By Marla Heger, Outreach Coordinator, Caldwell-Travis SWCD
Located adjacent to the increasingly urbanized Austin-San Antonio corridor, the Caldwell-Travis Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) saw the need to expand dialogue with area residents, both new and established, on the importance of preserving working lands. Receiving a 2022 Friends of NACD District Grant helped the district ramp up its engagement with the public at-large and partner with local agricultural organizations while increasing Caldwell-Travis SWCD’s visibility in the community.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Caldwell County had 285,170 acres of land in farms, much of which falls in the Plum Creek Watershed. Simple visual inspection of the district suggests the land in farms will show a marked decrease when the next Census of Agriculture is published. With mounting pressure on existing working lands, it was important to the district to get the word out on strategies landowners and producers could adopt to maintain, or in some cases increase, the productivity of the district’s remaining agricultural lands.
Utilizing the Friends of NACD Grant, the district hosted a pair of workshops titled “Protecting Our Working Lands” and “Managing Our Working Lands” (pictured). Announcement of the events was widely shared on social media and local news media. The first workshop, with its emphasis on “protecting,” focused on how working lands support a valuable agricultural economy. This goes beyond traditional production and into providing natural habitat for wildlife, filtering water and air, managing flood waters, and contributing to overall soil health. Participants learned what tools are available to incentivize protecting working lands from division and development pressure including conservation easement programs. The second workshop, with its emphasis on “managing,” focused on best practices for the sustainable management of soils and the “a to z” of water quality management plans.
At both events, participants expanded their knowledge as they visited with an array of local agency representatives with expertise in all manner of natural resource conservation technical and financial assistance. Marla Heger, Caldwell-Travis SWCD’s Outreach Coordinator shared, “In addition to the expected outcomes of knowledge sharing from presenters and agency representatives, another benefit of the public programs was the creation of new connections between legacy and new producers. I overheard conversations between participants who share not only in community proximity, but also in their common goal to be good stewards of the land.”
Another result from the grant-backed workshops was the activation of valuable partnerships between the district and other agricultural organizations including the Caldwell County office of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Caldwell-Travis SWCD Board Chair Donnie Graham remarked, “In the day-to-day operation of the district, we engage with our existing cooperators and work to secure new participation in our programs. The Friends of NACD grant allowed us to connect and collaborate with other stakeholder organizations addressing resource concerns. We expect these partnerships to continue to strengthen due to our work through the grant.”
Participant Ryan Allan summed up the impact and success of the workshops. “I had little awareness of what Caldwell-Travis SWCD did. When I saw the workshop flyer at the farm supply store, the agenda topics caught my attention. I have taken over family land recently and now, after participating in the working lands workshops, I realize I have a partner in planning for the best use of the land. I am confident that I can be a good steward and preserve the acreage for future generations. And I will be a good neighbor and share that working with the SWCD is a good business decision.”
Looking ahead, the district is planning to take it down a level, literally, with an eye on practical workshops exploring local soils and their health. With the momentum gained from the grant-backed workshops, these events will continue to inform the public and extend outreach to youth groups interested in participating in soil judging competitions, while also providing a continued focus on soil health within the watershed.
With the new connections created with the public, and partnerships with agricultural organizations directly resulting from the events made possible by the Friends of NACD District Grant, the Caldwell-Travis SWCD encourages other conservation districts to step back and gauge what they could achieve with a grant. Heger, in the Outreach Coordinator role for the district shared, “Look at the current activities of your district to see where you want to be in the conservation space. What lies between your current and desired state, is the gap your district could address with a program backed with a Friends of NACD District Grant.”