By Kristin Fox
At a recent meeting of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, Creeden Kowal, Swain County District Director for the Soil & Water Conservation District, gave a report highlighting the work of the Swain Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) over the last three years.
Swain SWCD is one of 96 Soil and Water Conservation Districts in North Carolina. Soil and Water Districts encourage the sound use and management of our natural resources: soil, water, air, plants and animals.
Soil and Water Conservation Districts were formed across the country as a method of addressing soil erosion on cropland during the Dust Bowl Era of the 1930’s. The country’s very first Soil and Water Conservation District, the Brown Creek SWCD in Anson County, was formed in North Carolina in 1937.
In 1957, the Tuckaseigee Soil and Water Conservation District was formed in Swain County. In 1982, the Tuckaseigee Soil and Water Conservation District transformed into the Swain SWCD.
The Swain SWCD’s mission is “to provide for a quality environment and a higher standard of living while protecting Swain County’s natural resources.”
The local district offers technical advice and conservation planning free to landowners in Swain County. The district can also help address resource concerns by installation of best management practices (BMPs).
The Swain SWCD’s objectives are secured largely through voluntary cooperation of landowners. This cooperation enables the district to offer technical assistance and resources to landowners and operators by planning, executing, and promoting sound conservation practices offered through the North Carolina Agriculture Cost Share Program and other grant opportunities to assist landowners with conservation practices and their land.
The district works closely with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Division of the Soil and Water Conservation Department, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NC DA&CS).
The district offers three financial assistance programs to landowners who qualify through the NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services: Division of Soil & Water Conservation. The three programs are the NC Agriculture Cost Share Program (ACSP), Agricultural Water Recourses Assistance Program (AgWRAP), and Community Conservation Assistance Program (CCAP).
The NC Agriculture Cost Share Program is the most popular. The program was put in place to improve water quality on agricultural lands by pasture renovation, guttering and work in heavy use areas.
During the last few program years, $22,000 of cost share was encumbered in Swain County through NCACSP. Four Swain County landowners received financial assistance though the cost share program.
Another cost-share program in Swain County is the Agricultural Water Recourses Assistance Program (AgWRAP), which address ag water quantity. AgWrap funding of up to $11,000 is annually available in Swain County. There is also a more competitive regional allocation for larger projects. Practices include micro-irrigation ag pond repair, ag wells, and other water quantity projects.
The last cost share program available in Swain County is the Community Conservation Assistance Program (CCAP), a cost share program that is pooled regionally. Swain County has had only one CCAP project funded, the Soil Water Wetland behind the museum.
Other examples of practices that can be funded through this program include pet waste receptacles, mall streambank stabilization projects, permeable pavement, rain gardens, and other conservation projects.
Swain SWCD’s federal partner, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, helps Swain County through two programs, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentive program. Swain County Soil Conservationist Katie Gibbs reported that four Swain County landowners received over $102,792 in help from these two federally funded cost share programs.
While the Soil and Water Conservation Districts’ main role is reducing soil erosion, the district also gives great priority to educational activities promoting natural resource conservation. The district provides educational services for schools, civic groups and many other organizations.
The local district has also been busy with special grant projects over the past few years. Since 2014, the district has received $3,360,586 in grant funding for educational and technical projects in Swain County.
Through funding from NCADFP Trust Fund, the district completed the Swain County High School Animal Husbandry Barn at a cost of $65,800. The Swain County Agricultural Event Center was also completed at a cost $130,000 using funding from the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.
Other grant funding from the NC Tobacco Trust in the amount of $2,000 has allowed the local district to market local agritourism farms through the Visit NC Farms App. Swain also received an additional $2,000 grant from the NCR Envirothon to expand Envirothon Teams.
The NCF-Envirothon is an environmental and natural resource conservation competition that builds leadership experience for high school students across the United States, Canada and China. Incorporating STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) principles, problem-solving scenarios, experiential learning and hands-on outdoor field experiences, the Envirothon program encourages students to expand their knowledge, explore the field of environmental science and find solutions to natural resource conservation issues.
Currently, the district is focusing its efforts on the $11 million EBCI Raven Fork Street Restoration project. The district received $3,000.000 of directed grant funding from the state to restore the stream.
During 2020-2022, overall including state, federal and special grant funding projects, district funding secured and obligated for conservation was $3.3 million.
Through this funding, the district assisted 123 landowners with various technical needs such as soil testing, maps, and rental equipment. In addition, the district developed 9 conservation plans required for farmers to be enrolled in the present use value tax program.
To help raise funds for educational programs, scholarships and internships. The district has rental equipment and sells filter clothes used for roads and heavy use area protection. Rental equipment available from the district include conservation seed used for no-till planting pastures or small seed cover crop; temporary fencing kit used for rotational grazing; and t-post driver, earth auger and more for fence building.
Our Farmland Preservation Program, also known as the Enhanced/Voluntary Agricultural District, currently has 671 acres enrolled through 10 landowners. This program operates under Swain Voluntary Ag District Ordinance adopted in 2009. The purpose of this program is to encourage the preservation and protection of farmland from non-agricultural development. The program is voluntary and comes with many benefits for farmers, including increased farmland protection and eligibility for a higher percentage of state cost share funding.
Over the last three years, the district has dedicated 138 hours reaching 2,610 students in Swain County delivering conservation programs in Swain County schools.
Under the leadership of Shelby Cook, Swain SWCD Education Coordinator, the district has provided STEM based educational material both virtually & in-person to all Swain County Schools Pre-K through high school, Mountain Discovery Charter School, Cherokee Central Elementary, the Marianna Black Library and Methodist Kids Center. To provide these educational services, Swain County has partnered with Cherokee, Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Jackson Counties.
Over the last two years, the Swain Mobile Soil Exhibit has reached 35,678 students adding to an overall total of 129,760 since 2016. Other educational program highlights include four counties participating in the Future Farmers of America land judging event, 270 students participating in conservation field days and 17 students participating in the Envirothon Competition with Mountain Discovery Charter School placing in the top 10 in the state.
For more information about the Swain SWCD visit the soil and water page on the Swain County website at swaincountync.gov/soil-and-water.