Everyone can benefit from soil and water conservation districts

newspaperThe state’s 47 soil and water conservation districts will use $7.2 million this fiscal year to help Virginians implement conservation practices.

The districts began in 1935 when Congress ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create the Soil Conservation Service. Since then, dozens of cost-share programs have been developed to assist farmers in protecting their soil. Many of them are administered by the state’s soil and water districts.

“The districts evolved out of the need for soil erosion issues, but over the years their mission has grown,” explained Kathy Clarke, district operations manager for the Northern Neck SWCD. “We have a heavier concentration now on improving water quality as well. As a result, our programs have grown tremendously.”

The local soil and water conservation districts serve as resources for citizens in nearly all Virginia localities. They have locally-elected volunteer boards and develop plans to conserve soil resources, control and prevent soil erosion, prevent floods, and conserve, utilize and dispose of water in an environmentally friendly way. Since the mid-1980s they have been funded and supervised by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Part of the SWCD efforts include implementation of the Virginia Agricultural Best Management Practices cost-share program, which helps farmers reduce runoff into streams, lakes and rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

“We have 95 percent participation from producers located in our four counties here in the Northern Neck,” said Brandon Dillistin, Northern Neck SWCD district technical manager. “They use practices from cover crops to continuous no-till planting. They fence off streams and waterways from cattle, and do rotational grazing and grazing land management for any cattle in the area. Other basic practices include grass waterways in their fields, stream-side buffer strips and things like that.”

Randal Packett, a Richmond County farmer, remarked that “every single farmer I know is conservation-minded. We all use the same practices like no-till planting to ensure that these creeks and the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers stay as clean as possible.”

Packett’s seen how changes in production methods have made a big difference in his lifetime. Field tests after heavy rain on his farm show the water runs off clear.

“When I first started farming, we plowed for every crop and disked the fields multiple times. You’d get a rain, soil would run off … Every herd of cattle ran into water. No one does that anymore.”

The cumulative result of many programs like this really make a difference, Packett said.

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