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Cecil County Life

Honoring ‘the gift of good land’

Oct 31, 2018 08:50AM ● By J. Chambless

Family fishing is part of the Cecil Land Trust 'Life Skills and Leadership' community outreach. (Photo courtesy Alisa Webb)

By Drewe Phinny
Staff Writer

Poet, novelist and environmentalist Wendell Berry invokes the phrase, “Gift of good land” frequently in his writings. He feels that there are strings attached and “we have it only on loan and only for as long as we practice good stewardship.”

You’ll hear those words a lot when talking to Bill Kilby and Alisa Webb, president and executive coordinator, respectively, of the Cecil Land Trust. Kilby and Webb put their heads together to figure out ways to spread the word about responsible land use that will feed farmers and their customers in the future. But the beneficial effects to society don’t end there. Taking care of the soil just might play a part in other areas of life, such as addressing the current opioid crisis.

Although Webb is a major contributor to the CLT’s operation, she defers to Kilby on many of the nuts and bolts issues. In fact, when asked who can best describe the origin of the CLT, she modestly said, “Bill’s the founder and the president… He is the man with all the answers.”

Bill Kilby takes land protection personally. He has made it his mission to educate landowners about their role in healthy lands and clean waters in the Cecil County region of the Chesapeake Bay. The goal is to create large, contiguous blocks of protected farms.

“What we’re trying to do is set up an agricultural ‘enterprise zone,’ you could call it, a business model where you start with these large protected pieces of land,” he said.

Kilby described it as a business park using an agricultural model, with the guarantee of future investment in the land – for instance, in expensive equipment such as a corn chopper. “This equipment costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, so you can’t buy a chopper like that unless you have something to chop,” he said.

The CLT enables farmers to consider a future in Cecil County. “One of the ways we do that is to help them protect their lands,” Kilby said. “We use an easement, which basically says we will make it worth your while to protect your farm, with some restrictions. One is regarding houses. We want this to remain farm grounds, not a place to build houses.”

The latest incentive program offered by the CLT is Healthy Soils, which is the new buzz word for doing the right thing with your land. That includes no-till farming, which is a way of growing crops or pasture from year to year without disturbing the soil through the preparation process.

“You don’t disturb the whole field. You cut a slot with a disc and the seed drops down, so the only place you’re disturbing the soil is in that particular area,” Kilby said. “The old way leads to soil erosion, which means sediment in the bay.”

Another consideration is called cover crops, the purpose of which is to protect and enrich the soil. “When someone finishes harvesting the field, they’ll spread manure and then plant a cereal crop like wheat, barley or rye,” Kilby said. “As it grows over the winter, it holds the soil in place. It has to do with carbon sequestration.”

That term describes long-term storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which has been proposed as a way to slow the accumulation of greenhouse gases. The more carbon that is taken out of the atmosphere and left in the soil, the better.

At the CLT offices on the third floor at 135 East Main Street in Elkton, Kilby pulled out a market map that showed the importance of Cecil County farm production to a large area that might surprise some people.

“It’s about distributing,” he said. “We feel that what we do with that gift of good land is what we’re supposed to do. Farming in this area of Cecil County and Chester County, Pa., is all very land-dependent. There are 7 million people within a 50-mile radius of Colora, Md.”

Kilby explained that farmers are utilizing more sophisticated data collection to supplement their work and get the most out of their livelihoods. “When you do direct marketing, you need a business plan so we go to the library’s small business section and they will help you put together a feasibility study,” he said. “We wanted to see what the market was.”

One of the conclusions of the study pointed to the importance of Cecil County to the whole region. “With the world the way it is, it gives you some concern about food security,” Kilby said. “We ought to make sure our water and land is protected so the people who live within those 50 miles of Colora, of all places, will have a food supply and a water supply they can depend on. Those are the kind of things the CLT is thinking of on a larger scale.”

In an effort to ensure survival of the farmer, the Cecil Land Trust is working on the concept of food systems. “In order to survive,” Kilby said, “We’re going to have to do more direct marketing to those 7 million people. With that in mind, CLT just signed an agreement with West Nottingham Church to use its commercial kitchen to help farmers add value to their basic products, such as lettuce, tomatoes or chicken broth, and some other things that people are interested in.

“Right now we have an Amish man who grows cabbage and he wants to be able to process that cabbage to make slaw, vacuum-seal it, sell it to restaurants as fresh cabbage from his farm directly to you. So we have to have a commercial kitchen for that, due to food safety, which involves the health department, etc.”

Webb added, “They have a beautiful, industrial kitchen and, at a cost of $150,000, a farmer can’t [afford that] so we want to partner with them. We had 13 different farms using the facilities, and the Amish and others can come to make their products and sell them directly to you.”

The church, which used to handle Meals on Wheels, sees helping the CLT as part of its mission.

Perhaps the most socially significant aspect of this land management philosophy concerns the CLT role in possible solutions for addiction. Recently, the state planning department came to discuss relevant issues for the organization. They wanted to know just what Cecil Countians are thinking.

The group varied from Chamber of Commerce members to parks and recreation workers to regular citizens. In an electronic poll, 85 percent of twenty-five people said addictive behavior is their greatest concern. The other question involved Cecil County’s best assets. Respondents answered, “location, land and water.”

Kilby wondered how the CLT could use its resources to address drug addiction and made the connection to young people’s challenges. “I don’t know what we can do about the current opioid behavior, but we can do something about the future,” he said. “So we are devising a plan we can present to the county that uses these CLT resources for youth development. I don’t think anyone can argue about being passionate about land and water.”

Having taught science in both public and private schools for 28 years, Webb has the perfect background and experience for this program.

“It’s getting the kids earlier. You need to show them the good things from the land, the water – you know, go canoeing, kayaking down the Octoraro. It brings you joy,” Webb said. “Going fishing or just taking your shoes off and walking in a stream, picking up the rocks, just the wonder and curiosity of doing that. Just imagine giving an acre of land to these children and showing them how to take care of that land, plant the crop, and then harvest that crop, and make something out of it and sell it.

“That’s a huge investment. If you get these kids seeing something and getting a passion for water and fishing, farming, planting, getting their hands dirty, something tangible before they go into these drugs… They don’t see the farmlands, they’re not going barefoot. We want to share our passion for the outdoors and the land and water with kids in hopes of igniting a love of the land and everything it has to offer, with hopes of preventing bad life choices, such as drugs.”

Kilby has lived and loved his life in Cecil County, and he wants to share his enthusiasm with young people who may not be familiar with all that is offered by the land and water.

“We want kids to know that the Octoraro is a really good place to go tubing or kayaking, and if you’ve ever gone down the rapids in a kayak or tube, it’s something you never forget,” he said. “We really have a treasure here with its natural resources, its farmland and its water, and it’s time we used those things to help kids to develop a passion for things other than addictive behavior.”

A current CLT incentive project involves the 535-acre Crothers Farm, which is in its ninth generation. The Crothers family is putting its farm into land preservation. “Not only is it preserving their heritage but they are going into the aforementioned carbon sequestration. They have 7800 feet of stream,” Kilby said, “that feeds the North East water supply, so we’re protecting it with a buffer so it’s healthy and cleaner.” That will also mean 100 fewer houses.

Conservation, water supply, keeping the farm going for another generation with fresh food for 7 million people. And an ambitious plan to teach kids the advantages of catching a fish, exploring a stream or paddle boarding on the North East Creek.

The Cecil Land Trust stays busy honoring the gift of good land.

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