Name as it appears on the ballot: Jennifer (Jenna) Austin Wadsworth
Campaign website: www.JennaWadsworth.com
Phone number: 919-915-0896
Years lived in the district: 11
1. Why are you running for the position of soil and water conservation district supervisor? In your answer, please explain your understanding of the role and why it is important.
In 2010, we made history in North Carolina with my election to the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Board of Supervisors when I became the youngest woman ever elected to public office in the state. As voters, you put a lot of faith in a bright-eyed, twenty-one-year-old who was hopeful in her ability to do something different in the stagnate political climate which voters on both sides of the aisle had grown to loathe. Eight years later, I am again asking for your support, but this time I have a record of service which I believe will speak volumes for how grateful I was—and still am—to have the chance to make a difference in Wake County, and in North Carolina.
Re-elected in 2014, I now serve as Vice-Chair of the Board. It is my hope to lead by example for young women wishing to enter public service. Currently, I’m the only female on the five-member Board of Supervisors.
I was born in Raleigh, but I grew up off a dirt road on a family farm in Johnston County which raised corn, soybeans, tobacco, cotton, cattle, chicken, and hogs. In 2007, I graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) in Durham. In 2011, I graduated Magna Cum Laude from North Carolina State University with majors in Political Science—with a concentration in American Politics—and Women’s and Gender Studies and a minor in English. (Go Pack!) I am the Co-Founder and former Co-Director of a progressive nonprofit called New Leaders Council – North Carolina. I serve on the NCSSM Alumni Association’s Board of Directors, and I recently finished my tenure on a Community Advisory Board for N.C. State University which interfaced with the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and the Women’s Center. I speak to international delegations for the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitors Leadership Program and USAID. Professionally, I’m the Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Elevated Prospects, a small business which specializes in fundraising consulting. I believe in the value of service and am no stranger to hard work.
As Vice Chair of the Board of Supervisors, I am perpetually humbled by the opportunity to serve Wake County in this role. I am proud of my work on the SWCD Board of Supervisors and hope that county residents give me the chance to continue serving them. In the past several years, the Wake SWCD has engaged in some of our most innovative projects and collaborative partnerships with community leaders in conservation in order to best protect, conserve, and preserve the vital natural resources in Wake County. The last eight years have been about innovation and forward thinking. I believe that my re-election is about ensuring a future where we move forward instead of backwards in tackling the environmental issues of today, all while keeping Wake County beautiful, taxpayers happy, citizens healthy, and farmers in business and producing local foods.
As a Supervisor, I have voted to provide educational and financial assistance to land owners and users who qualify for crucial technical assistance necessary to protect water quality, properly manage agricultural resources, and conserve the county’s natural resources and wildlife.
As Wake’s population continues to increase, so do the number of natural resource concerns the county will face as a result of increased development. I want people to call Wake County home, because that means people are continuing to settle here for the high quality of life offered to residents. Folks want to know that when they go home at night, cut on the tap, and use water to cook food for their families that what they are drinking is safe. The Wake SWCD has worked diligently to help clean-up both Falls Lake and Jordan Lake, while also placing a priority on improving water quality in other waterways. We have been at the forefront of conservation, and my voice has often led the charge to ensure we are always moving forward in how we address our changing landscape.
As a Supervisor, I have proudly supported environmental education programs for our children as a zealous advocate for and volunteer with our programs for grades K-12. I care deeply about Wake County’s future, which is why I have spent countless hours in classrooms and at after-school programs with our students to teach them about soil science and water conservation. With the help of the Wake SWCD’s excellent environmental education coordinator, I have planned lessons, designed worksheets, and created soil centers where students could see how healthy soil helps create products used in their everyday lives. The environmental education of our citizenry—and most especially of our youth—is of paramount importance to me because I believe that it is through the fostering of future stewards of conservation that we can leave this world a little better than we found it.
Hailing from a family farm, I’ve tirelessly advocated for agriculture and farmland preservation. I have been an outspoken supporter of the District’s Keeping the Farm Workshop, which provides hundreds of farmers yearly with the resources necessary to keep their farms in their families for generations to come.
With my leadership, the District entered into a Market Based Conservation Initiative (MBCI) program with the U.S. Marine Corps and the NAVY. The MBCI program preserves open space and restricts development under a vital military flight path. This initiative serves to benefit national security and advance military training while helping landowners and farmers who had land under the flight path.
