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Conservation Helps Preserve Ag Roots of S.C. Island

By Amy Overstreet, NRCS South Carolina
January 7, 2013

Sunset Over St. Helena


St. Helena Island farmer Sara Reynolds enjoys a laugh with her young volunteer.

St. Helena Island farmer Sara Reynolds enjoys a laugh with her young volunteer.

Photo credit: Denise McGill, University of South Carolina

 

Nestled just below Charleston, S.C., St. Helena Island is one of the few U.S. east coast islands that has staved off heavy development and tourism. But now, with the island’s future and agricultural heritage at a critical crossroads, some of the island’s 9,000 residents are working with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to maintain their agricultural way of life.

NRCS works with private landowners who own small farms and ranches on St. Helena, a 64-square-mile island home to a pristine oasis of glimmering marshes and live oak trees covered in Spanish moss. The island sits in Beaufort County, one of the fastest developing counties in the nation—meaning farmland is quickly disappearing.

In partnership with NRCS, many of St. Helena’s farmers and ranchers have installed conservation practices on 400 acres of land, helping protect natural resources and preserve farming on the island.

St. Helena Island farmer Sara Reynolds with her young volunteers in the field.

St. Helena Island farmer Sara Reynolds with her young volunteers in the field.

Photo credit: Denise McGill, University of South Carolina

For example, Ben Johnson has worked closely with NRCS to put conservation practices on his farm and ranch where he raises cattle, pigs, sweet potatoes, greens and other vegetables. With help from NRCS, Johnson prepared a conservation plan and installed fencing, micro-irrigation and cover crops. These improvements allow him to enhance soil and water quality while strengthening his operation economically.

The island is also home to a Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) easement through NRCS. The easement permanently protects 1,327 acres at the historic Penn Center, site of one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves and where Martin Luther King, Jr. drafted his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Ben Johnson has worked with NRCS to design and implement a conservation plan.

Ben Johnson operates a small farm on St. Helena Island and has worked with NRCS to design and implement a conservation plan, which includes several measures that lead to a better farming operation.

Photo credit: Amy Overstreet, NRCS South Carolina

The island is home to the Gullah, a culturally distinctive group of people descended from the slaves who worked on rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. Many Gullah maintain strong cultural ties to West and Central Africa and source much of their food from local farming and fishing.

Conservation practices on St. Helena Island help protect its natural beauty, keep farms and ranches healthy and productive and preserve a way of life for many on the island. These same practices regularly employ biologists, foresters, pipe makers, dirt movers, welders, engineers and others from the local community in order to put conservation projects on the ground.

NRCS, in partnership with the University of South Carolina, recently chronicled this dynamic relationship between the Gullah and the land in a new documentary called St. Helena Island—A Better Place. The documentary showcases the island’s residents, like Johnson, who are passionate about their homeland, about farming sustainably and about maintaining the deep roots to their heritage. Watch the documentary.