Habitat & Conservation  |  10/24/2022

Women on the Land


The Restoration of Pohick Farm

Story by Celia Vuocolo, Photos by Hugh Kenny, The Piedmont Environmental Council

Pohick Farm catches you a bit by surprise. Anchored in the classic rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont, you first think, as you turn onto Carrington Road, that a rough patch of forest with an open field and stream is all she is. But then the road carries you down and over a small bridge, wrapping around a hill so steep that the fencing looks like the tracks of a roller coaster, and you see the farm pop open into green sloping pasture. The new fenceline, from a recent John Marshall Soil & Water Conservation District (JMSWCD) project, sweeps upwards to line the forest edge, and the cows appear as happy as cows would. But the land is a different story.

“Despite living in major cities most of my adult life, I’ve always been more at ease and felt closer to my genuine self out in the country,” says new property owner Vanessa Sandin as she began reflecting on her journey. “I had fallen in love with Pohick on the very first day, and I love it more with each passing day. However, at the start I didn’t realize that much of the charm I was looking at, like cows standing in the creeks surrounded by lush silvery bushes, was not a healthy scene. Russian olives, Tree of Heaven, Multiflora Rose (just to name a few) and explosive bacteria counts in the waterways. Now the project feels much more important to me than it did.”

Sandin knew — once she realized her new property was essentially unhealthy — she had to take action. “It was an evolving process,” she explains. “I was never under any illusion that I knew what I was doing or that I was a natural born land manager. I was first told about the JMSWCD by the previous owner and my conservation easement inspector. I had no idea what any of it meant, but a local farmer who has cattle on the pastures was hoping I’d look into some infrastructure upgrades to the farm. I was definitely willing to learn about it, but I did feel very hesitant at first because I didn’t want to make any mistakes and my lack of knowledge left me at a disadvantage.”

But Sandin persevered. She took this first big step toward improving her fencing, and in the process built a relationship with a local conservation organization. “I first met with Vanessa in March 2020 to discuss potential conservation practices on the farm,” says Melissa Allen, District Manager of JMSWCD. “By April, she had signed up for the Virginia Agricultural Cost Share (VACS) program. She agreed to fence the cattle out of the streams in two phases and install an alternative water system which included a new well and four troughs.

Women on the Land

Allen says each visit provided an opportunity to walk the property with Vanessa while discussing the fundamentals of agriculture and conservation. “I witnessed a transition from a new landowner with limited knowledge to a landowner with pride in her land,” says Allen. “One of our visits, we didn’t walk, we rode in Vanessa’s new side-by-side vehicle. She was so proud to be able to ride around her property and share her future plans. We work with many landowners, but when you have the opportunity to work with a landowner like Vanessa, it makes the job truly rewarding,”

It also set up an unusual sequence of events — two years following this first visit, Sandin was working with five different natural resource professionals — all of them women.

“It’s really been amazing,” says Sandin. “Each woman I’ve met has brought their own specialized knowledge. I’m trying to absorb as much as I can but, in truth, I no longer feel worried I might make a mistake because all the advice I’ve been given, the decisions that have been made and then implemented, are clearly in the best interest of the conservation value, the agricultural quality, visual beauty, wildlife and the environmental health of the farm and beyond.”

One of those women, Zoe Bergman, Virginia Department of Forestry’s Area Forester, says everyone involved in the project recognized almost immediately that it was something special.

“Working with all women in this field is uncommon, so the opportunity to have six women leading a project in restoration and conservation was awesome,” says Bergman. “We all bring unique knowledge and recommendations to the table and we often spin off one another to make a recommendation. For example, Vanessa wanted to restore her stream banks as well as increase wildlife value in the riparian buffers – the expertise for wildlife was provided by Celia, Casey and Melissa brought the soil conservation aspect, I brought the expertise in tree species selection and Hallie Harriman with the Piedmont Environmental Council provided the planting and funding support.”

Following the completion of Sandin’s first project with JMSWCD, she reached out to NRCS about more options for livestock fencing and wildlife restoration. This activated my participation in the Pohick Farm story. I am a Quail Forever biologist by trade, but I always consider all of the different natural resources and conservation goals of a property. So when Sandin showed me an old, flooded field that borders a tributary to the Goose Creek, I immediately thought of another local conservation program, overseen by Hallie Harriman at the Piedmont Environmental Council, that could help her get free trees and planting assistance. I want the landowners that I work with to have access to a menu of conservation practitioners and incentives programs, even if it has nothing to do with me.

After receiving information from me about the Potomac Planting Program this past winter, Sandin submitted a request for more information. This brought Hallie Harriman into Sandin’s growing support team. “Pohick Farm is a diamond in the rough,” Harriman says, “and Vanessa has taken the initiative to implement various agricultural best management practices (BMPs) that will breathe life back into this property. Pohick Farm is under conservation easement with Fauquier County, and all of this restoration work will only serve to enhance the property’s conservation value.”

Sandin also ended up submitting an application for NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to install pollinator meadows in two areas of the property, which she was recently awarded a contract for. Work is slated to start in the fall of 2022. It’s a little early for us to see any improvements in wildlife activity (we are hoping for a big return of the bobwhites) but I’m confident that when given the habitat they need, the few quail she does have will call all their friends. “I really appreciate Vanessa’s enthusiasm and determination with navigating all of our entities and programs,” says NRCS soil conservationist Casey Iames, “it can sometimes be challenging matching up programmatic deadlines and sifting through paperwork, but she brings so much pride and joy to our conservation work. Her energy and commitment to her land are contagious!”

The last time I visited Pohick Farm, it still had some sharp edges. Autumn Olive and Sericea Lespedeza poked out along the fence rows and one of the streams meandered and braided through a pasture in a way that seemed un-natural. But there were also signs of new life. Sandin had found a young local contractor to clear out invasives, and tree planting was underway in the riparian areas.

“I personally believe we all have a responsibility to do right by our planet,” Sandin explains. “The land we ‘own’ is not really ours to keep. It’s just here for us to use and enjoy. It’s a real privilege to take care of it.”

Story by Celia Vuocolo, Photos by Hugh Kenny, The Piedmont Environmental Council

This story originally appeared in the 2022 Fall Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a member today!