A natural growth industry


CHESTER - Just a few miles from the Route 50 corridor, a 540-acre chunk of farm, marsh and woods with five miles of shoreline - perhaps the largest undeveloped tract on bustling Kent Island - has for decades provided a habitat for bald eagles, waterfowl and other animals.

Now Barnstable Hill Farm will provide Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage with a permanent home to carry out its mission: teaching others how to create and maintain wildlife habitat while farming in a way that isn't harmful to the environment.

The nonprofit preservation group, which has managed the farm since 1987, was formally given the property this week.

"We have 200-plus acres here devoted to corn and soybeans, all with buffer strips that offer habitat to all manner of critters," said Ned Gerber, the wildlife biologist who heads the group's nine-member staff. "It's really a habitat island, especially if you look at what's happening in other parts of Queen Anne's County."

The farm, a peninsula formed by Kirwan Creek and Prospect Bay, was purchased in 1945 by John Campbell, a foreign service veteran, and his wife, Elizabeth. After her husband's death in 1967, Elizabeth Campbell made sure the land would never be developed by donating conservation easements to the Maryland Environmental Trust.

She enlisted Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage to manage the property, which includes 220 acres of farmland, 280 acres of woodlands and restored wetlands and 40 acres of marsh. Plans to give the farm to the group have been in the works since Elizabeth Campbell's death three years ago.

Under the group's management, three 5-acre parcels have been reclaimed from farm acreage and restored as wetlands. In addition, more than 30 acres of hedgerows and buffer strips of native plants and grasses have been planted on the edges of fields that yield soybeans and feed corn - the mainstays of agriculture on the Delmarva peninsula.

"This is what we're about: preserving habitat hand in hand with sustainable agriculture," said Larry Albright, an Easton gun shop owner and head of the Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage board. "Since we've been there for 10 years, you couldn't find a better example of what we'd like to get done all over the Shore."

The key to restoring the natural buffers is persuading farmers and other landowners to put portions of their acreage into land-preservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Enhanced Program, which has paid Maryland landowners about $200 million over the last four years, says Bebe Shortall, an agricultural property specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency.

"It's one thing to explain to landowners that they can get paid for setting aside land," Shortall said. "But Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage contributes a lot of technical support for landowners. They are out there talking to farmers and landowners."

Gerber is convinced that long-term land preservation is dependent upon farmers being shown that sustainable agriculture - planting cover crops, avoiding pesticides and reducing runoff from farm fields - can be profitable.

"What we can show is that in a good year, we'll make $100 an acre on crops you'd see all over the Shore," he said.

The difference from conventional farming, which has been blamed for many of the Chesapeake Bay's water quality problems, is that at Barnstable Hill Farm, pesticides have been completely eliminated and herbicide use has been reduced by two-thirds.

The idea now, Gerber says, is to show off the farm as often as possible to landowners or benefactors, using three tenant houses to provide rooms for researchers or interns who can take on projects Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage's small staff doesn't have the time to get to.

Perhaps more important is using the expansive farm as a showcase for landowners who, like the thousand or more who have sought guidance from the organization in recent years, want to see the logistics of land and habitat preservation up close.

"We've helped landowners with everything from sustainable agriculture to restoring wetlands to wildlife sanctuaries," Gerber said. "Here we have all that in one place. It's not something abstract. It's all right here."

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