Meet Harry George. His family owns a 200-acre farm in Frederick County, near Jefferson, MD.
The land has been in his family for many generations; he enjoys relaxing, reminiscing and hunting on the land. He is proud that the farm “has remained productive and sustainable through the care of many generations of good land stewards.” But George doesn’t live on his farm; he rents it out to a local farmer.
What most people don’t know is that this is not an uncommon scenario. In fact, 45% of the acres farmed in Virginia and 57% in Maryland, are farmed on leased land. This means farmers and landowners, while finding the transaction mostly beneficial, can have different motivations.
Farmers may not always be able to negotiate leases for more than a year at a time, which does not allow for the planning they need to feel more secure. Many landowners live far away from their land and are not involved in day to day decision-making.
Enter Potomac Conservancy, a watershed organization that works to protect and improve water quality in the Potomac River Basin and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.
They have been implementing an innovative program that educates landowners how to access land improvement and conservation opportunities. Many landowners are like George, who says he wants “to continue this legacy so that we too can pass on a healthy farm to future generations” but don’t know where to start.
The program is partially funded through a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. NFWF’s Amanda Bassow says “engaging the absentee landowner population, and the hundreds of thousands of acres they represent, in conservation is an under-tapped opportunity we are very excited about supporting.”
Aimee Weldon, Senior Director of Land Conservation at Potomac Conservancy says that “non-operator landowners generally don’t have a farm or conservation background or expertise, so they aren’t aware they have opportunities for financial and technical assistance to improve the value and sustainability of their farm.”
Educating landowners is key. The Conservancy offers a “Landowner Advisor” who goes out to meet with the landowner, or has phone conversation to help identify where conservation practices can benefit the land. The result is a written “conservation assessment” summary including recommendations, maps, and follow-up when new programs become available.
They give expert, practical advice specific to the tract of land. You might hear: “here’s where you can put in a riparian buffer; here’s a wet spot not good for farming—put it in a wetland program.”
In George’s case, Joe Thompson, his Landowner Advisor, helped George secure “$25,000 to implement additional erosion control and tree planting practices on his land—all this, and there was no charge or obligation!” says George.
George had already done some tree planting along streams and had grassed waterways in crop fields. He wants to do “everything we can to maintain the productivity of the soils, good wildlife habitat and clean water in our streams.” He encourages other non-operator landowners to take advantage of “this great opportunity to find out what you can do to improve and maintain your land.”
Weldon points out that the health of the Potomac River is not very good; “it has a lot of problems, like most of the waterways around here.” She adds, “We need to engage all the landowners in improving the land if we are going to have any impact on water quality. There is a lot of work to do!”
Dedicated to land protection via conservation easements, and land restoration, the Potomac Conservancy (www.potomac.org) has done a lot of different restoration projects, including trout restoration projects, streamside restoration as well as working to secure land trusts.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is a non-profit that preserves and restores our nation’s native wildlife species and habitats. www.nfwf.org/chesapeake. Created by Congress in 1984, NFWF directs public conservation dollars to the most pressing environmental needs and matches those investments with private funds.