On Sunday nearly 50 people boarded a bus at Blandy Experimental Farm in Clarke County, Virginia for the Clarke County Wildlife-Friendly Habitats & Gardens Tour. The tour was organized by northern Virginia’s premiere environmental advocacy group, the Piedmont Environmental Counsel and provided participants with a working demonstration of land use benefits generated through conservation easements and environmentally-oriented land use practices on two Clarke County farms.
Currently, over 16,000 acres, or nearly 15%, of all privately owned land in Clarke County is protected from future development by public and private land easements. The goal of Sunday’s tour, in part, was to demonstrate that good land conservation practices can have a significant benefit to local wildlife and native plants regardless of the amount of land being managed.
“The two properties on the tour are both over one hundred acres but we want people to also recognize that people can create important wildlife habitat even in their own backyard” PEC’s Sustainable Habitat Program Manager Kim Winter told the tour particpants.
Attendees for Sunday’s tour boarded a school bus provided by Powhatan School and first traveled north of Millwood to visit the 105-acre farm owned by Mazen and Carolyn Farouki and then reversed course south of U.S. Route 50 to view a 125-acre farm owned by Charlie McIntosh.
While both farms are under conservation easement, PEC’s Winter said that the two properties were selected for the tour because they demonstrate the various benefits associated with differing types land management practices. In most cases, native plants not only provide a recognizable cover and food source for local animal species but also thrive with much less care and water thus reducing costs for landowners.
“You don’t have to go to a pure native plant approach all at once” Winter said. “Even a gradual conversion on a property will still help native animals and insects.”
The tour’s first stop at Carolyn and Mazin Farouki’s beautiful gardens perfectly demonstrated Winter’s advice.
Originally designed decades ago by alandscape architect who assisted with Queen Elizabeth’s gardens, the Farouki’s decided to convert the gardens from being strictly ornamental into a space that emphasizes both human food plants and provides habitat for native plant species.
“We did this because it’s something that we felt needed to be done” said Mazin Farouki. “Native plants survive better and do well in the local environment. Plus, they’re very beautiful.”
While Mr. Farouki appeared to take joy in guiding Sunday’s 50 PEC guests through the gardens, he quickly admitted that it was his wife, Carolyn, who is the creative force behind the household’s horticultural creativity.
“Carolyn has completed courses in master gardening, I simply enjoy the beauty” laughed Mazin Farouki.
Mazin and Carolyn Farouki purchased their farm and moved to Clarke County from Great Falls three years ago. Soon after moving Carolyn began implementing a transition from the strictly ornamental garden with mostly imported plants that came with the home to a series of gardens that emphasized native plants and food production.
Standing near her well-tended vegetable garden, which is organically tended without using pesticides, Carolyn Farouki points to a recently installed deterrent against one native species; Virginia’s white-tailed deer.
“We had to install an electric fence above the four-board fence” Carolyn Farouki said. “The top strand is eight-feet high. It doesn’t bother me if a deer gets into the garden every now and then but I don’t want a whole herd in here.”
PEC’s Kim Winter said that although native plant species, like those being planted by Carolyn and Mazen Farouki, are less likely to be eaten by deer and other local animals like rabbits and ground hogs, grazing preferences change depending on the availability of food sources.
“A plant that seems deer-resistant at one time of the year may suddenly look very yummy to hungry deer at other times of the year” Winter advised tour participants.
Carolyn Farouki, who has worked closely on implementing her vision with professional gardener Lorie McKay of Millwood, said that she highly recommends “Great Garden Companions: A Companion-Planting System for a Beautiful, Chemical-Free Vegetable Garden” as an organic gardening guide to beginners and experts alike.
“The book provides a wonderful guide to using beneficial companion plants for keeping pests away” Farouki said. “It led us into seed saving. Now we save marigold and basil seeds each year and spread them everywhere. It makes a big difference in reducing the pest species.”
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While the Farouki’s conservation approach has focused on organic gardening zones located very near to their house, Charlie McIntosh’s conservation efforts, which include fish, chickens and vegetables, also extend into pasture and stream conservation supplemented by a host of conservation assistance programs.
“My wife Sandra and I originally bought this 60-acres and placed it in conservation easement” McIntosh said. “Then the 65 acres with three building rights next to us became available so we bought it because we didn’t want anything built there.”
McIntosh noted that Clarke County has more land under easement proportionately than any other county in Virginia. McIntosh emphasized his statement by noting that neighbor Bev McKay had just placed his property under conservation easement with the US Department of Agriculture and PEC.
“All the land that you see here is the way it will be in perpetuity” McIntosh told the PEC tour members.
