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North Country at Work: Helping manage natural resources in Essex County

Alice Halloran and Daniel Berheide at Full and By Farm in Essex.  Photo: Ana Williams-Bergen

Alice Halloran and Daniel Berheide at Full and By Farm in Essex. Photo: Ana Williams-Bergen

It’s a sunny spring day in eastern Essex County. Before us stretch agricultural fields, barren and muddy from recent snowmelt.

Alice Halloran leads the Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District. These offices exist in each province to help protect natural resources.

That can mean many different things: dealing with invasive species, solving drainage problems and helping to keep waterways clean. In Essex County, a big part of their job is helping farms.

Halloran says every project starts with “taking stock,” assessing a farm’s facilities, fields and nearby waterways.

Full and By Farm grows organic vegetables and raises livestock for its Community Supported Agriculture program. Halloran and her engineers worked with them to resolve a number of different issues.

She explains that the farm had a shortage of water in dry years, “but sometimes they also have a lot of water flowing through their fields when it’s a wet year.”

To address both issues at once, Halloran says they helped “improve the drainage above the fields where the water comes from the mountainside and then keep it in this pond so they can use it for irrigation when they need it .”

Daniel Berheide inspects cover crops planted last fall.  Photo: Ana Williams-Bergen

Daniel Berheide inspects cover crops planted last fall. Photo: Ana Williams-Bergen

We walk through the fields, which are wet from the spring melt. It’s the time of year when the snow is gone, but nothing has started to grow yet, so dead grass crunches under our feet.

Daniel Berheide is a district technician at the Soil and Water Conservation District. He shows me what’s left of the ground covers planted last fall.

“There is a lot of residual material, vegetation, left over from cultivation.” That makes a difference to the quality of the soil, says Berheide. “There’s no erosion, it looks a little drier, a little more manageable than those areas that aren’t covered.”

At the bottom of the field a gravel path runs over a large drainage pipe placed in a ditch. Water from a stream flows beneath it.

This crossing is new, the conservation district helped build it last year. Halloran and Berheide are happy to see that it has made it through the spring melt period.

Berheide explains that “moving tractors, equipment and animals here without a crossing means there is more erosion potential.” That erosion would flow into the stream, which contributes to two nearby waterways: the Boquet River and Lake Champlain.

Much of what soil and conservation districts do is implement these types of changes. Berheide says one water crossing may not seem like much, but it can make a big difference in keeping waterways clean.

The people of Bodem en Water know most farmers in the province by name. As we drive back to their office, Berheide and Halloran point to fields left and right. It seems like there’s someone they’ve worked with around every corner.

A new irrigation pond that the Soil and Water Conservation District helped build at Full and By Farm.  Photo: Ana Williams-Bergen

A new irrigation pond that the Soil and Water Conservation District helped build at Full and By Farm. Photo: Ana Williams-Bergen

According to Halloran, “Everything we do is related to the way we use the land.” But she says that “farms are so focused on production and trying to stay in the black that addressing resource concerns is not always their main job.”

That’s where these Conservation Districts come in, says Halloran, “helping them as they continue to try to produce and manage the land.”

Their services are not just for farmers; any landowner can ask the Conservation District for help. But Halloran says many farms in the area are primarily concerned, both about adapting to climate change and reducing their impact on the environment.

These projects can be complicated and expensive. A big part of what Conservation Districts do is help connect farms to resources: grants, engineers, you name it.

Halloran says their work involves “a lot of planning, a lot of contact with other organizations and a lot of paperwork in the background.”

Berheide thinks this is a great area to work on conservation because “everyone, whether they’re a farmer or a landowner, sees themselves as a steward of that property, of the land, of the landscape of the Adirondacks.”

The Conservation District also does environmental education for children, sells trees and shrubs and works extensively with highway departments. They say it all helps get people thinking about and protecting our natural resources.