received the awards at a Virginia Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts area meeting on March 5.

Established in 1985, the Earth Team Program offers many opportunities to individuals 14 and older to partner with NRCS employees to provide a wide range of service to private landowners and the public. Learn more about Earth Team in Virginia.