McIntosh said that a range of public and private programs had contributed funds that helped him to improve his land management including the installation of a new well and watering tanks needed after Riparian buffers were planted to limit cattle access to streams. But while funding is available from many sources, McIntosh said that selecting the most appropriate conservation program can still be a challenge.
“These programs change all of the time and are constantly being funded and de-funded” McIntosh noted. “It can be a tangled web to navigate but the US Soil and Water Conservation Service was very helpful to us.”
McIntosh said that his original planning for his property started in 1997 and that he then implemented his plans between 1998 to 2000.
“We used six different sources of funding including CREP, WHIP, EQIP, WQIA and Virginia Best Management Plan Cost Sharing.But the main funding source was Sandra and Charlie McIntosh” ” McIntosh laughed. McIntosh said that many of the conservation programs available to land owners are funded at 80% by government sources and 20% by the landowner.
McIntosh said that CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program administered by USDA) helped with the cost of planting of trees like Oaks, Black Walnut, River Birch, Persimmon, Black Gum and Green Ash, as well as fencing to prevent livestock from entering stream areas. WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program also through USDA) provided help with planting warm season native Virginia grasses, like Indian Grass, Switch Grass and Partridge Pea Grass.
PEC’s Kim Winter said that McIntosh’s Riparian buffer improvements and warm season grasses are both important steps in re-establishing habitat for local species.
“Warm season grasses is a type of endangered habitat that is used by bobwhite quail and other birds for nesting” Winter said. Unlike lawn grass which is thick and prevents many native plants from growing, Winter said that warm season grasses grow in clumps that allow more plant diversity and provide birds with cover when they are young. “Warm season grasses provide a lot of soil stability and require a lot less water to grow.”
McIntosh said that the Water Quality Improvement Act (WQIA) paid the full cost of a replacement well, water troughs, pipeline and electricity needed to reposition cattle from polluting streams.
By all measures, McIntosh’s effort to revitalize his farm while keeping important protections for the watershed, soils and wildlife through eco-friendly land use appears to be paying off.
“The wildlife here is really something now” McIntosh told his tour visitors. “We regularly see otters, egrets, herons and bald eagles.” In addition, McIntosh says that a pond constructed as part of the conservation plan now has many large fish and turtles.
But while many of McIntosh’s plans are now paying improved habitat dividends for wildlife, soil conservation and water quality, not everything that he did worked.
“I planted a hundred trees on the dam when we built it” McIntosh said. “But most of the trees died because there wasn’t enough topsoil over the clay. I wish someone had said to me â€˜Don’t bother!’” McIntosh laughed. McIntosh also learned after the fact that problematic algae growth in his pond was being caused because the depth was only four-and-a-half feet rather than five, a problem that McIntosh plans to correct in the future.
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In addition to federal conservation programs, Clarke County residents also can look to local private conservation organizations for help as well.
In 2006, a coalition of citizens responded to impending area development pressures by creating the Clarke County Conservation Fund (CCCF). With support from the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), the fund provides opportunities for landowners to participate in the preservation of Clarke County open space through the placement of property in easements which protect a property from future development.
PEC’s endowment management arm, the Piedmont Foundation, assists CCCF in securing property options, property purchases and easements and to pay for the legal, due diligence, marketing and other costs directly associated with such land preservation transactions. Properties acquired in fee are protected by conservation easements and then resold to conservation buyers or transferred to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) or other public or non-profit organizations. Loans made to landowners needing financial assistance are repayable upon the landowners’ sale of state tax credits. In this way, a portion of the monies expended are returned to the fund. Resale of any property purchased with CCCF funds must be done on the open market.
The Piedmont Foundation oversees nine conservation funds that address conservation priorities around the region and is governed by a five-member board. The Foundation currently manages seven land conservation funds, including the Clarke County Conservation Fund, and other endowment monies totaling more than $5 million. The Piedmont Foundation, which holds endowment funds for the Piedmont Environmental Council, accepts gifts of cash, securities, property, and appreciated assets, and helps donors construct tax-advantaged planned gifts such as trusts, bequests, and life income plans. Planned gifts to CCCF are also accepted as a source of long-term viability for the fund.
PEC’s Clarke County Wildlife-Friendly Habitats & Gardens Tour ended the day back at Blandy Farm where tour participants were treated to a close encountered with the living result of what good wildlife habitat implementation can bring; three stunning birds-of-prey presented by the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center.
Blue Ridge Wildlife Center director and veterinarian Belinda Burwell told tour participants that Clarke County is an excellent natural area for wildlife, especially hawks and owls, and that preserving habitat is the key to ensuring future generations of birds, mammals and native plants.
“There’s just so much beautiful habitat here in Clarke County” Burwell told the group. “As much as people can do to preserve wildlife and habitat around their home is very important.”
For more information on the Piedmont Environmental Council and its programs plese visit http:// http://www.pecva.org
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