Securing an easement on Mac Country Acres of just over 45 acres of prime Wake County farmland along an unnamed tributary to Steep Hill Creek is one of the Wake SWCD’s biggest accomplishments, and this serves as a lasting reminder of the late Caroline MacNair Carl and her love of the land. Steep Hill Creek is a tributary to Lake Benson, which is one of the county’s major drinking water supplies. Our easement on one of the few remaining farms just outside Raleigh city limits will protect drinking water and air quality for the foreseeable future.
I know that this race is not about me, nor is this race about politics or partisanship (and this is, in fact, a non-partisan position). This race is about people—about each and every person in Wake County, whether she lives on a farm in Knightdale or in a neighborhood in downtown Raleigh—and putting good public policy into place that betters the lives of those people. This campaign is about making people proud to call Wake County home—now and for years to come. That’s what the last eight years of my service have been about, and that’s what will be the focus of my continued service to this county and its people.
2. What are the three most pressing natural resources issues in the county? How do you plan to address these issues? Please be specific.
As Wake’s population continues to increase, so do the number of natural resource concerns the county will face as a result of increased use and development. Part of what makes major population centers attractive is access to pristine parks for recreation and scenic open space; healthy, locally-grown foods and a healthy economy—which the Wake SWCD works to ensure through our work in the Agribusiness sector; great schools that foster a child’s lifelong desire to learn—schools which we work with to provide teachers with environmental education materials and students which we provide both academic and extra-curricular opportunities to learn about soil science and the natural world. In particular, these development pressures have created three pressing issues which we are already working to address, but which require diligence and continued attention. These issues are water quality, soil health, and farmland preservation.
In terms of water quality and soil health, erosion and increased impervious surface from development has led to a loss of topsoil and impairment of surface water quality. The Wake SWCD has worked to help clean-up both Falls and Jordan Lake, while also ranking projects which occur in an area with a waterway listed on the EPA’s 303(d) list of impaired and impacted streams as priority projects that have the potential to better the drinking water and water quality concerns for the largest number of our county’s residents.
Even many of our farms have had increased erosion due to neighboring developments coming in and breaking ground without being mindful of sustainable practices. We’ve undergone a loss of groundcover—or, simply put, vegetation, grass, and trees—due to development. To address these issues, it’s important to understand and adapt smart growth measures that protect farms. We’ve been doing that through various workshops we’ve held as a result of the grant money we’ve encumbered (see answer to question 4) and through our Voluntary Agricultural District (VAD) Program.
The VAD program enhances the identity of the agricultural community through voluntary preservation methods that reduce non-farm development and the negative effects of such development on lands actively used in agricultural, horticultural, or forestry operations. Not only does this program strengthen the farming community, but it also enhances the quality of life for citizens countywide who will benefit from cleaner water, as well as a clearly defined plant and animal habitat that is located elsewhere than their own backyards. Residents will also have access to a supply of nutrient-rich, fresh products grown on a local farm which provides local jobs, and scenic rural or open space vistas to enjoy throughout the county they have chosen to call home. Staff and Supervisors have worked to grow this program over the last few years. For illustration, in 2014, Wake County had just shy of 40 VADs, comprised of more than 50 landowners and nearly 130 parcels. That year, we added an additional 84 acres of farmland to the VAD program to preserve and protect a total of 5,700 acres in the VAD program. This year, 1,271.42 new acres of land were enrolled in this free farmland preservation program. There are now 70 VADs, comprised of 85 farms, protecting 8,075.75 acres of farmland. That is a sizable chunk of land in a perpetually-developing county.
Above all, the most pressing natural resource issue in Wake County is the rate in which we are losing farmland. Farm Bureau conveyed that the 2007 Census of Agriculture reported 827 farms in Wake County. The 2012 USDA Agriculture Census reported 783 farms remaining in the county. It will become harder and harder to avoid selling the farm as property values—and taxes—increase and more developers come knocking on farmers’ doors with high-dollar offers to purchase their property. Interestingly, the average farm size in our county is between 30 and 150 acres, which is why our work at the Wake SWCD really matters to what are primarily family- and smaller farmers. We are not a county whose agricultural community consists of the bigger, corporate farms. Moreover, we have more farmers markets than any other county in the state, and we boast several additional certified roadside farm markets. This suggests that there is a niche for these smaller farms and a growing desire by county residents to consume locally-grown products. That is just one of the innumerable reasons why I served on the committee to create Wake County’s Agriculture Economic Development Plan.
Nationally, there has been an increase in the age of the farmer and a nearly 20% decrease in the percentage of new farmers (i.e. farmers who have been farming on their current operation for less than ten years) from 2007 to 2012. USDA’s data suggested that farmers whose primary occupation was farming tended to be older and male. USDA’s data also showed 40% of farm owners working off the farm for at least 200 days, with many of the less traditional farmers being younger, more racially- and gender-diverse operators.
