The Prince George’s Soil Conservation District (SCD) project focused on urban communities throughout Prince George’s County (PGC). While advocates and community partners in the county have recognized urban agriculture is an important piece of the puzzle to increase access to healthy food and create more active living opportunities, no one has addressed the soil and water resource concerns associated with this land use. The project set out to identify and address these resource concerns.
There is a need for additional fresh food in the urban and peri-urban areas for improved health and economic growth along with education and outreach to the population at large. The district’s urban agriculture conservation program is focusing on the health, education, economic development and environmental benefits of urban agriculture. This land use can bring a myriad of additional benefits, such as providing mental health benefits from additional green space, improved physical activity, and opportunities to educate new farmers on soil health and water conservation. Improved water filtration may reduce stormwater runoff in urban and peri-urban areas and potentially reduce the need for expanding stormwater management infrastructure.
A variety of partners interacted with the district to provide woodland management workshops, women in agriculture learning circles, urban farmer production, and economic development workshops including farmers markets; American Farmland Trust; PGC Food Equity Council; PGC Forestry Board; urban ag producers; University of Maryland Extension (UME); and ECO City Farms. USDA-NRCS provided an X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) soil analyzer to identify heavy metals. This device will help develop a “heavy metals” soil map in the county.
The project provided producers with information and skills to better understand the interaction of soils, water and nutrients associated with their activities on the landscape. Each operation is unique and there is no one-plan-fits-all. Major concerns identified are potential soil erosion, heavy metals and other soil contaminants; zoning issues; navigating local, state and federal regulations; soil health; drainage; dust control; good neighbor relations; lack of water for irrigation; identifying best management practices for soil and water conservation; and underground and overhead utilities.
The district began developing networking and mentoring programs for urban ag producers as well as a brochure/booklet to connect producers with resources and agricultural service providers.
Other accomplishments included 96 farm visits resulting in 12 Soil Conservation and Water Quality Plans; four USDA-EQIP contracts for high tunnels; 12 individuals signed on as new district cooperators; and two applications for the county’s urban ag property tax credit. The district developed an urban producer profile form, established farm plan guidelines, and standardized the process for developing those plans through a conservation plan checklist and resource inventory worksheet specific to urban agriculture.
This project provided an opportunity to work with the county’s legislative and executive branches to secure a full-time urban ag conservation planner position and to address zoning issues affecting expansion of urban ag operations. Farm planning software is being developed specifically for this program, making the district the first in Maryland to use this new software. The most significant accomplishment is the creation of a new conservation program within the district to provide locally-led soil and water conservation to a new, previously underserved customer base.
The district hired a permanent, full-time urban agriculture conservation planner funded by the county government. Customers who became district ‘cooperators’ obtained USDA-FSA farm/tract numbers, making them eligible for federal programs. The district will continue to participate in outreach and education events, including but not limited to the University of Maryland (UM) Eastern Shore small farmers conference, UM Urban Farmer Field School and beginning farmers workshops, UM “Wheel’s Up” business planning for small farmers, UM’s Annie’s Project risk management course, Prince George’s Forestry Board urban forestry workshops, UM Master Gardeners and local FFA chapters through the school system’s Environmental, Agriculture and Natural Resources Advisory Committee.