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East Tennessee farmer earns environmental stewardship award

Don’t tell Robert Thompson that one person can’t make a difference. The changes he has made on his family farm in McMinn County are helping to transform Oostanaula Creek from a muddy watering hole for cattle into a cleaner, healthier stream – and his efforts have not gone unnoticed.

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Oostanaula Creek at Malone Springs, before fencing, installation of alternative water supplies, and restoration of vegetation.

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The same site, one year after best management practices were installed.

In June, Thompson received the Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award for agriculture and forestry conservation.

The Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Awards program recognizes exemplary voluntary actions – projects or initiatives that are not required by law or regulations – that have a positive impact on Tennessee’s natural resources.

Over the past four years, Thompson has put up almost 5,000 feet of fence to keep livestock out of the section of the creek that winds through his 600-acre, 200-head cattle farm, and he has laid about 6,000 feet of pipe to channel water from a natural spring to six alternative water tanks.

He also has implemented a system of rotational grazing. Rotational grazing makes use of a large number of paddocks. Animals rotate from paddock to paddock, so each acre of land undergoes a short grazing period, followed by a longer rest period. This helps to reduce soil erosion by allowing time for the roots of forage plants to recover and leaves to re-grow.

These efforts have helped improve water quality in Oostanaula Creek by decreasing the amount of livestock waste reaching the stream and reducing the amount of sediment in the water.

High sediment levels can have a devastating effect on the aquatic community. Aquatic insects and invertebrates—mussels, snails, crayfish, and mayflies, for example—experience a loss of habitat when sediment fills the rock crevices where they typically seek shelter. Eventually, the entire bottom-dwelling community is affected, with a resulting reduction in the number and diversity of bottom-feeding fish populations.

Aquatic life in the Hiwassee River downstream also has benefited from the improvements.

Thompson’s cattle herd is healthier, too. They don’t have to walk as far for water, and—because they no longer stand in the creek—they have fewer foot ailments and diseases.

Linda Harris, a member of TVA’s Chickamauga-Hiwassee Watershed Team, was glad to see Thompson get the award. “Good stewardship of agricultural land can make a significant difference in our waters and all the benefits we gain from them—as Mr. Thompson has shown. I hope other farmers in the state will follow his example.”

Partners in the project included the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, and the McMinn County Soil and Water Conservation District. TVA’s Chickamauga-Hiwassee Watershed Team also provided cost-share funds, which were used to help finance the improvements.

TVA's Watershed Teams focus on improving water and shoreline conditions so that people and aquatic life can benefit from having clean water. For information on using TVA shoreline property or public land, or to get involved in TVA stewardship activities, contact a TVA Watershed Team member.

           
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