For the first time in its almost 80 year history, the Yates County Soil & Water Conservation District Office (YCSW) played host to the New York State Soil & Water Conservation Committee for two days, Oct. 28-29, organizing their meeting here in Penn Yan, arranging food and accommodation at local restaurants and the Hampton Inn, and taking some 38 members, including New York State Commissioner of Ag. & Markets Richard Ball, on a tour of projects in Yates and Seneca Counties.

With the ecological and economic disaster known as the “Dust Bowl” in the 1930s, Congress declared soil and water conservation a national priority for agriculture and the environment, giving rise to the creation of local Soil & Water Conservation Districts.  Yates County’s SWCD was created Sept. 30, 1940 as just the second in the state. And over that long history, Yates County has developed in ways that today make it unique in the state. This two-day conference was an opportunity to meet with state policy makers to ensure they are aware of the both the unique qualities of Yates’ agricultural economy, and the vitality those qualities foster.

YCSW District Manager Colby Petersen and District Technician Tom Eskildsen were two of the presenters at the State Committee Meeting, highlighting some of the projects that are funded by the approximately $400,000 in funding, grants, and aid received from the state each year. Those monies fund projects specially tailored for the small farms and vineyards of Yates County and the central Finger Lakes, which contrast so markedly with the far larger operations in Western New York. Another out of the ordinary element of Yates County is the numerous Mennonite farms, which do not generally participate in directly funded projects. Yet they also rely upon YCSW as providers of information and advice in meeting state regulations.

While it was nerve-wracking to arrange, especially the tour which would be so dependent on the weather, Eskildsen looked on it as a challenge and an opportunity from the state to “actually see what you’re doing with the money we give you.” YCSW provides a wide range of services to the county, towns and villages, and property owners of the district in the protection of farmland, waterways, and water supplies via inspections, hydrology studies, and construction consultation.

The tour on day two was blessed with excellent weather for the season, stopping first at a field on Stiles Road focusing on cover crop practices, row crops, conventional tillage, and the changes needed to reduce erosion.  

Next was the Martens’ farm on Ridge Road, where Eskildsen and organic farmer Klaas Martens led a discussion of nutrient management with examination of a manure storage, barnyard water handling, and a buffer system being installed. 

Then it was on to Martini Vineyards on Anthony Road with vineyard manager Peter Martini and Hans Walter-Peterson of Cooperative Extension to examine pesticide and fungicide sprayer technology upgrades that reduce use and spray drift, and were partly funded through YCSW; as well as the benefits of planting under-row cover crops in vineyards to reduce erosion and encourage soil health. 

In coordination with Seneca County S&W, the tour visited two sites there. First was Poormon Farms in Fayette to examine systems of erosion control systems in flatland terrain, using diversion ditches and grassed waterways. The final stop was Swedish Hill Winery in Romulus to examine a rock-lined waterway and culvert replacement to address an erosion problem in a drainage channel very close to Cayuga Lake, while allowing access to additional agricultural property.

Colby Petersen states the two-day event “went great.” He was pleased Yates County had the chance to get some “face time” with the policy makers and offer some different perspectives on agriculture that differ from the corporate farms in other parts of the state; as well as showing some of the advances in vineyard technology, and to hear about new funding opportunities for the future.