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May 20, 2016

50 years of soil, water conservation celebrated

A founding director, Edwin Gulick advocated unsuccessfully for construction of the Auburn Dam right up until his death in 2010. Mr. Gulick vividly described seeing cattle washed downstream in flooding that Hurricane Agnes produced in June 1972.
State Forester Bill Vernal instructs Coleman Elementary School students on proper tree planting in the 1970s.
John Marshall Soil and Water Conservation District
• What: State-chartered agency with broad mandate to protect natural resources in Fauquier County.

• Office: 98 Alexandria Pike, Suite 31, Warrenton.

• Staff: 6, with a manager and five specialists, including one for conservation education.

• Board: 5, with 3 elected and 2 representing state agencies; plus 5 associate directors.

• Operating budget: $460,000, excluding cost-share reimbursements to farmers, which average $1 million annually.

• Phone: 540-347-3120, extension 3.

• Website:
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Picture a strong stream flowing through lush Fauquier farmland.

Visualize a herd of black angus cattle stepping into that stream to drink its cool water.

Consider that each day, an adult cow can dump 65 pounds of manure into and around the stream, whose waters eventually reach the Chesapeake Bay.

A small, Warrenton-based agency works to erase part of that picture — to keep livestock away from streams, ponds and wetlands throughout Fauquier.

The John Marshall Soil and Water Conservation District this month marks 50 years of partnering with local farmers to improve efficiency and to protect natural resources.

Over the last three decades, the agency has worked with farmers to protect 345 miles of stream bank and has paid them almost $8 million in “cost share” reimbursements. Those payments went to fencing, alternative water systems, hardened stream crossings and other improvements. JMSWCD also conducts extensive educational programs with county schools, manages tree-planting campaigns, helps homeowners repair damaged septic systems, monitors water quality and provides other technical assistance. The agency has a broad mandate to promote conservation.

“Many people don’t know how much the John Marshall district contributes to Fauquier County,” Supervisor Holder Trumbo (Scott District) said May 10 as he presented a resolution honoring the agency’s first 50 years. “It’s just amazing.”

The agency three times won Goodyear’s prestigious national award for soil and water conservation work. Fauquier farmers in five of the last seven years have earned state recognition for practices that protect the Rappahannock River.

But, it didn’t start that way.

In 1948, Fauquier government officials and farmers met at Marshall High School to discuss the possibility of forming or joining a soil and water conservation district. For almost a decade, communities throughout Virginia had taken that step, part of a national effort borne of the Dust Bowl.

Fauquier’s extension agent and many older farmers opposed the move, recalled Henry Green, a 95-year-old Markham farmer who attended the meeting and who later served as a JMSCWD director.

“I didn’t know which side of the room to sit on,” Mr. Green joked during a recent interview. “My brother Jim and a younger group were pushing for it; my father was against it . . . .

“The older farmers were hard to convince, especially up around Marshall and Markham — the Glascocks, the Thompsons, the Rameys . . . . The government was gonna take control and tell you want to do . . . . There was no money and those farmers had been through The Depression, with the CCs and WPA (Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration) that the government had run. It was just one more thing.”

The old guard carried the day. Fauquier would wait another 16 years to form its conservation district.

But, young Casanova farmer Edwin Gulick meanwhile helped lead an effort that successfully petitioned the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District to incorporate 55,000 acres of Southern Fauquier in 1962.

Four years later, Fauquier created the John Marshall district — one of the last formed in Virginia.

In its early years, the agency focused on conservation plans for farms, contour planting, pond construction, water systems and drainage projects.

“You’d lay drain tiles and dig up swamps,” to create more pasture or cropland, Mr. Green said of the 1960s and early ’70s. “You can’t do that now!”

The focus turned increasingly to water quality.

“We could see how things worked, and government wasn’t taking control,” said Mr. Green, who served on the JMSWCD Board of Directors from 1968 to ’85. “So, little by little, we made progress.”

By 1969, Fauquier farmers began to experiment with “no-till” corn planting. The method employed herbicide to kill cover vegetation and a special seed drill to plant in unplowed soil — a major step to prevent erosion. The agency rented a “sod corn planter” that year and helped farmers plant 500 acres of corn in the first two months.

District Soil Conservationist Harry Jones and Fauquier Extension Agent Bob Tudor, both deceased, played major roles in the local agency’s acceptance and growth.

“Bob Tudor did a marvelous job,” Mr. Green said. “He came here as a young man (in 1959). He always had the facts and always kept his cool.”

W.C. Brown came from Blacksburg to take over as Fauquier’s agriculture extension agent in 1979, after Mr. Tudor got promoted to a management position. Mr. Brown, as the local agent, also served on the conservation district board.

