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Spending Your Tax Dollars: A huge investment in dirt and water

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Shelby County’s soil board has been protecting the land for more than 60 years, but only in the past few years has it asked you to contribute directly to the cause.

By Lisa King

In the past 5 years – and for many years before that – more than $1 million of your tax dollars have been left lying in the dirt or submerged under water.

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But, if you listen to federal officials, the Soil Conservation District, the county’s oldest special taxing district, stands out in longevity and in importance.

“If you don’t take care of the land, then you’re not going to have any land to take care of you,” said Kurt Mason, district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who provides Shelby and seven neighboring counties technical assistance to help determine the best way to help farmers and landowners improve farming practices.

The Shelby County Soil Conservation Board has spent more than $1 million during the past 5 years – 69 percent of its combined, $1.5 million budgets from 2009 to 2013 – on programs to assist farmers and landowners improve the quality of their soil and water systems.

Of that $1.5 million, more than $1.2 million – 82 percent – was generated by a tax of 1 cent per $100 of assessed value of real, with another $266,853 coming from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. The USDA throws in a few dollars here and there, too.

That $1,046,539 has been distributed to assist 1,125 landowners (out of 1,598 applications) with everything from reseeding hay fields to putting in irrigation systems to constructing farm ponds.

An odd thing is that although the soil conservation board was created by the Soil Conservation Act of 1935 – and Shelby’s board came along 14 years later under state law – it wasn’t until 2007 that the district started to generate revenue from property taxes.

Up until 2007, the district largely had been funded by a $50,000 grant from Shelby County Fiscal Court – along with state and federal grants – but when magistrates said they would have to reduce the county’s contribution to $37,000, district board members determined a tax would allow more revenue to be distributed.

Except for some overhead expenses – for renting part of the new USDA office on Breighton Boulevard in Shelbyville and to pay the $42,000 annual salary of District Administrator Ann Griffin – everything else goes back to the community, largely through a 50-50 matching fund that allows land owners and farmers to share the costs of projects with,

"We provide money, and the land owner provides money also," Griffin said.

Shelby County Soil Conservation District Chair Fred Rothenburger said the cost share programs are the heart of the soil conservation district's mission.

"Farmers are able to apply for grants to dig ponds or put in water lines," he said. "A lot of them are putting in water lines or reseeding waterways that have washed out. Some of them are big projects that will cost a lot of money."

Shelby's soil conservation district's cost-share plan, with annual district revenues right around the $300,000 mark, includes an average of about $40,254 per year in state funds, as well as varying amounts of federal money – $22,029 last year.

That goes to help applicants through  seven programs: seed, water, heavy use, sinkhole repair, manure management, lime and cover crops.

 

‘It’s just invaluable’

Those programs may not sound all that all encompassing to the average person, Mason said, but they address a topic that is important to everyone – having enough food to eat.

“It’s [soil conservation] all about feeding ourselves and making sure there is going to be ample land for that purpose for years to come,” he said.

State Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that,  speaking as a farmer, the help and advice offered by experts such as Mason and district advisors, such as Barry Campbell, is of tremendous help.

“I’ve used them [advisors] on ponds, on waterways, designing waterways; their knowledge on what is the best way to do different projects, it’s just invaluable,” he said.

Hornback said that it’s difficult to pinpoint any one program as being more important than another.

“It depends on the farmer,” he said. “Some farmers might have a lot of sinkholes, so having help with that would be what they need. Others might have more rolling ground, so the cover crop program would be most important to them. If you’re heavy on feeding cattle, the programs they’ve got on feeding pads and rock base for gates, those are very important.”

Campbell, a former soil district board member of 18 years, is an advisor now, because, when he moved to Spencer County he no longer was eligible to serve on Shelby’s board. But he said he wanted to continue to contribute his knowledge to farmers in the county.

“I feel honored to be able to do what I can to help farmers here,” he said.

 

Helping everyone

Campbell said that there are three main types of farmers in Shelby: the big grain producers, small dairy producers – numbering only about 20 farms now – and small family farms. It’s that latter that benefit the most from assistance from the soil conservation district, he said.

Ironically, Shelby’s biggest agricultural boom in the past three decades – the horse industry – does not really pursue grants from the board, officials said.

“Your small family farms, those are the folks that we are really trying to help,” Campbell said. “To save the family farm, this is our concern. We will pay them five dollars an acre for up to one hundred acres for them to sow wheat as cover crop on their corn and soybean fields and their tobacco fields.

