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StrikeForce Helps South Carolina Family Protect and Preserve Forestland

By Amy Overstreet, SC NRCS Public Affairs and State StrikeForce Coordinator

strikeforce small heading 2Oliver and Martin Smith have fond memories of their childhood home and the forestland which surrounds it. They were born and raised in Marlboro County, South Carolina, near the town of Bennettsville, which was founded in 1819. Located in the Pee Dee region, Marlboro was known as one of the richest agricultural communities in the state. Legend has it that the land was so rich it was once sold by the pound instead of the acre.

Oliver credits his “Great Granny Harriet,” a freed slave, for passing on the legacy of land to his family. She was given 400 acres of land, which is now heirs’ property, and their father purchased another fifty-three acres which are managed by Martin and Oliver. “When my great grandmother was freed from slavery, she was presented with this land,” explained Oliver. The brothers are avid outdoorsmen, as are their sons. Hunting and fishing are favorite pastimes when they are not at their day jobs, so after they harvested their trees a few years ago, they soon realized they wanted to replant. They visited USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist Frank Stephens to seek assistance with a reforestation plan.

NRCS offers a variety of financial incentives to woodland owners who want to protect and improve their land. Reforestation has many benefits, including preventing erosion, improving soil quality, establishing wildlife habitat, and providing recreational opportunities. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, is one such program that offers assistance to eligible forest landowners. However, it was discovered that the brothers were lacking one of the eligibility requirements to receive financial assistance through EQIP. Their names were not included on the deed to the land. So, they worked with their father to update their records at the local USDA Service Center, therefore reaching their goal of EQIP eligibility.

It was not long after that SC NRCS State Conservationist Ann English issued a call for EQIP applications in South Carolina's nineteen StrikeForce counties. South Carolina has 19 counties that are within the special project initiative which is designed to better serve persistent poverty communities and socially disadvantaged farmers through the coordination of activities among USDA agencies Luckily, Martin had already ensured his eligibility and prepared his application, so that when the call came, he was ready. He worked with Stephens to submit the application which requested technical and financial assistance to reforest 17 acres with loblolly and longleaf. Stephens says that he has enjoyed working with the brothers and says they are true stewards of the land. “Martin and Oliver were determined to do the right thing with their land and wanted to make sure that it is here for their kids, and generations to follow.” The South Carolina Forestry Commission is also instrumental in helping NRCS provide assistance to forest landowners. They visited with the Smith’s and developed a forest management plan which will help them ensure the health and vitality of their trees.

Stephens said the key to working with landowners who might be new to Farm Bill programs and USDA is keeping the lines of communication open. “I wanted to make sure that I developed a relationship with this family, and kept them informed on how they could increase their chances of submitting a successful EQIP application.”  The brothers are grateful for the expertise and help they have received from USDA and other conservation partners. They have also established wildlife food plots and continue to improve the land. “I would like to host other landowners out here for tours someday,” explained Oliver. These brothers are proud of the land where they spent their childhood learning to love and respect nature.