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80 years of saving county's soil and water

Julie Sherwood
Canandaigua Daily Messenger
Don Jensen, at center, is seen at his Lawnhurst Farms in the Ontario County town of Seneca in 2018. From left is Tucker Kautz, Ontario County Soil and Water senior district technician, Megan Webster, Ontario SWCD manager, and  Karl Czymmek, senior extension associate with Cornell.
This ryegrass/radish cover crop mix was interseeded into standing corn on a dairy farm in Ontario County  in early July of 2020. It has flourished after corn harvest.

It’s the annual soil health workshop in Ontario County. There’s nothing significant here about the county’s geographic boundary. People from across the Finger Lakes region and Western New York, nearly 200 in attendance, gather at King’s Catering in Hopewell for this event in March 2019.

Farmers bring their questions and concerns. Experts with Cornell University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organizations such as the Western New York Soil Health Alliance and others address issues farmers face: the impact of climate change, pests, crop disease and other challenges. Staff with the Ontario County Soil and Water Conservation District are among those offering the latest information and insight.

The agency is a co-sponsor of the event, which is one of many projects and programs the county SWCD is behind to benefit farmers, homeowners and communities.

In this 2017 photo from a soil health workshop co-sponsored by the Ontario County Soil and Water Conservation District, Paul Salon, Northeast Soil Health Specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, demonstrates a soil health rainfall simulator.

The Ontario County Soil and Water Conservation District in December celebrated 80 years, a milestone anniversary for this public service agency dedicated to the conservation of natural resources in Ontario County. The agency is one of 58 county Soil and Water Conservation Districts across New York state, each providing programs and services to conserve, enhance, and protect soil and water resources.

Staff and board members for Ontario County Soil and Water celebrate the agency's 80th birthday this month.

District Manager Megan Webster said the district's staff and its board of directors are committed to providing technical assistance and education to county residents "to ensure the wise use of soil, water, and other natural resources." She said it's a “duty and privilege” of the agency “to preserve and protect these resources — while helping to maintain farming as a viable, profitable and environmentally sound enterprise."

Workers from El-Vi Farms of Newark harvest silage from a field in Phelps in late September 2018. Promoting healthy soil and water while also helping farmers boost productivity is a goal of the Ontario County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Offered are a variety of programs available to producers, land owners, home owners, business owners, realtors, municipalities, schools, and watershed groups among others.

Over the past few decades, the SWCD’s roles in agriculture have morphed from primarily technical assistance to providing a combination of technical assistance with farm conservation grant writing, while implementing projects.

Workers from El-Vi Farms of Newark harvest silage from a field in Phelps in late September 2018. Promoting healthy soil and water while also helping farmers boost productivity is a goal of the Ontario County Soil and Water Conservation District.

“They are a valuable resource to the ag community,” said Don Jensen, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Ontario County. Managing a herd of over 1,800 cows in the town of Seneca, Jensen years ago recognized the value of the agency and is a former board member for Ontario County SWCD. The agency helps farmers of all sizes be better stewards of the land, “helps them do a better job,” he said. He added the agency is also “a great mediator” between farmers and government entities in dealing with rules and regulations.

A sign commemorating the 80th anniversary for Ontario County Soil and Water Conservation District is seen on a county road sign.

Webster said Ontario County SWCD has built a strong agricultural grant program over the last 15-plus years, reflected through nearly 30 successfully completed farm grants totaling over $13 million in project value. The grants resulted in 330 farm best-management conservation practices, all funded and implemented in Ontario County. 

“Multiple staff members share their experience and knowledge,” Webster said. Ontario County SWCD “continues to maintain a positive working relationship with local farm consulting agencies, agricultural engineers and support agencies.” County SWCD “has become the go-to agency for local farms looking to improve on environmental stewardship through the installation of best management practices.”

She said the last 80 years have encompassed so many milestones to protect local soil and water that it is hard to encompass all the successes. At the moment the district manages almost $5 million  in total grant funding benefiting Ontario County. 

“We feel privileged to be part of such a long history of district employees and board members working to serve the community," said Webster. "Although programs and management techniques change over the years, we remain committed to the goal of protecting our local resources and supporting our strong agricultural roots.”

Has Ontario County SWCD helped you?

  • You might have been to a presentation or event focused on soil health or water quality. 
  • Maybe you were selling a home and one of the technicians completed a septic system inspection? 
  • Have they provided you with an Ag Value Assessment (also known as a Soil Group Worksheet) for your agricultural land to give your tax assessor? 
  • You may have purchased plants from their annual Tree and Shrub Sale.
  • Maybe they have been at your child’s school talking about water quality and watershed health. 
  • Have you walked along your favorite hiking trail and come across one of their restoration or stream and shoreline stabilization projects? 
  • You may have worked with the district through your local watershed group.
  • Maybe they have helped you with permitting on a project. 
  • They may have been to your home or construction site to help with stormwater issues or regulations. 

Learn more at: https://www.ontswcd.com/