December 2, 2021

County Soil and Water Conservation District struggles

‘A stickler for details’

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

Amanda Barber, the district manager for the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District, stands outside the district’s office building, which is located on Grange Place near the Tioughnioga River. Barber, who has been at the district since 1989, has obtained numerous grants to help property owners and her agency.

Whether she’s writing grants, working on a culvert replacements, helping build a silo on a farm or going home to tend to her own farm duties, the work never stops for Amanda Barber.

She’s one of the hardest working people Mike McMahon, an owner of EZ Acres Farm in Homer, knows.

“She’s a person that you can rely on,” McMahon said. “She’s always willing to step up to the plate and help out with these projects.”

Barber is the manager of the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District, helping McMahon with at least 10 projects over the years. The largest was getting a grant for a 3.25 gallon manure storage unit built between 2005 and 2006.

“There was over 1,000 cubic yards in concrete for that,” McMahon said.

McMahon said Barber got involved to ensure the system was built correctly so that no manure seeped into the aquifer, which provides drinking water to county residents.

“Amanda is a stickler for detail,” McMahon said. “She wants things done right.”

She also helped with a grant in 2002 build a bulk silo storage unit — another big project. In fact, she’s helped secure thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars for projects on that farm alone.

“She’s saved us a lot of money,” McMahon said.

She’s known for getting the grants and implementing best practices to protect soil and water in the county — with a 75% success rate at securing funding, she said.

For at least the last 12 years, Barber said, more than $1 million in grant funding has been secured each year for projects.

Accomplishments in 10 years

In 10 years, the Soil and Water Conservation District has:

  • Secured $17.16 million in funding through 137 grants, contracts and agreements for conservation and water quality improvement.
  • Enrolled 129,235 acres of land in the Agricultural Environmental Management Program by the 349 participating agricultural landowners.
  • Helped implement 493 new agricultural best management practices on farms.
  • Helped stabilize more than 75 acres of road ditches, river banks and critical areas with hydroseeding.
  • Responded to 54,076 requests for technical assistance from county residents.
  • Sold more than 161,000 seedlings for conservation plantings.
  • Stocked more than 6,150 fish fingerlings in ponds.
  • Harvested more than 2,700 tons of aquatic weeds from Little York Lake and the Cortland County shorelines of Tully Lake.

Source: Amanda Barber, district manager of the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District

Barber, who joined the district in 1989 after graduating with an associate’s degree from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, didn’t get the job because she was a good grant writer. She learned to become one.

She had another job in mind altogether when she went to college.

“Really my goal was to be an environmental conservation officer,” she said. “So I thought I was going to be doing what I’m doing now, but on more of the regulatory side. That’s what I love about this job because I’m still working on environmental issues, but I get to wear the white hat and I get to work with people on a voluntary basis and convince them to do the right thing instead of threatening them or forcing them to do the right thing.”

Barber has always wanted to help the environment. She’s the third generation to take over her family’s dairy farm in Freeville. Her son, who is working on the farm now, will likely be the fourth.

“Farmers are original stewards and I learned my appreciation for resources following my father around every day,” she said. “My dad was really a strong environmentalist and I never recognized it at the time for what he was, but being a farmer allowed him to tend to the land.”

Her mom also fostered her nurturing side.

“I saw my mom go back to school to get a nursing degree,” she said. “I spent a lot of time with her in when I got into teenage years volunteering at the nursing homes and places she was working. I think my position here is really a combination of that love and appreciation of natural resources and that sort of learned need to be caring and nurturing for your community.”

But the job isn’t always easy.

Barber said the district faces one of its hardest times after the county cut its funding in the 2020 budget. The district got roughly $285,000 in 2019, and requested $305,000 for 2020 after learning it would need to cover workers compensation, but only got $150,000. She said the district faced financial problems in the past — solved by getting more grants. However, without enough money to pay staff to put together the grant applications, it gets tougher to secure the funding. Barber said she does about 10 to 15 grants a year.

“This is not a one-man show,” she said. “They are an integral part of everything that we do here, so as much as I’m committed to the organization and the program, I’m committed to them and we will find a way. We will find a way.”

But Barber said she loves a challenge.

“If someone tells me ‘no,’ I hear ‘not that way’ and I find another way to make things happen,” she said.