“Things were going well; the district was well-established,” said Mr. Brown, who retired in 1995. “The directors were involved, progressive and they were just moving along. There was a lot of conservation on the ground when I got here.”

The effort really got traction during Mr. Jones’ tenure. The conservationist relished field work and famously disliked paperwork.

“He had good help,” Mr. Brown recalled. “But, Harry Jones just had a knack for it . . . . He had a way with the farmers that just fit in.”

In the 1980s, Mr. Jones helped convince farmers to leave undisturbed “filter strips” — grass along streams, wetlands and contours — to catch soil and nutrients trying to move downstream.

The district staff and directors also helped plan seven water impoundments, primarily for flood control, throughout Fauquier. Some of those proposed dams — particularly on Carter’s Run southwest of Marshall and Auburn Run southeast of Warrenton — grew controversial because of potential use for drinking water, which many believed would encourage intense residential development. The projects also faced skepticism about their value for flood control.

Ultimately, only two got built in the 1980s and ’90s, respectively: Germantown Lake in what became C.M. Crockett Park near Midland and the Airlie Reservoir on the conference center property just north of Warrenton. The Airlie impoundment lies upstream from the Warrenton reservoir and doubles the town’s water storage.

Mr. Gulick, a founding director who served 35 years on the district board, advocated for the abandoned Auburn Dam project right up to his death in 2010. He vividly described seeing cattle swept downstream when Hurricane Agnes dumped 12 inches of rain on Fauquier in June 1972.

Neither a fan of development, Mr. Brown and Mr. Green suggested that a county almost entirely dependent upon well water may come to regret not building more of those dams.

“Can you ever have too much water?” Mr. Brown asked rhetorically.

But, on the farmland front, the agency quickly grew successful and became a model of innovation. The district expanded no-till planting beyond corn to alfalfa, prized for high-quality horse hay, in the 1970s.

Dave Brower, a district director, wanted to plant alfalfa on his farm near Rectortown, where drought had left fields too dry to plow.

Mr. Brower talked with researchers at the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center, which had a new no-till planter that could do the job. MARE’s staff had experimented with small plots, but nobody had tried to plant a field of alfalfa without plowing.

The center would loan its drill for experimental planting of a field, as long as the site would allow farmers, conservationists and researchers to visit, Mr. Brown recalled.

It worked. The alfalfa grew beautifully.

“We planned a field day,” Mr. Brown said. “We had people from the University of Maryland, Penn State and, of course, Virginia Tech. They left very impressed with what was going on.”

In 1981, John Marshall paid $7,700 for a John Deere no-till seeder. It rented the equipment to farmers for $10 an acre, with a plan to pay off the seeder in two years, assuming 400 acres of use annually. After two months, farmers had rented the seeder to plant 470 acres.

Because of efficiency and cost savings, no-till planting soon took over as the dominant method for growing corn and grains in Fauquier.

With passage of the first Farm Bill and the Chesapeake Bay Act in the mid-1980s, Virginia began its cost-share program to encourage farmers to employ BMPs (best management practices) to exclude livestock from waterways and establish riparian buffers.

The reimbursements grew to 75 percent of total costs for conservation projects.

In 2013, Virginia began offering farmers 100-percent reimbursements.

The projects often give farmers greater ability to rotate livestock among pastures, creating healthier grazing, natural fertilization and recovery cycles that improve soil — in addition to water quality.

From 1994 to 2008, the district office also handled erosion and sediment control inspections of construction sites for Fauquier County. The JMSWCD staff expanded to its peak of 13 employees during that period.

Today, it has a staff of six and an operating budget of $460,000, with the county providing about one-third of that funding. Fauquier citizens elect three of the five board members, who serve as volunteers. Two members represent state agencies.

Demand for the the conservation district’s services continues to grow. Each of the last three years, the agency has helped farmers get more than $1 million in reimbursements for projects, District Manager Jennifer Hoysa told the board of supervisors last week.

A typical project costs $50,000.

“Those funds help to bring revenue into the county by providing local contractors with jobs —plumbers, electricians,” said Ms. Hoysa, a 32-year veteran of the agency. “Our conservation work also helps the county meet mandates from the state and EPA for cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.”

With “JMSWCD” vanity plates on her Toyota Avalon, she soon will retire as the agency’s longest-serving employee.

Despite a half-century of projects and national recognition for its work, district representatives acknowledge the enormity of their challenge, with countless miles of Fauquier streams “impaired” by fecal matter and soil erosion.

As an indicator, the district expects to distribute another $2 million for projects that meet strict requirements for water quality improvement over the next two years.

But, the staff already has applications for $4 million worth of projects.

Meanwhile, Fauquier’s 50,000 cattle produce more than 3 million pounds of manure a day.

John Marshall SWCD Timeline 2.0 by Fauquier Now

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