Agricultural Conservation Award winners honored
DOVER, Del. — A virtual ceremony April 29 marked the annual Governor’s Agricultural and Urban Conservation Awards. Gov. John Carney, along with DNREC Secretary Shawn M. Garvin, Delaware Association of Conservation Districts President Richard Carlisle, and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service State Conservationist Kasey Taylor, led a ceremony recognizing this year’s honorees and signed a proclamation officially designating April 25 -May 2 as Stewardship Week in Delaware under the theme, “Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities.”
“Stewardship Week helps to remind us all of the power each person has to conserve natural resources and improve our world.” Carlisle said. “As a farmer and a conservation district board supervisor, I have long been aware of the importance of conservation to my farm and to our local communities.”
“During Soil and Water Stewardship Week, it’s a good time to think about the importance of clean water and caring for our state’s watersheds,” said Carney. “Each of the award recipients have made improving our watersheds a priority on their farms, in parks and in communities statewide.”
This year’s agricultural honorees include Blaine Hitchens, a farmer from Laurel, Del., with a passion for improving soil health, L & J Farms, a Certified Organic poultry operation in Harrington that has sought to increase the sustainability of their farm as they expand their operation, and Marianne Hardesty, a dedicated conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the New Castle Conservation District.
In Hardesty’s 40-year career, the summary of conservation activities in her work with farmers in New Castle County would fill a library, the association said. She and the NRCS team have worked on projects on just about every farm in New Castle County. The long list of projects includes a variety of practices for on-farm conservation for soil erosion and nutrient management. Marianne also provided producers with expert technical guidance for various wildlife practices while contributing significantly to the county’s agricultural land preservation program. She also advised landowners in the urban-suburban landscape. A strong advocate of outreach and education, she was a charter member of the Delaware Envirothon committee in 1996 and continues to work with the soils team.
At L&J Farms, John and Linda Brown started with two poultry houses and have since expanded their operation to six. They recently converted their operation to organic, growing for Perdue Farm’s Coleman Organic brand and have installed solar panels to assist with the energy efficiency of their operation. They also drive an electric car. Their operation also includes two poultry waste structures, a poultry composter and Heavy Use Area Protections, all of which have been installed with the assistance of the Kent Conservation District or NRCS. The Browns continue to add conservation practices to the farm, applying for additional HUAPs and an Eco Drum composter to handle mortality in a more efficient manner. The Browns also were awarded with the Environmental Stewardship Award at Delaware Ag Week in January 2019.
In Sussex County, Hitchens is following in father and grandfather’s footsteps, farming nearly 1,000 acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The operation consists of cropland in a corn, soybean and cover crop rotation and six poultry houses with a capacity of 150,000 broilers. Hitchens began his soil health journey with no-till over 15 years ago, adding cover crops over 10 years ago. More than five years ago he began planting green; now, every acre has a living root growing year-round. Additional nutrient, irrigation, pest and best management practices have been implemented through USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program and other Farm Bill programs. These conservation efforts reduce overall nutrient applications, absorb excess nutrients, prevent runoff and soil erosion which protects and improves water quality all while making his operation more sustainable. He is also a vocal advocate. In 2019, Hitchens became a National Association of Conservation Districts Soil Health Champion and hosted a soil health field day focused on the planting green concept. He is featured in the USDA NRCS 2019 #OurFarmersRoadtrip story map and Conservation at Work no-till video, the Sussex Conservation District’s cover crop commercial, several From Cloud to Cab podcasts and news articles. He was also selected to participate in a national economic case study by the Soil Health Institute in partnership with NACD.
Urban conservation award recipients William Owen of PennTex Ventures for a Submerged Gravel Wetland at the Kenton Dollar General; Michael and Angela White for the Trap-White Floodplain Creation Project that transformed a drainage challenge into a wetland that captures nutrients, prevents erosion and provides habitat and the Skyline Orchard Civic Association and General Excavating, Inc. for emergency road repairs following the severe storms in August of 2020.
“These honorees worked with Delaware’s conservation partners to implement model conservation practices on their farms and in their businesses and projects.” said Secretary Garvin. “I would also recognize a great partnership between DNREC and Delaware’s conservation districts, who provide invaluable support to DNREC’s conservation mission. These awards highlight the beneficial outcomes of these relationships, and we’d like to take a moment to recognize the hard work that’s been done.”