When Jane Houin started as the administrator of the Ashland Soil and Water Conservation District in 2018, the district was one of the 10 lowest-funded in the state.
Two years later, despite funding increases from county commissioners, it’s still one of the lowest-funded districts. But with a focused, strategic plan, district staff are getting as much mileage as they can out of it. And the district is growing.
This year, the district was named the 2020 Soil & Water District of the Year by the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
“The vision that we have and our strategic planning is starting to pay off,” said Karen Welch, fiscal officer for the district’s board.
One of the things that made the district stand out was Houin’s leadership, according to Matt Peart, first vice president for the Ohio Federation of Soil & Water Conservation Districts and part of the officer team that selected Ashland SWCD as the district of the year.
“She just thinks outside of the box,” he said.
Welch has been on the board for eight years. In that time, she’s seen the district staff completely turnover, with several staff members retiring or moving on to new positions.
“We’ve appreciated the dedication of former employees, but also appreciate the new vigor that new staff is bringing in to us,” Welch said. “It just gets some different angles going, and learning different ways to interact with different people.”
Houin isn’t afraid to try new things, Peart said, and has done a good job of including and working with people that have been working with the district for years.
“That’s what makes her such a good district administrator,” he said. “The office is doing so much more than they were before.”
There are currently only three staff members at the district. The district came up with a strategic plan in fall 2018. The plan highlights the most important areas to address in the county, with limited staff and funds.
“With a small staff, that’s why it’s important for us to be able to focus on what we think is really going to make an impact,” Houin said. “So it’s been really helpful to us, anytime we get a new opportunity, to look and say, ‘this fits with what we want to do,’ or ‘this doesn’t.’”
Reducing erosion and runoff on crop land in the county is one of the district’s priorities. It has been working with the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District on its cost-share program and offering its own, including aerial cover crop seeding.
This allows farmers to pick a cover crop and have it aerially applied to their fields. With higher-intensity and more frequent rain events, Houin said, this makes getting cover crops in the ground easier.
The district has also partnered with agricultural retailers to offer crop modeling services for farmers, with a grant through the Ohio Farm Bureau. The modeling tools help farmers manage nitrogen on their fields, taking into account factors like long-term weather forecasts.
The district got a watershed grant from the Ohio Department of Agriculture to work on water quality in the Jerome Fork of the Mohican River, focusing on cover crops, computer modeling and manure, watershed and stormwater management.
The district also came up with a nine-element plan for the Lang Creek watershed, in the Jerome Fork, which included identifying projects and priority areas, and finding out what was important to the community in those areas.
Though the district has gotten more funding recently from the county, it is still lower-funded than surrounding districts. So, the staff apply for grants.
One area staff wanted to work on was stormwater management, but initially, they didn’t have the staff to do it. This spring, the district got a $44,000 grant from the National Association of Conservation Districts to hire an urban and education specialist, who works with schools on urban agriculture programs and works on stormwater management.
Pandemic. The district’s urban and education specialist was hired right before the pandemic hit. Part of the plan was for her to do monthly visits to seven Head Start Center classrooms each month, Houin said.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, the specialist started doing weekly videos about agriculture and conservation to put on the district’s website and Facebook page. Head Start teachers were able to share these videos with their students as a remote learning activity.
The district has also been running video ads at the Historic Ohio Theatre, in Loudonville, about programs that it hasn’t been able to host in-person events for.
In the last few years, the district has almost doubled the number of acres in their cover crop cost-share program, which Houin credits partly to raising awareness of the program in the county.
“They have just become so innovative and so inclusive in bringing farmers to the table,” Peart said.
The district identified some projects through the planning process for Lang Creek, and are now looking at ways to fund those projects. The staff also want to expand the cover crop programs.
Outreach, Houin said, is incredibly important for the district.
“I don’t think we can get conservation on the ground if we don’t share our story,” Houin said.
One of the reasons that the district’s funding suffered, Welch said, is that county commissioners and others in the community simply didn’t know about or understand the importance of the work it does.
“It was an easy place to cut,” she said.
So Houin met with commissioners to talk about their work and how their funding compared to surrounding counties. She worked on public relations and outreach. And the commissioners began increasing the district’s budget.
The district has been having more community meetings and events. Houin brought back a newsletter for the district. It is currently having a “Rain Beat on Main Street” event, showcasing rain barrels painted by local artists in Loudonville and Ashland. The barrels will be sold to fund water quality education programs.
And despite new challenges with the pandemic, Welch still expects the district to keep growing.
“Water quality is always critical,” she said. “We have a really important job to do in helping our clients with good stewardship.”
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