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Two Central Virginia farmers selected for state conservation award

Two Central Virginia farmers selected for state conservation award


ORANGE — For some Central Virginia farmers, working to maintain clean streams and creeks on their property has always been a high priority.

Albert McGhee Jr. and Robert Wilbanks were among 10 farmers selected for the 2015 Virginia Clean Water Farm Grand Basin Award. The awards are given each year to farmers or farm owners from each of Virginia’s 10 major river basins who are doing their part to protect soil and water resources.

The program is sponsored by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation in partnership with the state’s 47 soil and water conservation districts. The awards were presented during the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts’ annual meeting in December.

“These farms represent the best in conservation farming in Virginia,” Clyde Cristman, director of the department, said in a statement. “By voluntarily implementing practices such as stream fencing, cover crops, riparian buffers, nutrient management plans and more, these producers are not only improving conditions on their properties, but they’re also improving conditions for people who live downstream.”

McGhee owns the Vivian Scott Richardson Sr. Memorial Farm in Louisa County, a farm that has been in his family for more than 150 years. While growing up, he helped his grandfather and uncle with the livestock and grain crop on the 150-acre farm.

“After my uncle got older and couldn’t farm it, I took over,” McGhee said. “Programs were available and I thought, before things got too out of hand, we could get involved in these programs and help clean up and take care of a lot of the problems. These small bodies of water feed these bigger bodies and you can’t take them for granted.”

He utilized the department’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which helps farmers restore riparian forest, grass and shrub buffers and wetlands near waters on their property.

“A big problem was cows releasing themselves in the streams,” he said. “We’ve installed automatic water fountains for the cows; they no longer have to get in the stream.”

His farm also has two stream crossings, a hardened animal trail and walkway and more than a mile of stream-exclusion fencing.

Wilbanks worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and his soil and water conservation district to make improvements to his farm in Orange County, which he purchased in 2007. He grew up on a farm in Tennessee, and wanted to raise his young family in the country.

“We chose this part of the country and made some improvements on the farm so we could leave the environment the way we found it,” Wilbanks said.

Of the farm’s 314 acres, 223 are actively grazed by around 85 Angus cows.

He has installed more than 18,000 feet of stream-exclusion fencing, 11 water fountains and four improved creek crossings.

“When we came here, this creek was destroyed — the creek banks were completely barren, they had manure in the creeks,” he said. “By putting up fences along the creeks, that keeps the cattle out of the creeks — no manure, no bank disruption — and it allows it to regrow as a hardwood forest.”

The farm now has a rotational grazing plan for the cattle, which reduces the need for hay. The family also has worked to replace 25 percent of the toxic fescue grass with a nontoxic variety, increasing the cattle’s weight and improving other health aspects.

Both Wilbanks and McGhee said they enjoy working with their respective soil and water conservation district staffs. Wilbanks’ farm is in the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District, while McGhee’s is in the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District

“We have a good relationship with our soil and water conservation services,” said Wilbanks. “They are really strong here in Virginia.”

Allison Wrabel can be reached at or (434) 978-7261.

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