In 2030, Millennials will outnumber baby boomers. Millennials are overwhelmingly in favor of more walkable communities, and value aspects of community life like access to farmers markets, local food, scenic open space and parks when considering what enhances their quality of life. This is an important consideration as our population in Wake County continues to become younger, and perhaps this suggests how we should approach the next generation about engaging in non-traditional agriculture (i.e. community gardens, work in food deserts, etc.) and in prioritizing county funding for departments which protect water quality, rural vistas, and local foods.
Having grown up on a family farm, farmland preservation has been a large focus of mine over the past four years. I have attended local work group sessions with farmers across the county to hear what they have to say are the resource concerns they are facing from Holly Springs to Wake Forest; I take that information to heart and use it to help craft our list of priorities for the year ahead.
Additionally, the Wake SWCD annually hosts a Keeping the Farm Workshop for county landowners and farmers. This is another example of a successful, voluntary program which we provide to county residents with the help of both public and private partners. Farmers receive vital information about entering into solar, wind, and hunting leases; applicable public safety and property posting laws; legal pathways for preserving the family farm for generations to come; and updates on available technical and fiscal programs of interest. 100 plus Wake County landowners attend this event every year.
Our top crops in Wake are soybeans, wheat, hay, and tobacco. What many likely don’t realize is that our county is the 7th in the state in our nursery and greenhouse production with $20.5 million annually in nursery production occurring here. We rank 16th in the country in number of acres grown of flue cured tobacco. In 2014, the N.C. Department of Agriculture evaluated Wake County’s Agricultural/Agribusiness industry at a whopping $73 million. Farms matter, and we have a continuing need to serve this community which is vital to our economic health.
3. Identify examples of how the district can best balance agricultural/rural and urban interests in regards to soil and water conservation.
One of the best examples of how the Wake SWCD can best balance agricultural, rural, and urban interests in regards to our work with soil and water conservation is our demonstration horse farm at Black Horse Run. Black Horse Run is located in the Falls Lake Watershed, and is a mixed-use development containing both agricultural space and suburban neighborhoods. Through the installation of various projects to filter runoff—including a rain garden, a rain water collection system trapping water runoff from the barn roof that is directed to underground cisterns, and a manure composting system—the Wake SWCD installed projects which are now used to educate the public on reducing nonpoint source pollution into nearby waterways. We also installed livestock exclusion fencing to prevent the horses from having unrestricted access to streams on the property, resulting in their opting to drink from automatic waterers which were installed throughout the pasture. A 25-foot buffer of thick, native vegetation was created between the stream and the pasture in order to further filter nonpoint source pollution from pasture runoff while decreasing erosion.
In the adjacent housing development, we used CCAP funds and technical assistance to reduce stormwater runoff resulting from impervious surfaces. Two landowners, in particular, practically had a small creek running through their yards during heavy rains because the stormwater runoff had created an extreme case of gully erosion. A stormwater ditch was installed and outfitted with composting materials to help decrease the velocity of the runoff and filter the pollutants before recharging the ground water supplies. One of the landowners worked with the SWCD to install a rainwater cistern which he uses to water his garden.
4. What funding issues are facing the Soil and Water Conservation District? How would you ensure the district receives full funding? Are there alternative funding sources the district could explore? If so, what are they?
Four years ago, the Wake SWCD’s biggest funding issues were limited staffing resources and a need for grants for new projects. We were still reeling from the 2008 recession when Wake SWCD was cut more than any other county department. The District maintained a wait-list to address the needs of our landowners, in the hopes that—like other county departments—at least some staff would eventually be restored.
Today, the Wake SWCD is in a very different place. Staff and Supervisors, such as myself, have been vigilant in developing relationships with County Commissioners and Legislators, along with key departmental staff at the county, state, and federal levels, to ensure we can work together to address natural resource concerns by receiving adequate funding. These relationships are often the result of SWCD staff taking the time to explain to decision makers why our work matters and what impact we have on quality of life for people who call Wake County home. SWCD staff does this, among other ways, by creating thorough annual reports detailing our work and through taking decision makers out on site visits across the county to see our work firsthand. Understanding is key in ensuring our success.
