By Katrina Vaitkus
Through NACD Technical Assistance (TA) Grants, the Washington County Soil Conservation District in Tennessee has been able to boost its technical assistance programs to landowners, improve its office functions, and continue work on its outreach programs.
When the district received its first grant in 2018, they brought on Rebecca Carr as the technical assistant. With time, Carr shifted roles, becoming the district’s office manager. Maggie Swonger was then hired to fill the NACD grant position.
The technical assistant spends time visiting landowners with other district staff, assisting with conservation plan development and project design related to water quality and soil health. With rotational grazing being a big practice in the county, the district staff helps many landowners establish exclusion fencing to keep animals out of creeks and ponds.
“Our office is extremely busy with people needing technical assistance and getting contracts in and out the door,” Carr said. “Having the NACD grant employee has really assisted us in being able to get more work done and benefit more people.”
The NACD grant has allowed both Carr and Swonger to see the full process, starting with day one when the landowner comes in with their concerns to the final completion of the project. “It really has been a great learning process,” Carr said.
Their work, however, extends well beyond field activities and into office and education projects as well. “I got to be involved in not only all the field work processes with the district technician and district conservationist, but also the office side of things,” said Carr. This experience, according to Carr, was crucial in helping her gain the skills necessary for her success as the district’s office manager, a position she filled in January of 2019.
The district also does outreach activities organized and hosted by the technical assistants in the local school system, such as visiting classrooms and holding a “Sammy Soil Babies” event. At this event, students plant grass seed and read the Sammy Soil book. “It allows them to have an agriculture lesson about how seed grows into grass and all that it takes to get that grass seed to grow,” Carr said.
Carr and Swonger also helped the district host its annual conservation field day where presentations are given by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA), Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), local conservation youth board and others. Attendance is not just limited to local producers – all fourth-grade students in Washington County and Johnson City schools are invited to the event. There are stations at the event, where individuals can walk around and learn about different aspects of agriculture.
The Washington County Soil Conservation District has received grants from all three rounds of TA funding. Since 2018, they’ve found that the district’s backlog and subsequent workload has been reduced significantly, causing their funding requests to shift from a majority of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds to more Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and conservation planning funds. The new round of funds will continue to help improve their efficiency and their assistance to the landowners in their area.