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Awards and Recognitions
2021 Clean Water Farm and York Grand Basin Awardee
In the Western Hanover County, where the coastal plain gives way to the gently rolling hills of the Piedmont, a family farm has garnered our attention for its contributions to agriculture and the environment. Keenbell Farm is a third generation farm established in 1951 by Joseph Isbell. Today CJ Isbell along with his father Eddie manage the now 340-acre (owned and leased) farm with a commitment to sustainability through its grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, free-range chickens and turkeys, eggs and non-GMO grains. Keenbell Farm has been recognized for their soil building practices, including multi-species grazing, along with stream exclusions and rotational grazing systems. The farm utilizes unique direct marketing techniques to serve local and regional markets, while ensuring resources are available for the next generation and beyond. Keenbell Farm has received numerous awards for their work including, most recently, the 2020 Virginia Farmer of the Year.
Approximately 175 acres of non-GMO specialty grains, including food-grade heritage varieties, are managed in rotation with 175 acres of hayland, cropland and pastureland. The Isbells use a pragmatic approach to agriculture that is focused on “fixing the soil to feed the plant, which feeds us all.” The livestock, which includes beef cattle, hogs, chickens and turkeys, are intensively rotated on pasture and cover crop forages to efficiently return nutrients back to the soil.
The Isbells participate in both state and federal cost-share programs including livestock exclusion and rotational grazing management system. They have participated 2 separate cost-share programs to exclude livestock from the nearby lake, ponds and adjacent waterways as well as providing alternative water sources. As part of their most recent exclusion system, they installed over 40,000 linear feet of fence line and protected 7672 linear feet of streambank. The Isbells utilize MIG or management intensive grazing for their cattle, which involves a fast rotation with a high density of cattle. This allows for better distribution of the manure, less impact on the land, extends the growing season by providing better drought resistance, and stockpiled winter grazing.
Keenbell Farm has led the community in outreach by hosting many field days and community events over the past 10 years including “Back to the Farm” Workshops, Family Farm Days and Customer Appreciation events, VA Forage and Grassland council (VFGC) field days, and even a VCE Soil Health Tour to help with funding for Chesapeake Bay Cost-share Programs. Many of the field days have been in cooperation with NRCS, DCR, H-CSWCD, VASWCD, VCE, and the VFGC. They have hosted VABF (VA Biological Farming Association) Farm Tours and participated in numerous speaking events with the Winter Forage Conferences, Farm to Table Conferences and No-till Alliance Conferences. They have opened the farm to 4-H groups, girl scouts and other community groups with an average of one educational tour per month.
CJ Isbell, while being a full time fire fighter, serves as a mentor to beginning farmers and supports farm start-ups for the next generation. He has previously worked for the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program and was part of the inaugural class accepted into the VALOR program (Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results). He has served as a member of the Forage and Grassland Council and Farm Bureau board.
Keenbell Farm has been recognized for their outstanding conservation ethics with the NRCS 2011Outreach and Demonstration Farm of the Year, 2012 VA Farm Bureau Environmental Stewardship Award, and 2013 Clean Water Farm Award. They have received the 2016 VFGC Outstanding Forage Producer of the Year, the 2016 Carl G. Luebben Soil Health and Water Quality Award, and most recently the 2020 Virginia Farmer of the Year.
Keenbell Farm strives to bring back the small farm and make it an integral part of the community, not only with the production of high quality foods, but in outreach and land stewardship. For these reasons, Keenbell Farm was selected the Keenbell Farm to receive the District 2021 Clean Water Farm Award and the VASWCD York River Grand Basin Award.
2021 Secondary Environmental Education Teacher of the Year
The Environmental Education Teacher of the Year Award recognizes an educator who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership and commitment to environmental literacy in a public or private K-12 setting. The ideal candidate should deliver a robust, hands-on learning program that involves students in exploration, enjoyment, and conservation of natural resources. The strong candidate also builds collaborative relationships with local conservation organizations to extend their influence beyond the classroom, and their students apply their learning to action projects that benefit the local watershed.
