Voluntary Ag Districts Benefit Farmers

Cost-Share programs are available for farmland conservation easement landowners through Buncombe County’s Voluntary Agricultural District 

Agricultural lands are an essential component of the western North Carolina landscape and the region’s natural and cultural history, and SAHC takes pride in helping farmers protect their land from non-farming development. Our agricultural conservation easement landowners’ commitment to permanently preserve their land in active farming contributes to the continued vibrancy and health of our region. In recognition of these contributions, Buncombe County Soil & Water Conservation offers a Voluntary Agricultural District Preservation Program, which benefits landowners whose farmland is under conservation easement in Buncombe County.

What is a Voluntary Agricultural District?

Voluntary Agricultural Districts (VADs) play an important role in slowing the loss of farmland and protecting farmers in the region. Farmland preservation helps protect our region’s natural resources, wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, and rural economy. Specifically, a VAD is an area of qualifying farmland of at least 50 acres, (which may consist of one large tract or a collection of nearby, independently owned parcels). In order to be eligible, farmland must meet several basic requirements and landowners must sign an agreement to preserve and promote agriculture in their communities. An Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural District (EVAD) additionally requires landowners to place their land under an irrevocable conservation easement restricting development (for 10 years or more).

What are the benefits of the VAD/EVAD program? 

Enrollment in the VAD/EVAD program provides landowners with access to many resources and economic benefits. Participants in the program may receive protection against nuisance suits, waived utility assessments, and educational materials. Furthermore, EVAD participants are eligible to receive up to 90% of cost share under the Ag-cost-share program.

To learn more about farmland preservation in Buncombe County, or to apply for the VAD/EVAD program, contact Ariel Ziip with Buncombe County Soil & Water or visit: https://www.buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/soil/farmland-preservation.aspx

Aerial Monitoring of Conserved Land

View from Above – Aerial Monitoring Using Satellite Imagery

To supplement our on-the-ground stewardship efforts, SAHC is developing an aerial monitoring program. SAHC stewards land spread across approximately 4,000 square miles — and as of 2020, our Stew Crew is responsible for monitoring over 50,000 acres of conservation easements and SAHC-owned land.

Individual tracts range from 0.5 acres to over 8,000 acres, with the majority of protected properties being between 100 and 200 acres – much of which is steep and rugged terrain. Annual monitoring site visits require substantial time and resources, and SAHC performs rigorously in fulfilling these monitoring responsibilities. However, as our portfolio of protected land continues to grow (yay, land protection!), the physical challenge of visiting every protected acre each year looms at the horizon of impossible — even for the Stew Crew at SAHC. 

Over the years, we have used new technological tools and methods to pragmatically boost efficiency and accomplish our commitment to perpetual stewardship of protected lands. This year we are excited about integrating aerial monitoring into our stewardship program.

What is Aerial Imagery Data and How Do We Use It?

In recent years, we have augmented our monitoring procedure by using satellite imagery that is freely available through Google Earth software to prepare for field visits. However, the intermittent publication of such publicly available imagery often makes it useless for detecting changes that occur on a protected property within the current year — the fundamental objective of annual monitoring.

To address issues of satellite data availability and resolution, we have researched companies who compile satellite data captured by multiple entities and make it available via a web service. Specifically, we’ve been looking at companies that focus on providing high resolution satellite imagery (that’s 0.5 meters or less) for environmental and conservation organizations. This service is a repository for historical and current imagery, and they contract with commercial satellite companies to request current images where they are unavailable. 

Aerial Monitoring in Keeping with LTA Standards and Practices

SAHC has decided to proceed with developing an aerial monitoring program in keeping with the Land Trust Alliance’s Standards and Practices.

We are currently identifying properties that SAHC stewards that are best candidates for aerial monitoring and plan to begin implementation in early spring of 2020. This program has the potential to help SAHC more completely survey properties to detect changes – especially encroachments in remote locations. It does not, however, replace on-the-ground monitoring. While monitoring using current, high resolution satellite imagery will enable us to increase efficiency and be in better touch with the condition and activity on the lands that we steward, we still very much look forward to seeing you all in the field!

 

Farm Management: Pasture Walk

On a Thursday evening in September, I joined  20 neighbors, local farmers, landowners, for a pasture walk led by Buncombe Co. Cooperative Extension on SAHC’s 100+ acre community farm in Alexander, NC. Meghan Baker, Ethan Henderson, and Noah Henson took us all on an informative stroll to discuss management strategies and how to keep pastures healthy and productive. 

I joined the group as a new Intern with SAHC. It was an exciting foray into the world of local agriculture. As a student of Ecology, I spend a lot of time learning about and managing exotic invasive plants in forests, so it was fascinating to gain a new perspective. I learned that pasture land is an ecosystem in itself, and with the right management strategies, they can be productive, beneficial, and botanically diverse.  Read more

Mowing Management for the Birds

Grassland birds are in trouble. As the grassland habitat needed for nesting and rearing their young continues to disappear, birds such as the Eastern Meadowlark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bobolink found here in the Southeast are declining in numbers. So what can we do to help? Well, the good news is that the agricultural grasslands found throughout this region, such as hayfields, can provide the habitat these birds need to thrive with some simple management practices..

Ideally, hayfields should be mowed outside of the nesting season, which generally occurs from April to August. This prevents nests from being destroyed and ensures fledged young are developed enough to fly away. However, for economic reasons mowing often needs to occur during this period. If this is the case for you, consider implementing some or all of the following practices to contribute to the protection of birds and other wildlife who utilize this grassland habitat:

Practice rotational mowing. Maintain unmowed patches for wildlife habitat between areas being mowed and rotate which sections are mowed and unmowed each year. The size of mowed/unmowed sections should be determined based on your needs and field size, but remember that larger unmowed areas provide more wildlife habitat! For more info check out page 5 of this USDA leaflet:

Aim high! Set your mower as high as possible. However, even  4-8” off the ground can help save the lives of many grassland birds and other wildlife.

