Every summer, Barton Brothers Farm grows 10 acres of sweet corn and 85 acres of tobacco, and every year those crops are irrigated from a five-acre lake on the property on the Fayette-Scott County line. The lake was built in the post-Dust Bowl 1940s with help from state and federal soil conservation district money, as were a lot of other lakes in Fayette County that look as if they've been there forever.
Like the lakes, the Fayette Soil and Water Conservation District has been around since the 1940s — 1941, to be exact — but unless you're a farmer, chances are you haven't heard of it. This year is different because five people are running for four seats on the district's Board of Supervisors, which means that next week a lot of voters are going to be looking at that part of the ballot and wondering what it is.
What it is, says Bob Barton, is vital to agricultural life and everyone else who benefits from cleaner water and better soil.
"It's a program that has lived through several generations," said Barton, a former supervisor on the Fayette district's board. "And it really does a good job."
That job is multitasked to say the least. Funded through property taxes and the state, the district helps landowners and farmers with financial help and advice, everything from getting rid of dead livestock to diversifying away from tobacco.
With state cost-share programs, farmers can get financial help with cattle genetics, branching out into goat farming, protecting a stream, building better fencing, protecting a well, rotational grazing, erosion control or issues with sinkholes.
The office also is branching into more urban concerns, working with Bluegrass PRIDE on rain barrels and rain gardens, which help mitigate storm water problems, said Melinda Kemper, the district manager.
With an annual budget of $85,000, the district office also gives away trees, and its education coordinator spends a lot of time talking about environmental issues with local schoolchildren.
Members of the Board of Supervisors, who are not paid, meet once a month, oversee all the money going out for grants and cost-share programs, and work hard to get the word out about all the help they can give.
"If you lived in a perfect world, everyone would be doing these practices to prevent erosion and protect the environment, but we're out there trying to help," said Kenneth Cropper, a cattle farmer and the district's current chairman, who is running for re-election.
This year in Fayette County, there are five people seeking four seats on the seven-member board. The incumbents are Cropper, Teresa Hancock and Lillie Miller-Johnson, and two challengers, Larry Swetnam, a retired University of Kentucky agriculture professor, and Gregory Johnson, who is retired from the federal Natural Resources Conservation District.
Origins in the Dust Bowl
Conservation districts are a direct result of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, in which harsh farming techniques combined with a lengthy drought turned the topsoil of the Plains into dust storms that reached as far as the East Coast. By most accounts, it affected 100 million acres and displaced millions of people, some of whom are depicted in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.
The federal government started a national soil conservation service, and that legislation quickly spread to states, said Steven Coleman, director of the state Division of Conservation. By 1950, every county had its own conservation district, charged with identifying resource concerns.
"In the early years, they focused on erosion, but now they have a broader perspective assisting citizens with general environmental concerns," Coleman said.
Old-fashioned farming techniques, such as constant plowing instead of cover crops, meant soil erosion was a huge problem even in states like Kentucky, which gets plenty of rain, Coleman said. In fact, no-till farming, now considered the norm for better soil and water conservation, got its commercial start in Christian County on the farm of Harry Young in the 1960s.
Each county conservation district has seven supervisors, who cycle on and off; Coleman said 484 seats are up for election this year.
In Fayette County, the district is starting to look at new trends in conservation, such as urban farming, says Hancock, a Fayette County teacher.
"This is important to everyone because they have to get their food and water from the same place," she said. "We're seeing lots of inventive, creative ways to save our resources," such as the new aquaponics program offered by Foodchain, in which fish and greens are raised together in a symbiotic environment.
Bob Barton says the district's work is "more vital today even than it was back when it got started. It doesn't just affect us, but generations to come."