Robin Didlake has been a Virginia teacher for 32 years. For the last 26 years she has taught at Caroline High School. In 2018 when Caroline County Schools added an environmental studies program for 9th graders, Ms. Didlake, an earth science teacher, stepped in to lead the program. Using the Virginia Department of Education’s environmental science guidelines, she created the new curriculum from scratch, providing many resources out of her own pocket.
The 2020-21 school year was particularly challenging for all educators due to the impact of the Coronavirus. Teachers and students in Caroline County adapted first to virtual instruction, then to hybrid instruction. Despite facing this challenge with limited resources, Ms. Didlake remained focused on her goal of developing young environmental stewards. Her plans included studying plants and animals native to Virginia, the negative impact human activities have on the environment, and the importance of native tree species. In the summer of 2020, she organized a program that provided native tree saplings to students across all grade levels in Caroline. In addition, Caroline High School students and staff planted 25 native trees in a new treescape that now serves as an outdoor classroom for fieldwork and citizen science as students monitor biodiversity, tree growth, and budburst.
In addition to taking advantage of the educational resources our District provides, Ms. Didlake has worked with other organizations to multiply her impact. Through Friends of the Rappahannock, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and the Virginia Department of Resource Management, she has expanded the Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences of her students to include paddles on the Rappahannock River, water quality testing, tree planting projects, and cross-curricular professional development for her fellow teachers. Ms. Didlake also independently started an after school ecology club which competes as a Dominion Energy Envirothon team.
Ms. Didlake is an extremely adaptable and compassionate educator. She has spent many hours exploring the woods and streams surrounding the high school for outdoor learning opportunities. She creates lessons and hands-on experiences that are inclusive and engaging, broadening the scope of environmental literacy in Caroline County and guiding historically under-represented populations to fall in love with and become stewards of their watershed.
Hanover-Caroline Soil and Water Conservation District is proud to name Robin Didlake as the District Environmental Education Teacher of the Year, and is delighted to announce she has also been selected as one of two Environmental Education Teachers of the Year for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Congratulations, Robin!
Horseshoe Bridge Road Farm
2021 BMP Forestry Award
The Forestry BMP Award identifies a cooperator who deserves recognition for outstanding best management practices accomplished during the past ten years. Hanover-Caroline SWCD’s local Virginia Department of Forestry partner, natural resource specialist Jesse Bander, nominated the ideal candidate from Hanover County this year.
The property now known as Horseshoe Bridge Road Tree Farm has been in John “Randy” James’ family since the nineteenth century. The James family have managed the farm’s timber in cooperation with the Virginia Division of Forestry dating back to at least 1974 and had it certified by the American Tree Farm System in 1984.
Randy James has always liked being outdoors, leading him to earn a degree in forest management from NC State in 1972. Although he went on to work in another field of biology, he has always had a commitment to natural resources. In 2017, Mr. James sought the advice of the Virginia Department of Forestry and had a Forest Stewardship Plan prepared for his property. He has followed the recommendations laid out in the stewardship plan to manage his forestland. He has conducted two timber harvests, and both times he replanted (the second one will be replanted this spring).
Mr. James has also utilized multiple cost-share programs over the last few years to ensure he meets his management objectives, which include forest health and soil and water conservation. He has left 24 acres of mixed hardwood buffer along the property’s streamside management zones, a practice that preserves and improves existing soil and water quality while creating habitat for wildlife, including bobwhite quail.
Horseshoe Bridge Road Tree Farm promotes the conservation story by being a perfect example of sustainable forestry. The Jameses have successfully managed their property for income while prioritizing forest health. The management of this property is an example of how other landowners can realize the value of their timber in a sustainable way.
Hanover-Caroline SWCD is proud to recognize Horseshoe Bridge Road Tree Farm in Hanover County as the District’s 2021 BMP Forestry Awardee and to announce that the Virginia Association of Conservation Districts chose it as our State Forestry Award winner, as well! Congratulations Randy and Martha James!