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Makin' Hay At The Airport

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Wright is conservation farmer of the year

By Greg Summers

Farmers are known for their patience, but Elvin D. “Donnie” Wright Jr., takes it to the extreme.
Wright, recently named the 2013 Conservation Farmer of the Year by the Lancaster County Soil and Water Conservation District, grinned as he brushed his hand through the waist-high grass along the sloping hill behind Lancaster County Airport.
“I just enjoy farming,” Wright said as he watched a small plane touch down on the airport runway. “Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lot of work, but I like it.”
Five weeks from now, Wright won’t be walking along that bank; he’ll be navigating a tractor through it, baling hay for his cattle.
Everything comes to him who waits, even if it does take about 1,800 days, give or take a few. It’s no wonder Wright is smiling. He can still recall the bare, topsoil void dirt fields he found around the airport when he leased the 240 acres from Lancaster County some 15 years ago.
“It took about 5 years before I cut the first bale of hay off this place,” Wright said. “Last year, it produced about 700 bales. For the first time ever, I fed hay 365 days a year. You know, we should’a took pictures of this place before we did it.”
Before the property was leased to Wright, it was row cropped by a renter who grew soybeans, corn, wheat and cotton. Now it’s full of almost waist-high, thick lush grass that is making hay.   
“I told Chap (former county administrator Chap Hurst) I’d make it green out here if I had to paint it,” Wright said.
Before and after photos aren’t necessary for Ann Christie, county director of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Wright took advantage of some federal Environmental Quality Incentive to plant hay in those runway-surrounding fields where the soil had been removed. One bank was so eroded that mulching was required to establish grass.
Fescue was planted in lower fields and coastal bermuda was planted in other areas. Wright, along with his family, did most of the labor. He also works to control the weeds and follows management practices to add nutrients.
Wright also has an EPA-regulated land application permit that allows the use of nutrient-rich biosolids from Lancaster County Wastewater Treatment Plant as fertilizer.
Christie said it’s almost impossible to tell you how much it has changed, she said.
“This place had some particular challenges we’ve only seen a few times. This was one of those situations where when the county needed a load of dirt, the airport was where they came and got it. To be honest, this was one of the more daunting challenges we’ve faced,” she said.
Those fields have come a long way since Wright first step foot in them in the late 1990s.
Corporate jets flying into McWhirter Field, including prospective businesses and industries considering a move here no longer see washed-out, silt-based red clay ruts when they touch down.  
“It’s kind of a win-win for everybody,” Wright said. “Hopefully, it gives these folks a good first impression about Lancaster.”
Overcoming obstacles
Christie said Wright also faced several hurdles most farmers don’t fret about to make those improvements to the land around the airport.  
Since he rents the property from Lancaster County, Wright has to work with the airport authority to make improvements.
He was able to get a long-term lease on the property that would justify the expense of making the conservation-minded changes to the property.
In return, the county gets a well-managed site. Wright takes care of much of the mowing around the airport in the summer months. He’ll cut it at least one more time before harvesting the hay.
The asphalt that was ground up when a concrete overlay was placed over the 6,000-foot runway in 2010, was placed on dirt roads around the airport to give Wright better access.
“I appreciate the county doing that, too,” Wright said. “It makes it much easy on the big trucks that haul in biosolids.”
Wright also has to accommodate the Federal Aviation Administration for any improvements made along the flight path of the 6,000-foot runway.
FAA guidelines require the removal of all trees within a certain distance of the runways. That means the tract between the start of the runway and the Catawba River must remain clear. However, the bare riverbanks and an area along a small stream were both subject to erosion due to no buffers.
Wright opted to plant some Bicolor Lespedeza shrubs on the river and stream banks to control bank erosion and filter runoff from the hay fields, thus protecting water quality in the river. The shrubs also provide a buffer and wildlife habitat.
An invasive, fast-growing shrub,  Bicolor Lespedeza was introduced in the southeastern United States from Japan to use for soil stabilization and to provide wildlife food plots.
The shrubs draw pheasants, quail and whitetail deer. They  also produce pink blooms in spring that draw honeybees.  
“The shrubs can be mowed every few years to keep them low,” Christie said.
Each year, the Lancaster Soil and Water Conservation District presents the Conservation Farmer of the Year award to a county farmer who protects natural resources to an unusually high degree or in an innovative way.
“They’ve (Wright’s family) worked their tails off out here  and it really shows,” Christie said.   
Wright gives the assistance two thumbs up.
“It works,” Wright said. “All you have to do is listen to them and do what they say.”   

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Contact copy editor Greg Summers  at (803) 283-1156