The Wake SWCD works with landowners and land users to provide both technical and—when strict funding criteria are met—fiscal assistance on projects. State and Federal cost-share assistance programs help citizens install invaluable conservation practices in the county—with many of these practices benefiting the larger population and area than where they are installed. The most-used resource by the Wake SWCD is the North Carolina Agriculture Cost Share Program, which helps us address problems stemming from nonpoint source pollution on agricultural lands. This voluntary cost share program allows us to work with farmers and agricultural land renters to identify best management practices (BMPs) best suited to the specific farm in order to develop and enact conservation plans that oversee the implementation of those BMPs that will allow that farmer to be successful. We rank applications received by criteria which takes into consideration the most pressing natural resource concerns in Wake County. The Ag Cost Share program more directly benefits the farmer through cost sharing on programs that help to minimize farm field erosion that reduces the need to apply nutrient-containing substances to the crop or area through practices like conservation tillage, planting of critical areas, prescribed grazing of livestock, the installation of agricultural wells, sod-based rotation, and an assortment of other practices. The North Carolina General Assembly continues to fund this program because it preserves the family farm, our state’s original business engine, while helping it move into the future with increased productivity.
In FY 17-18, SWCD conservationists designed and installed 47 BMPs, providing nearly $300,000 in cost share funds to Wake County farm and forest landowners. By performing our duty to install BMPs and properly allocate funding, we essentially get rewarded for a job well done by sustained funding for agricultural cost-share dollars from the Legislature.
Another voluntary, incentive-based program which we use to improve water quality in Wake County is the Community Conservation Assistance Program (CCAP). Similar to the Ag Cost Share Program, CCAP works to install BMPs, usually after a conservation plan is created. However, the CCAP focuses on urban, suburban, and rural lands not directly involved in agricultural production, which has resulted in partnerships with homeowners, businesses, schools, parks, and other landowners in order to provide educational, technical, and financial assistance in stormwater management and in bettering water quality. This past Fiscal Year, the Wake SWCD installed 19,450 square feet of BMPs through CCAP, providing $16,732 in cost share funds to Wake County homeowners. For comparison, our funding only allowed us to install 9,664 square feet of BMPs four years ago. Our good work is already resulting in our ability to receive more funds, which in turn allows us to serve more people.
Additionally, we apply for grant funds to further stretch the dollars that implement BMPs. In FY 2017-2018, the SWCD completed a $50,000 Urban Agriculture Grant that worked with underserved communities in agriculture—notably new and beginning farmers, women, minority farmers, and landowners—through educational workshops and outreach efforts. We were awarded a $63,000 grant to increase conservation planning and BMP installation from the National Association of Conservation Districts, along with a $2,000 grant for pasture management projects from the NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation. We also received a soil health grant valuing nearly $2,500 that was used to create a demonstration plot used in workshops for our farmers to learn more from resource professionals. In 2016, the District was awarded a $30,000 grant from Duke Energy to install conservation practices in the Jordan Lake Watershed, along with a $6,000 grant from the NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation to teach producers about cover crops and a $1,000 Sustainable Forestry Initiative grant. Staff is hard at work looking for ways to garner outside sources of funding, and I am always supportive of the initiative taken to best serve our community.
In summary, these various grants and cost share programs make a big difference in the lives of Wake County residents. I believe in being mindful about how we spend state and federal resources, because that money comes from somewhere and it could just as easily be used somewhere else. SWCD staff and Supervisors are respectful of that, and we strive to get the biggest bang out of a buck because we know how to stretch a dollar. For every dollar of state or federal money spent, many more come back in increased productivity and efficiency of the farmer, in decreased costs to taxpayers having to pay for drinking water purification and sediment removal from their water source, in increased travel and tourism dollars for enhancing open space or scenic recreation areas, and in jobs kept here in the county and state by the engineering and project staff employed to install the BMPs. We are consistently performing at a high level at the Wake SWCD, and we will continue to seek out additional grant and funding opportunities, but I do think it is worth giving credit where credit is due and recognizing how we have overcome our past difficulties in funding our workload.
5. Many residents don’t know what the Soil and Water Conservation District actually does. In what ways would you reach out to residents to educate them on the issues facing the county and the district’s efforts?
Since I first ran in 2010, educating and informing the public about the work of the SWCD has been a personal mission of mine. We perhaps aren’t as big and flashy as other county departments, but the work we do is important. Every time I go into a classroom and volunteer with children, I’m teaching people about our work. Every time staff provides support and connectivity to the agricultural community through speaking on panels or serving on leadership boards, more people learn about the good work that we do. Simply put, I believe by continuing to serve our landowners and land users by providing the best service we can, our work will speak volumes and will receive accolades that will help raise awareness about what it is that we do. The Wake SWCD’s current leadership has been able to accomplish as much as we have in large part due to the collaborative partnerships we establish when working on projects which require input and support from multiple stakeholders.
