Bell’s Lane Farm brings new meaning to diversity

AFP Correspondent

STAUNTON, Va. (July 8, 2014) — Located within the city limits, Bell’s Lane Farm is known as both a wedding destination and a conservationist’s dream example of livestock and water quality coexisting on a landscape.
But mostly it’s a working farm, one that’s become a picture of diversity over the years, even as the same farming family continues to pass it along to the next generation.
The farmland here has raised cattle for generations, but its grass is now used to wean calves that will end up being sold under a natural label at Whole Foods Markets.
A six-acre plot of land has now been set aside to grow vegetables for a small community supported agriculture program.
And the bucolic farm scenery and historic farmhouse are now used as a wedding venue and weekend getaway for traveling guests.
The manure from the farm’s 200 head of cattle is combined with leaves from the city — which maintains an agricultural lands designation within Staunton limits — and turned into compost that sells out every year at $7.50 a bag.
An aerial photo of the farm today shows thick rows of trees and brush lining its waterways, which help filter excess nutrients from the landscape and its livestock before they reach the water.
What may not be clear from a bird’s eye view is that the majority of those trees started as tiny saplings, planted with the help of a government program 16 years ago.
The Moore family first began fencing cows out of the stream called Poague Run that flows through their property in 1998.
They were among the first farmers to take advantage of the USDA’s newly minted Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program that year, enrolling 30 acres in the program, according to the field trip guide, Bobby Whitescarver, a retired conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation District.
“This one is a green ash,” Whitescarver said as the group visiting the farm gathered in its shade. He pointed out a cardboard-composite shelter that held the sapling upright when it was first planted, which now lay next to the sprawling adult tree.
Whitescarver had to mow a few paths through the thick grass that has grown up among the trees along the stream to allow for the group’s visit.
“You cannot walk through here today, because it’s so thick with stuff,” said Jim Starr, a retired director of forest management division with the Virginia Department of Forestry, who joined the group to assess the plantings he helped start years ago. His report showed that an average of 70 of the 100 to 150 trees planted per acre still dotting the landscape, a rate he called impressive considering a lack of maintenance over the years.
Now, tree-planting programs ready the soil to ensure as many planted trees as possible survive, but Whitescarver said they “got lucky” at this plot despite a lack of maintenance over the years. The 15-year contract with the USDA and the state to keep the land in these thick riparian plantings expired in 2013, but the current owners re-enrolled in the program for another 15 years.
Not every farm is reenrolling its land in the program, according to the newly released U.S. Census of Agriculture. Virginia experienced a nearly 17-percent decline in the number of acres enrolled in such conservation programs in 2012 compared with the previous census in 2007, a change that likely reflects the first generation of program participants not re-enrolling their land.
The farm is a living example of what can grow in the wake of commitment to such programs, Whitescarver said. It was the setting for a fish restoration project and field day this spring that brought families out to release native Brook Trout into the restored stream.
“It worked. Sure, there were rough times and disappointments but we weathered through it and kept at it,” Whitescarver wrote on his website about the field day. “Perseverance and patience prevailed. Now the city of Staunton and the people living in the Poague Run watershed can boast of a clean stream, working farms and native trout.”