Chesser’s waterfowl carvings come a cut above (Keeping the Farm)
(Editor’s note: John Markon is a public affairs technician with Virginia NRCS.)
(Writer’s note: This is the third and last stop on our Delmarva road trip/ It’s in Accomack County, Va., where you’ll meet Grayson Chesser, who is carving out a legacy of stewardship on his family farm with a conservation easement and habitat for birds, bees and other wildlife.)
The small community of Sanford may seem like the last place you’d find someone who’s world famous — unless we’re talking about the world of waterfowl decoy carving.
In that realm, Grayson Chesser needs no introduction.
He and his work have been recognized by Virginia Humanities, the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the Smithsonian Institution.
“If you’re a little bit behind the times, people say you’re backward and don’t pay attention to you,” explains Chesser. “If you’re a lot behind the times, then the museums start calling you.”
He’s been featured in just about every hunting and wildlife magazine and estimates he’s carved more than 5,000 birds, beginning with his first at age 12 in 1959. Chesser is steeped in the Eastern Shore’s rich carving traditions and counts Miles Hancock (1887-1974) of Chincoteague and Maryland brothers Stephen (1895-1976) and Lemuel (1897-1984) Ward among his carving mentors.
A band saw and drill press are the only two power tools in Chesser’s small workshop.
He once made all his decoys without electrical tools and said he could easily do so again.
This connection to the past also extends to his family farm.
In the 1970s, Chesser began reuniting parcels of land that were once held by the family. He also started assembling the farm’s unique and eclectic collection of outbuildings, which include a decommissioned post office and a former one-room schoolhouse. Chesser has become a familiar face in USDA’s Accomac Service Center, where FSA and NRCS staff are helping him fulfill the next phase of a lifelong dream to preserve the character of the farm.
Chesser’s Conservation Reserve Program contracts with FSA have enabled him to rest and conserve his acreage, which he had been leasing to local growers and has been farmed almost constantly since the 1600s. The voluntary program allows agricultural producers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species to improve environmental health and quality. NRCS guides these efforts, providing technical assistance in re-establishing valuable land cover.
Chesser began by planting conservation buffers with trees and native grasses around his wet and low-lying areas. He continued by creating two new shallow-water impoundments that, while dry in late spring, will fill again in the fall to serve as a prime stopover for migrating ducks and geese on the Atlantic Flyway.
Two years ago, Chesser signed a 10-year contract to take 46.1 acres out of production to plant pollinator habitat. H.L. Kellam, FSA county executive director, and Jane Corson-Lassiter, NRCS Accomac district conservationist, helped Chesser prepare his application. Veteran NRCS Private Lands Biologist Bob Glennon created a custom seed mix of nine wildflower species. It took $10,000 worth of seeds and the purchase of a special seeding tool to complete the large project.
“It’s unusual to do this on so many treeless, private acres,” Glennon said. “You’d ordinarily only see it on something like a mine reclamation. This was a rare opportunity.”
The pollinator planting is already a buzzing success. On a sunny Thursday afternoon in late spring, Chesser’s three large pollinator fields were thronged by flying insects alighting on thousands of yellow coreopsis flowers.
The cycle will repeat through most of the year, although the blooms won’t always be yellow. The mix Glennon developed for Chesser contains nine different wildflower varieties and will occasionally blanket the fields in red, orange and purple.
In addition to providing wildlife habitat, Chesser is improving downstream water quality and building soil health on his fields through his CRP contracts. He is also protecting his farm from development under a perpetual agricultural easement and anticipates a portion of his CRP acreage, once rested and recharged, will be productively farmed once again.
“The ducks were here before we were,” he said. “I always try to remember that.”
For more information on USDA programs to support pollinator habitat, contact your local USDA NRCS office. Virginia landowners can call Accomac District Conservationist Jane Corson-Lassiter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 757-302-4432. To learn more about CRP, call or visit Accomac County Executive Director H.L. Kellam at email@example.com or 757-302-4426.
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