 “For the dairymen, we have a program, where we will pay them to spread manure on their fields, per our specifications. The cattlemen, we’re helping them with feed pads, with putting down rock and gravel in their gates, filling in sinkholes, putting water in confined lots for livestock. We’re doing an awful lot of good things, plus, we give ag-related scholarships, we give five thousand dollars to the Shelby County Parks system plus a thousand dollars to the school system to put agriculture-related material in school libraries.”

Rothenburger said the district provides funding to entities such as the parks and school system because in that way, the entire county is served, not just those who live on farms.

“We give money to the parks...to help serve the general public, because we want to help everybody in some way or another,” he said.

Campbell said that for farmers, the extra help from the district actually keeps them in operation.

“Some of the things we do, without us, some farmers would just say, ‘I quit,’” he said.

“Our whole existence is about soil conservation and keeping the soil where it is and to keep it from going into the streams,” he said. “That’s not only important to the farmer, but to everybody, to Fish and Wildlife, and for our water supply, to you and me, everybody who drinks water. We’ve got to make sure we keep the water clean and pure. That’s’ why the grass seed, the fertilizer and the lime are programs we spend the most money on.”

The lime program which runs each year, cost $30,000 in 2013 up from $20,000 in 2012 but down from $49,500 in 2011. Water quality projects cost the district $15,000 in 2013 and $20,000 in 2012.

The district also receives federal funds most years for cost-share programs. In 2012, federal funds from the USDA-NRCS paid $22,029 to Shelby landowners who participated.

 

From dust to soil

The focus of the cost-share programs were defined more than three-quarters of a century ago by the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, which recognized soil erosion as a menace to the national welfare, and that all states should take measures to prevent it.

The act, which established soil conservation districts throughout the nation – Kentucky’s were created in 1949 – was in response to the Dust Bowl incident of the 1930s, Mason said.

"In the nineteen thirties, many areas were agricultural and rural, and people made their living on farms,” he said. “When the dust bowl occurred, we started to notice, as a country, that what we thought was an unlimited resource, which was the soil, and its capacity to produce food, wasn’t really an unlimited resource.”

When huge dust storms in the Midwest blew away topsoil that caused a blackout across several states, it really shook up  people all over the nation, Mason said.

“ It was a wake-up call that we were about to lost a lot of agricultural land,” he said. “It was just overgrazed, overmined, overtobaccoed, just wore out and barren. And we weren’t able to rebuild the soil as fast as we were tearing it down.”

It took many years to return the soil to a healthy state, through the use of cover crops, the application of organic material and practices such as crop rotation.

 

Learning, farming, eating

Mason said since the birth of the soil conservation movement in the United States, it has been the role of soil conservation districts to make the public aware of the importance of soil health.

“Our role is to educate people and help them understand subtle things that are happening on their land, like water or soil runoff that they may not be aware of,” he said.

How does the USDA interact with local soil boards?

“The local entity [soil conservation board] helps to promote the services that are available and they bring in technical assistance from the USDA to help people evaluate those programs,” he said. “One of them [programs] is the conservation stewardship program. It takes people that already have a fairly good conservation ethic, and they apply those conservation methods on their farms. It gives them a chance to go above what they’re already doing, maybe like changing some of their management activities and decision making, doing things like putting in pollinators, which is conservation, but goes a step beyond tradition conservation efforts like soil erosion and water quality, because why not do something to improve the wildlife habitat? It’s a whole new effort of conservation on your land.”

Mason said that it’s part of his job to educate farmers on why soil erosion takes place.

“Talking to farmers, we try to reveal stuff they really know, but they don’t why,” he said. “Like for instance, when they’re cropping a field, they notice that the outside rows just don’t produce very well, but they don’t know why. There are a number of things they can do to help their production, like helping the soil heal itself so that when it does return back to production, it’s as healthy or healthier than the soil in the middle of the field.”

Campbell said that advisors such as himself and Kathy Ranard, coordinator for Shelby Clean Community, are very important because they are constantly out in the public, educating people on the importance of working to maintain the soil conservation district’s mission of keeping farmland viable.

“You’ve seen those bumper stickers that say, ‘I farm, you eat,’ I’ve got one on my truck,” he said. “Well, all I can say is, that’s for real.”