LOTTSBURG—As one of the largest oyster planters on the East Coast, Lake Cowart’s business is dependent on the quality of the water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
There’s not much the Northumberland County native can do about rainfall which often determines if the baby oysters he puts overboard live or die. And, there’s not much he can do about the pollution that seeps into the Potomac River from the ceaseless development of Northern Virginia. But, he does enjoy a measure of control close to home.
That’s why he turned to the Northern Neck Land Conservancy (NNLC) to place his Mt. Zion farm in a conservation easement. The easement, which is a legally binding document that Cowart and NNLC wrote together, prohibits Mt. Zion’s 310 acres of waterfront from ever being developed and permanently protects its woodlands that purify rainwater runoff from its fields before it drains into the Yeocomico River.
Cowart and NNLC completed work this year on the easement at Northumberland Highway and Lewisetta Road near Lottsburg. The farm, about one-third forest and two-thirds fields, includes a historic 150-year-old house whose rooftop cupola is a distinctive landmark.
The farm’s location makes it an important protective buffer for the several thousand acres of oyster planting ground nearby that Cowart shares with a business partner.
“Everything in the oyster business is so dependent on what happens on the land,” he said. “We need to be careful with our acreage to protect this watershed.”
Having seen the link between water quality and land use, Cowart is turning his sights towards protecting additional farmland he owns on the banks of the Coan River where his business, Cowart Seafood Corporation, is headquartered.
Cowart grows oysters on 1,200 acres in the Coan and is again working with NNLC to protect another 300 plus acres around that waterway’s shore.
“What goes on on the land affects the water,” he said.
Since 2004, the NNLC has worked with 32 conservation-minded landowners like Cowart to preserve 4,700 acres in the five Northern Neck counties plus Essex. In Northumberland and Lancaster counties, 12 owners have protected 1,700 acres, primarily farms and forests within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
Just this month, Northumberland resident Keith Harris and his son, Matthew, finalized easements on eight of their farm sites totaling more than 500 acres.
Easements provide countless public benefits. They protect open space. They support the region’s chief industries of farming, fishing and forestry. They enhance wildlife habitat and protect the region’s quality of life.
Boots & BBQ
Conservation easements will be highlighted at the annual Boots & BBQ event September 28 when NNLC will celebrate its 15th anniversary. Tickets are $50 and available at nnconserve.org.
The event will feature music, barbecue and fried oysters on the grounds of Ditchley, a historic waterfront tract in Northumberland County that illustrates the value of land conservation and the protection of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
Ditchley’s owners, Cathy Calhoun and Paul Grosklags, worked with NNLC to protect the property which had been subdivided into 70 waterfront lots by its previous owners. The couple recently planted 2,000 apple trees to support a farm cidery and agri-tourism venue that includes a heritage livestock operation.
“Far from stifling growth, conservation easements, such as the ones at Mt. Zion and Ditchley, are important economic development tools for a region whose economy depends on clean water and abundant natural resources,” said NNLC president Kirwan King. “Every property NNLC protects helps strengthen our local farm economy.”