It’s widely considered the lowest rung on the ladder in local/regional politics, but the Soil and Water Conservation Board of Supervisors still merits your attention. Why? Because the biggest impacts on rivers and streams come from agriculture and development. And the Soil and Water Conservation District is active in both arenas.
Like its counterparts around the state, the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District educates farmers and helps them acquire technologies that protect streams, such as alternative watering systems and fencing to keep cattle out. The agency also provides assistance with erosion control and stream-bank stabilization, runs educational programs, obtain grant funds and manage cost-share and incentives programs for farmers.
The district is not an enforcement agency — it works with farmers strictly on a voluntary basis — and in some cases, it can arrange for state and federal funding to cover 75 percent of the cost of implementing things like “best management practices.” The Soil and Water Conservation Board sets priorities for the agency and then decides which programs get the available funds.
On Nov. 5, Buncombe County voters will determine which two candidates will fill the vacant seats on the five-member board.
Buncombe County resident James Coman is no stranger to the Soil and Water Conservation District; he served on the supervisory board twice, in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, including a stint as chairman. In his 24 years as a land-use planner — he is currently senior planner for Buncombe County — Coman says he’s seen a shift in focus, from working almost exclusively with farmers to increasing involvement with urban development.
Besides his B.F.A. degree from Western Carolina University, Coman says his education also includes “a degree in trenches.” He has served as one of three Buncombe County representatives on the Mountain Valley Resource and Development Council, a USDA sponsored advisory council which serves eight WNC counties, since 1984.
The government, asserts the Democrat, “needs to stop giving money to large corporate farms, and we need to do all we can do to preserve small family farms. That’s where the real crisis is.”
Next to taking steps to conserve soil and water, the district’s most important task is educating children, says Coman. A father himself, and part of a long line of Buncombe natives, Coman understands the idea of legacy. “I want my daughter to enjoy soil-and-water conditions that make for reasonable living,” he says.
Self-described “radical activist” Alan Ditmore sees the Board of Supervisors as a foot in the door to public office.
“I think it’s a mistake for alternative candidates to run for an office that is too large” at first, observes Ditmore, a Democrat. The 38-year-old farmer has worked with groups like Zero Population Growth and Planned Parenthood, and those ideals dominate his platform.
“The best thing farmers can do is plan their families, like everybody else,” he says. Ditmore is quick to point out that population control and soil-and-water conservation are intimately linked, and in considering what to do with funding entrusted to the board, Ditmore says he’d like to direct it where he feels it would do the most good: birth control.
“Less population equals less pollution,” he proclaims.
In an e-mailed platform, Ditmore reiterated that stance, declaring, “All possible locally controlled funds and efforts should go to funding birth-control projects in cooperation with existing programs.”
Ditmore takes the current board to task for endorsing such agricultural methods as no-till agriculture, which he says merely trades erosion for excessive reliance on chemical treatment. He would also like to see the board expand its environmental vision from a localized to a global perspective.
“There’s only one environment,” he says.
Former feed salesman Fred Myers says local farmers are running out of land. The lone Republican on the ballot, Myers is concerned that a growing population and continuing development are eating away at what was once a predominantly rural county.
“Agriculture is being put in jeopardy,” laments the 76-year-old Swannanoa resident. North Carolina, he notes, “is third in the nation at loss of farmland.” The rising value of the land is outpacing the farmer’s ability to make money by farming it; meanwhile, the increasingly tight quarters have made it essential for farmers to keep their cows out of the streams.
Myers is well aware of the impact of stream pollution; he used to live on the banks of the Swannanoa. “We had to smell the river before irrigating our garden,” he recalls. Also important, he feels, is getting the word out to farmers that Conservation District programs are voluntary, not mandatory.
Now retired, Myers reports that he’s not campaigning too hard for a position on the board. “If people know me, they know I’m going to be honest,” he says simply.
A substitute teacher in the Enka school district, Democrat Elise Israel knows the value of education. And with 10 years’ experience with the Buncombe Conservation District as both an environmental-education coordinator and as an administrative assistant, she believes in the power of educational forums to spread the word in the community.
“I feel that’s a really important method,” says the Candler resident. In addition to her educational efforts in the field, Israel has had extensive involvement with the agency, including: holding an interim position as a soil-and-water conservation technician, observing cost-share programs on participating farms, helping develop the county’s Farmland Preservation Ordinance and a conservation-easement program, and attending all the board’s meetings. She has also headed up the district’s annual white-pine-seedling sale, exhibits for the Mountain State Fair, and educational field days in spring and fall, as well as preparing the district’s newsletter to teachers.
“I know about as much as anybody possibly could,” she declares. A top priority for Israel is finding grant money to help farmers adopt better environmental practices. “One of the biggest problems is, it’s unaffordable,” she observes.
Democrat Bailey Mundy has worked as a soil conservationist for the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District for the past 15 years. During that time, he’s seen the power of word-of-mouth communication among farmers. “Once they know the benefits [of the Conservation District’s programs], it keeps a waiting list in every district,” he says.
Mundy fell into his line of work by accident. He and his wife moved to Western North Carolina in 1985, and the soil-conservationist position opened up. Although Mundy works in the Madison District, as a Weaverville resident, he’s eligible to run in Buncombe County. Mundy feels he could bring a “balance to the issues” faced by the board.
“The practices we put in help [farmers’] bottom line. It saves time; they have healthier livestock. A side product is water quality.” That side product, he says, is the district’s most important goal. It is “a continuing working process,” he says. “We have seen improvements, but we can continue to improve bit by bit.”
What’s the biggest threat? Sediment, he says. “Sediment is the main problem to our fisheries.” This is Mundy’s second run for a seat on the board.