By Candice Abinanti
In Henry County, Ky., “tobacco paid the bills for a long time,” remarks Curtis Coombs (pictured left), a soil conservation technician covering Henry and Oldham Counties. Located northeast of Louisville and bordered on the east by the Kentucky River, Henry County’s primary crop used to be tobacco. Over the years, tobacco has been replaced with beef cattle, row crops and hay as producers have adapted to changes in agricultural demand.
Coombs knows about adapting, too. After graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in agriculture education, he helped manage his family’s dairy farm until their contract with Walmart ended in 2018. Without a market, Coombs embarked on a new career path. With a 50/50 grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Coombs now divides his time working for NRCS and the Henry County and Oldham County Conservation Districts (CDs).
Coombs is “really good at talking about conservation,” says Allan Bryant, chairman of the Henry County CD. With knowledge of conservation practices implemented on his family’s dairy farm, Coombs and Henry County CD’s administrative secretary, Shayna Gibson, have been working to expand the conservation district’s outreach and encourage producers to participate in the Kentucky Soil Erosion and Water Quality Cost Share Program.
The success of those outreach efforts shows in the numbers. In 2018, just one producer in Henry County applied for the state’s cost share program. In 2020, applications from the county have grown to over 24 and counting. The Henry County Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association has been a focus of outreach efforts. After speaking at their meetings, “ we see a pretty big influx of applications and quite a few repeats in the week to follow,” says Coombs. Common conservation practices include fences, heavy use pads and grassed waterways to mitigate erosion.
“Most farmers put an emphasis on soil health, and they have been no-till for a while,” explains Coombs.
Gibson and Coombs are also committed to teaching students about the importance of natural resources conservation. Both are Project WET– and Project WILD-certified to teach. Together, they’ve been able to “get out more to schools and community meetings,” says Gibson, who has conducted stewardship and education outreach activities at least once a month (pictured right). By working together, “a lot more people know about conservation districts than before,” says Coombs.
Gibson and Coombs have hit their stride, expanding participation and awareness of conservation in Henry and Oldham Counties with help from a unique grant partnership with NRCS. As Jeff Rice, commissioner with the Kentucky Soil and Water Conservation Commission and NACD board member says, “We are all in this together. With boots on the ground educating and working on stewardship plans with farmers and partners like NRCS, Kentucky’s Department for Natural Resources and others, we are able to be good stewards of our natural resources.”