The environmental education of our citizenry is the most lasting and meaningful service we provide to the people in this county. In that vein, I will continue to actively support and engage in the development of innovative environmental education programming not only for our K-12 public and private school students, but also for all county landowners, farmers, and educators. We estimate that over 3,000 people participated in some form of educational activity with SWCD staff and Supervisors in the last year alone. Our environmental education lessons were taught to over 731 youth and 394 families in 2014. In 2016, staff trained 66 educators in environmental education which had a potential outreach of serving over 27,000 students. Our Wake County Big Sweep program engaged 1,122 volunteers over the past year who helped remove nearly 20,000 pounds of trash and recyclables from our waterways. As more people learn of the services we provide, we have seen a perpetual increase in the demand of our educational outreach activities. We will do what we always have—which is to keep on keeping on, and as our staff grows and continues to receive the support from Supervisors such as myself, we will be able to educate, inform, serve, and inspire even more people.
6. What is the district’s role in making sure residents’ water–including those people who use wells―is safe to drink? What role, if any, should the district play in safeguarding the local water supply from emerging contaminants?
The Wake SWCD’s mission is to conserve and preserve our natural resources—including soil, water, and wildlife—through voluntary technical, educational, and fiscal assistance to landowners and land users. The role that we play in protecting drinking water quality and safeguarding the local water supply from emerging contaminants is shaped by that mission.
It would be unprofessional to suggest implementation of permanent measures of any kind on matters that are not within the Wake SWCD’s, or even Wake County’s, jurisdiction. Public water supply sources in Wake County are managed by either the City of Raleigh or the Town of Cary. Although we partner with municipal and non-profit organizations to educate our citizens on good stewardship of water resources, only Raleigh (and the towns where it supplies water) and Cary should determine supply status, restrictions, and management.
It’s important to understand that by order of General Statute, the Wake SWCD is a non-regulatory entity. Even without regulatory power, the District has successfully worked with landowners to protect natural resources—especially our water quality—for over 50 years through voluntary conservation efforts. Our conservation plans and best management practices (BMPs) installed on the land help to conserve water and other natural resources, as well as improve water quality and soil heath. The BMPs that the Wake SWCD uses to protect water quality reduce the amount of nutrients entering the water courses of our surface and ground water. Furthermore, we have always promoted voluntary conservation of our water resources by citizens, landowners, and businesses.
It’s worth noting that ground water quantity issues are part of the ongoing workload of our local planners and the NCDENR’s Division of Water Resources. They are the permitting and regulatory agencies who tackle the community wells issues that withdraw large quantities of ground water. That said, the Wake SWCD farmland preservation efforts help to maintain large areas for groundwater recharge. Active and healthy farms and forest are the best sources of groundwater recharge. So, designing water control structures on crop fields can help to slow or direct water, which impacts water quality.
Through conservation planning, we can help to avoid contaminant issues by properly planning agricultural wells, chemical mixing areas, and other projects. Educating agricultural producers on sustainable soil management and emphasizing Integrated Pest Management will also help protect water quality. We also educate private landowners when it comes to the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers which are typically overused and result in nutrient issues in our water supply.
7. From a standpoint of conservation and the protection of natural resources, what steps should be taken in developing the Durham-Orange Light Rail line and Wake commuter rail?
While the development of rail lines doesn’t fall under the purview of SWCD Supervisors, there are a few thoughts which I believe are important to be mindful of for those who are in a position to dictate development decisions regarding both the Durham-Orange Light Rail Line and Wake County’s commuter rail. From a standpoint of conservation and the protection of natural resources, it would be best to primarily stick to established roadways and utilize existing buffer, shoulder, and right of way for additional transportation methods. Why? Well, clearing new land or cutting through undeveloped properties will typically require mitigation and it will increase impervious surface. Using already established paths will allow for the utilization of existing water control infrastructure.
No matter what decisions are made regarding rail line locations, it is of paramount importance to plan well into the future to allow and adapt for cleaner modes of transportation given that all of these counties will continue to see increases in population and, thereby, in development. I would instruct that planning limit impacts to streams and creeks, thereby shielding tributaries that contribute to each county’s drinking water supply. By building a light rail line and focusing on multiple modes of transport which are less reliant on fossil fuels—and hopefully which will result in no or minimal oil and fuel leaks, we can ensure cleaner air and water for our growing citizenry.