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Father-Son Duo Helps Virginians Achieve Their Conservation Goals

Anthony and Trenton Howell
Anthony and Trenton Howell on a farm tour

Story and Photos by John Markon, Virginia NRCS

Trenton Howell remembers many evenings when his father would come home from work after dark – tired, cold, and muddy after spending a long day outdoors when most people would have insisted on being inside. “There were a lot of nights like that,” said the younger Howell. “It wasn’t really glamorous, but I knew he was helping people.”

What Trenton didn’t know was that it would become a preview of his own life story. Anthony and Trenton Howell, perhaps more by serendipity than design, have become a rare team of father-son district conservationists for NRCS, delivering Farm Bill programs and services to Virginia farmers and forest landowners.

Anthony Howell’s conservation credentials were well-established when he joined NRCS in 2002 after almost 18 years as a Chesapeake Bay Water Quality Specialist with the Peanut Soil & Water Conservation District. Howell first worked in the Sussex field office before providing dual coverage for the Dinwiddie and Prince George Service Centers. These offices later consolidated, and Howell continues to serve the cities of Petersburg, Colonial Heights, and Hopewell, as well as the counties of Dinwiddie, Chesterfield, and Prince George from his base in Dinwiddie. Long-standing NRCS clients have come to rely on his knowledge and experience.

Son Trenton’s Chesapeake Field Office, which serves the cities of Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Portsmouth, offers quite the contrast. The first two cities profile more like counties in that they contain rural areas and numerous farms. They also have large urban and suburban populations and are home to more than 700,000 residents.

“Agriculture along the coast in Southeastern Virginia is like no other place I’ve ever seen,” Trenton said. “Higher organic matter content soils and high-water tables make for high-yielding crops but also pose challenges at the same time.”

Both Howells insist that Trenton’s career path as a second-generation conservationist was unplanned and, in some ways, unexpected. “If the children had questions, my wife Cynthia and I would try to answer them,” Anthony Howell said, “but we wanted the kids to find their own way.”

Howell’s two other children – Trenton’s older brother Travis and younger sister Tiffany – did indeed find other paths. Travis works as a heavy equipment operator, while Tiffany is a social worker in Isle of Wight County.

“Even when Trent was really little, you … or at least I … could see he was the child who would follow his dad,” recalled Brian Wooden, Hanover district conservationist and a longtime family friend. “The two of them have always had this great connection, where they can communicate almost without talking. Trent also loved talking about farms and farming.”

“Mostly,” said Anthony, “he talked about being a veterinarian.”

“Or a wildlife biologist,” added Trent.

The younger Howell also talked about attending a college other than Virginia State University, where his dad (and Wooden) had obtained degrees. However, he ultimately followed family tradition and was able to graduate in three years thanks to the 34 credits he’d already earned through a dual enrollment program at Surry County High School.

These decisions also paid off in a big way when Trenton joined the ranks of America’s 1890 Scholars after his freshman year. Offered through a partnership between NRCS and 19 historically black land-grant colleges, the 1890 National Scholars Program covers tuition, fees, books, room, and board for participants attending any of the 19 colleges.

His education continued with summer assignments that provided valuable work experience for the budding conservationist. In his first year as an 1890 Scholar, Trenton headed west for a seven-week internship in Billings, Montana. The experience was a bit of a culture shock, but offered confirmation that he was on the right path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure he’d like it,” said Anthony.

“I loved it,” said Trenton. “I knew I wanted to be outdoors instead of working in an office. When I’m not working, hunting and fishing are my favorite things to do. I also wanted a job that would be stable, secure, and family-friendly. I would have probably enjoyed being a farmer, but I know that a lot of small-scale farmers need another job to support their families.”

Trenton began work as a soil conservationist in the Chatham Field Office shortly after his 2014 college graduation and moved into the DC position four years later. Then, an opening in Chesapeake literally brought him back home to the family farm where he’s able to spend more time indulging the Howell passion for weekend farming.

“My brother Darren and I have always worked our jobs during the week and the family farm on Saturdays and Sundays,” Anthony said. “Trent will be back on the tractor with us this summer.”

Trenton’s move to Chesapeake puts both Howells in the same region where they work for Keith Boyd, Assistant State Conservationist (Field Operations).

“Anthony and Trenton were a father-son team on the farm long before they both worked for NRCS,” Keith said. “Trent, you might say, had a front-row seat watching his dad farm and seeing the pride he had practicing conservation. They both bring a strong sense of pride of agriculture, conservation, and place. They both love Southeast Virginia agriculture and we are all better for it.”

Could their story have had a different ending? Wooden, for one, isn’t so sure.

“I’ll promise you,” he said, “that Trent’s too happy with how things have worked out to tell you how happy he is, and that Anthony’s too proud of his son to talk about how proud he is. This was something that was just meant to be.”