DINWIDDIE, Va. — When your family has been farming for multiple generations, you understand the value of soil and water — and the need to protect them for future generations.
Robert and Mark Spiers, father and son co-farmers of Spiers Farm LLC and Double Branch LLC in Dinwiddie County, were recently awarded the Virginia Clean Water Farm Grand Basin Award for doing exceptional work to protect soil and water resources on their farm.
Robert and Mark are fourth- and fifth-generation farmers on the Spiers Farm, which covers 1,800 acres of cropland and about 300 acres of woodland straddling Dinwiddie and Sussex counties. Located in the Chowan River Basin, the Spiers’ farm was nominated as a result of their noteworthy conservation practices.
The Spiers attribute their success in conservation to their use of two farming practices: strip-tilling and applying cover crop.
According to the Spiers, there are three different ways to farm. The conventional way is to till the whole surface of the soil so it’s completely bare before planting the seed. The second method, no tilling, refers to no disturbance of the soil, which protects the soil the most. The third method, known as strip-tilling, refers to tilling a narrow streak of soil while leaving about two-thirds undisturbed before planting the seed in the narrow till area. Strip-tilling is the method the Spiers have been recognized for using.
“Strip-tilling is a conservative farming practice because it keeps the soil from washing or blowing away easily,” said Mark. “It helps reduce water and wind erosion.”
Robert explained that while strip-tilling is a method commonly used to grow corn and cotton, the Spiers also use it to plant tobacco.
“A vast majority of farmers are doing conservation practices, but I think we were recognized for going a little bit further,” Robert said. “Tobacco isn’t a traditional crop done in a strip-till method. We were one of the first farms in the county to start using it for 100 percent of our tobacco.”
The Spiers explained that strip-tilling not only benefits the environment, it also assists the farmers who use the method.
“While the equipment for strip-tilling costs more, you end up reducing your trips over the field,” Mark explained. “Typically you would have to use five or so passes over the field, but we only have to do one trip using the one piece of equipment that does it all.”
The Spiers also apply cover crop to all of their fields, planting a grain during the winter months when they don’t have a crop growing. The cover crop grows and keeps the fields green to prevent the wind and water from washing the topsoil away.
“It [the cover crop] causes cleaner water to run off the field. It also improves the soil’s water capacity, allowing the fields to hold more water during droughts,” Robert said. “We put it on all of our fields, while some farmers put it on a portion.”
Robert explained that over the decades, he’s seen his farm’s fields slowly improve with their ability to hold water and last a little bit longer during periods of drought due to the use of cover crop. Additionally, the crop builds up the organic matter in the fields over time so farmers don’t have to use as much fertilizer. The Spiers explained that there has been an increase in cover crop use by other farmers in recent years, due in part to the state supporting the practice with cost-sharing.
“Cover crop is an expensive practice, so it really helps that the state supports it with cost-sharing,” said Robert. “It takes a lot of time and equipment to put cover crop in ... so cost-sharing really helps encourage farmers to do it.”
In addition to the expense, cover crop can be a frustrating practice for farmers due to the long stretch of time farmers go through before noticing the product’s benefits.
“When you decide to use cover crop, you have to spend a lot now and wait to see the benefits sometimes several years later,” Mark said. “You don’t instantly see how it’s impacting your fields, but it’s definitely worth it in the long run.”
While the Spiers have succeeded thus far in their conservation efforts, they know that there is always room to improve and learn more. Robert and Mark both continue to attend conservation seminars and farm shows to stay up-to-date on the latest farming practices and technology. They are thankful for the state and federal resources that continue to help them in their conservation efforts.
“There are 50 different water and soil districts within the state that work with local farmers as well as with the state and federal agencies to conserve soil and water and to protect the environment in an area,” Robert explained. “They [the water and soil districts] bring state and federal resources to assist farmers in their conservation efforts, and it helps tremendously. We couldn’t do a lot of what we do without that help.”
The Virginia Clean Water Farm Grand Basin Awards are presented each year to farmers or farm owners who are going above and beyond to practice conservation of soil and water resources on their farms. One winner is selected from each of Virginia’s 10 major river basins. Robert and Mark won for the Chowan River Basin — which includes the Nottoway River and its tributaries in Dinwiddie and Sussex — in 2017 after being nominated by the Appomattox River Soil and Water Conservation District.
“These farms represent the best in conservation farming in Virginia,” DCR Director Clyde Cristman said of the 10 farms recognized. “By voluntarily implementing practices such as stream fencing, cover crops, riparian buffers, nutrient management plans and more, these producers improve their properties and conditions for people downstream.”