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MD NRCS Assists Waterman with Oyster Restoration Projects in the Chesapeake Bay

By Cara Newcomer

As efforts to help restore the Chesapeake Bay Watershed continue to be a Maryland priority, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service works with farmers on water and on land to improve the Bay’s health. Creating and restoring habitat for filter-feeding oysters is one way watermen on the eastern shore are working with NRCS to improve water quality.

The NRCS EQIP oyster restoration program provided Bobby Leonard funding to help with his projects, which includes buying shell, buying spat on shell, working the ground, and harvesting the oysters.Bobby Leonard, Jr. owns about 140 acres of land on his Friendship Farm in Talbot County. The farm sits on about one mile of waterfront off of Broad Creek, near Deep Neck Point. This area is home to the historic oyster grounds where one of Leonard’s lease areas is located. “The area is ideal for what we’re doing with the oysters because it goes along with farming, we have the room to do it, and we have good clean water, great for growing oysters,” Leonard said.

Leonard learned about NRCS’ assistance for oyster restoration after working with NRCS to improve his cropland with practices like cover crops and no-till. “I went into the local field office and some of them told me NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program would be perfect for me,” Leonard said. “I was already in the farming business, I already had a plan and had the bottom, so the program was just a tremendous help.”

Today, Leonard farms nearly 50 acres of thriving oyster beds, restored with the help of NRCS.

Through EQIP, a voluntary conservation program, producers receive financial resources and one-on-one help to implement conservation practices that optimize environmental benefits on working agricultural and aqua-cultural land. “I highly recommend the NRCS EQIP program; they’ve been a tremendous help in every way and every time I’ve gone up there they are always willing to help,” Leonard said.

Bobby Leonard's Friendship Farm sits on about one mile of waterfront off of Broad Creek, near Deep Neck Point in Talbot County.  This area is home to the historic oyster grounds where one of Leonard's lease areas is located.Maryland NRCS has partnered with watermen to restore about 380 acres of oyster habitat since first offering the program in 2012. Jack King, district conservationist for Talbot County, believes the EQIP oyster program has room to grow. “Here on the eastern shore, many farmers know that EQIP can help to improve their crop and chicken operations,” King said. “Working with watermen on habitat restoration is a little out of the ordinary, but these projects fit EQIP’s goals to improve water quality, wildlife habitat and agricultural operations."

The program provided Leonard funding to help with his projects, which includes buying shell, buying spat on shell, working the ground, and harvesting the oysters. Leonard describes the oyster restoration process as a cycle. The process starts with shucked oyster shells; Leonard uses large tanks to allow the spat to grow. Spat are the shells that have oyster larvae permanently attached to them.

Leonard works with Horn Point Oyster Hatchery to create these spat on shell. After incubating in the tanks, Leonard deposits the shells in his leased area, attempting to keep them evenly distributed. “It takes about 4200 bushel of oyster shells to cover an acre of ground, two inches deep,” Leonard said.  The process of growing oysters to prime age takes about four to five years, depending on the oyster type. Over those four years, Leonard dredges his lease bottom to bring existing oyster shells from the bottom to the top.

Bobby Leonard utilizes the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help restore the Chesapeake Bay through oyster habitat restoration efforts.

Leonard likens the oyster restoration process to farming on land. “We farm the land and we farm the water and we farm the bottom of the water,” Leonard said. “It all runs together, and one benefits the other.”

​EQIP applications are accepted on a continuous basis, however, NRCS establishes application "cut-off" or submission deadline dates for evaluation, ranking and approval of eligible applications. To learn more about the EQIP program and your eligibility to participate, visit your local USDA NRCS Service Center. If interested, also be sure to look into the availability of shell in your local area. Visit www.md.nrcs.usda.gov for more information.