USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is celebrating National Volunteer Week April 10-16, 2016, by thanking and honoring its Earth Team volunteers for their service to conservation.
When Otis Donald Philen, Jr. decided to combine his working farm operation with an outdoor classroom, he knew just the group to help―the New River Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).
Philen, director of the SWCD, and other conservation professionals partner with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to improve agricultural education and natural resource protection. In September 2014, New River became the first District in Virginia to own a working farm when Philen deeded a 143-acre tract to the district.
Located on the headwaters of Moore Creek, New River Hill Farm cultivates the next crop of farmers, ranchers and soil scientists through a unique outdoor classroom on a working farm. Children and adults gain hands-on learning experiences in sustainable farming practices.
“Farm to table” is a big focus for this outdoor classroom. NRCS Earth Team volunteers teach students how to keep the soil healthy and how to care for the plants through harvest.
Older students learn the economic side of running a farm as they calculate the costs of raising cattle. Last year, students helped weigh, immunize and show 35 Holstein steers. Those steers also help demonstrate sustainable grazing practices to fellow farmers at educational field days.
The cattle and produce are sold to help support the educational program. This year, the group bought 50 steers and plans to add free-range chickens and hogs in the future. There are also plans to add a seasonal high tunnel to extend the growing season for the teaching plots and four donated bee hives for pollinator education.
The farm hosts many educational events like the annual SWCD Envirothon where five teams compete to demonstrate their knowledge of aquatics, forestry, soils and wildlife conservation.
Earth Team volunteers help the SWCD and NRCS keep the New River Hill Farm outdoor classroom running smoothly.
Volunteers like Virginia Tech student Emily Baer, work with the SWCD and NRCS to develop training opportunities on the farm. Baer and NRCS soil scientist Jeannine Freyman, created miniature soil profiles to expose the layers of different soil types and helped conduct soil sampling.
The education committee includes representatives from three local school districts, the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Wytheville Community College, USDA Farm Service Agency and the SWCD. All members also serve as Earth Team volunteers for the farm where they develop educational programs for the site and scheduling school groups.
Last year, more than 23,800 people donated 294,306 hours of service as NRCS Earth Team volunteers, valued at more than $6.8 million. The New River Hill Farm was selected for the 2016 National NRCS Earth Team Volunteer Group Award for the coordination and partnerships in the name of conservation. Read about other 2016 Earth Team volunteers on the NRCS website.