Leave uncut border fields. To allow for sufficient bird and wildlife cover allow a 10+ foot strip of hay to remain on the border of the field. This provides food along with nesting, escape, and brood cover. A wider border leads to less predation of nests.

Mow from the inside out. By mowing from the field center outward you can provide cover for birds as they escape to the edges of the field and prevent them from getting trapped in the center of the field during mowing.

Reduce mowing speed. This practice aids in giving birds the time to react and escape during a hay harvest.

Avoid night mowing. Birds are less likely to try to escape from the area being mowed during the night.

Use a flushing bar. This horizontal bar, attached in front of the blades of harvesting equipment, has chains that hang down and drag through the field to scare wildlife away from danger. This primarily helps to protect adult birds.

Sandy Mush Forest Restoration Coalition

SAHC partners on forest stewardship expansion in Sandy Mush.

We have long been stewards of Sandy Mush, protecting over 12,000 acres of this high priority conservation area. We are excited to collaborate with EcoForesters and the Forest Stewards Guild to help grow a Sandy-Mush-wide forest restoration project! While this project is still in its infancy, with collaborators working to secure funding, the primary goal is to foster healthy and resilient forests that protect environmental values, cultural heritage, economic opportunities, and quality of life for the Sandy Mush Community.

Through this project we hope to:

  • Form a “Sandy Mush Forest Restoration Coalition” by bringing together diverse stakeholders in the community and create a collaborative space for shared decision-making.
  • Restore native species habitat, as much of the forest land in Sandy Mush has been degraded by historical land use practices and non-native invasive plants.
  • Host an annual Forest Stewardship Gathering in Sandy Mush to connect landowners with resources to care for their forests.

Look for more updates in the future!

Welcome – Stewardship Associate Chris Kaase

Chris joins SAHC as our new Stewardship Associate. His primary responsibility will be stewardship of properties that have a working agricultural component.

“Protecting traditional livelihoods is a critical objective of regional land protection efforts,” says Chris. “I am really looking forward to serving as a liaison between SAHC and the owners of our agricultural easements.”

Chris moves to Asheville from Columbia, SC, where he worked as the stewardship coordinator for the Congaree Land Trust while finishing graduate school in the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina.  

“I’m extremely excited to be back in the mountains,” he says. “I grew-up in southwestern Virginia and northwestern North Carolina and have a strong connection to this region. It’s where I’m from, where I want to be and, in turn, the community and natural environment to which I think I can contribute the most.” Read more

Conservation easements and property changes

Please give SAHC notice when you make plans that might affect your property.

Since conservation easements last forever, there will inevitably be changes in the status of ownership of your land over time. Knowing about such changes in advance if possible is very important to SAHC as the easement holder. Our goal is to help avoid inadvertent violations that can arise, through prior discussion of your plans with SAHC. Read more

Post-Storm Clean-up on your Conservation Easement

Recent storms have brought high winds, heavy rains, and a lot of fallen trees. Wondering what to do about all the storm debris on your conservation easement property? Many easements allow for the removal of hazardous, damaged or downed trees, but this varies on a case-by-case basis. Please be sure to consult your easement documents first, and contact stewardship staff at our office if you have any questions.

You’ll want to consider whether or not the trees/debris in question actually pose a hazard to you or your property. While not always the most visually appealing, non-hazardous dead or fallen trees can actually benefit the conservation values of your property because they recycle nutrients back to the soil and can become habitat for birds, mammals, and other critters. If a tree is damaged but not dangerous, leaving it alone may be the best course of action. You may also find that some damaged trees spring back to life, even 6 to 12 months after a storm.

For more information on identifying and removing hazardous trees, check out this article by the US Forest Service. If you are unsure about removing a tree, consult with a professional arborist or an insured tree removal service. Here’s a list of questions to consider before hiring a service.

Stream Buffer Benefits

Do you have a creek or stream flowing through your property?  Don’t let the land you paid for wash away. Shade your stream! A stream buffer helps reduce erosion while protecting water quality.

Riparian buffers are vegetated areas next to creeks and streams that benefit landowners in several ways. Vegetation along stream banks filters soil particles, pesticides and fertilizers, reducing non-point pollution of water resources.  Roots from vegetation anchor the soil to minimize erosion

Shade keeps the water cool, which is necessary for many aquatic species such as trout and provides shelter for wildlife. Streamside vegetation also adds to the aesthetic beauty of a property.

Landowners can contribute to water quality protection on their property by avoiding the following practices:

  • Farming or mowing up to the edge of the stream
  • Removing streamside shrubs, trees or other vegetation
  • Allowing livestock access to the riparian area
  • Straightening sections of streams

Streams are products of the land they drain, and their waters reflect streamside land management practices. Help protect your property’s valuable assets by maintaining or restoring riparian buffers.

For more information, consider consulting with your local Soil & Water Conservation District specialist.

 

Coming to a forest near you… Emerald Ash Borer

The Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) is an invasive insect native to Asia that has killed millions of ash trees. First discovered in Michigan in 2002, the EAB has been identified in 30 states (primarily in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast). The beetle larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients. Mortality can be swift, and identification of ash trees that may be infested with the EAB can be difficult.

How can landowners help protect ash on their property and elsewhere?

We recommend the following:

  • Educate yourself – Visit the Emerald Ash Borer website to learn more about this invasive pest, including how to identify it and what your treatment options may be.
  • Follow the beetles – Researchers have been tracking areas where the beetle has been found. Visit the EAB Detection webpage for up-to-date information on beetle detection and distribution.