The tour group met at the O’Brien Recreational Center to give an overview of the day and introduce everyone. We explained that we were going to be traveling around South Bend to see some of the partnerships that NRCS and St. Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation District has made within the community. These partnerships are created and fostered through financial assistance, technical assistance, educational programming, and more. In attendance were Deb Knepp, District Conservationist for NRCS; Sarah Longenecker, County Conservationist for St. Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation District; Jane Sablich, Environmental Education Coordinator for St. Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation District; Stacy Silvers, Supervisor for St. Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation District; Mike Burkholder, Supervisor for St. Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation District; Joe Taylor III, State Representative; Deborah Fleming, County Commissioner; Chris Lee, Field Director for Congresswoman Jackie Walorski; Lauren Varga, Regional Director for Senator Joe Donnelly; Courtney Papa, District Director for Senator Todd Young.
We then traveled to a local farmers soybean field on the Southside of South Bend. This farm has been in his family for generations and it was obvious he takes pride in caring for his land. We discussed how agricultural conservation practices can help to reduce soil erosion, reduce chemical runoff, and increase a farmer’s yield. The farmer also shared his personal experience with the group on how cover crops and reduced tillage have benefited his farm. By having these best management practices on his fields, it has kept his business resilient during extreme weather like drought and flooding. His farm is enrolled in cost share programs through NRCS and St. Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation District and receives technical assistance as well.
After visiting a rural conservation partner, we moved onto urban. Our first stop in town was at Good Shepard Montessori School with Theri Niemier, Bertrand Farm Director and Dan Driscoll, Head of School. Bertrand Farms has worked with Good Shepard Montessori to provide students with hands on farm learning. A newly installed rain garden was the first thing we observed. Raingardens help to reduce runoff and keep storm water out of sewers by helping water absorb into the ground faster. Theri shared with the group that the rain garden had been installed the previous Saturday by a group of volunteers. The rain garden was funded by St. Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation District’s Clean Water Indiana grant. Good Shepard Montessori will also have a second rain garden near Eddy street. The first rain garden was planted with mostly pollinator plants whereas the second garden will feature entirely edible plants. NRCS is also funding a hoop house near the front parking lot so that students and Bertrand Farms will be able to grow produce in the colder months. Theri and Dan also shared some information about how a Montessori school works and other projects they have going on at Good Shepard. Much of the students learning revolves around the farm. Both NRCS and St. Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation District have also provided technical assistance to ensure that the school and farm get the most out of their additions to the property and students can continue discovering things about the farm.
Nearby are a couple of other Clean Water Indiana funded raingardens that we visited. First Unitarian Church chose to put in multiple small rain gardens where downspouts drained into. Zion Church United Church of Christ had a large raingarden on the Southside of the church. Their garden was installed last year and was very lush, green, and full of life. This large garden will mitigate water running off the roof and half of the church’s parking lot. All the raingardens we saw are demonstration gardens, which means they will have educational signage so that the public can learn and witness raingardens in action. They will also help reduce flooding and create resilience during heavy rainfall.
The final stop of our tour was at Unity Gardens on Prast Blvd. We were greeted by Sara Stewart, Unity Gardens Executive Director. Unity Gardens is a “pick for free” garden with the goal of feeding hungry people healthy food while also giving the community a space to gather. Sara gave us the history of Unity Gardens and shared some of their projects and programs while we munched on some garden produce. We toured the property and saw many of the gardens and operations including projects that were funded by NRCS. These included a couple of hoop houses, 4 roof runoff structures for irrigation, and a large pollinator habitat. NRCS and St. Joseph Soil and Water Conservation Program has also partnered with Unity Gardens by sharing technical knowledge and providing educational programming.
We ended our day with returning to the O’Brien Recreational Center. We were excited to share the great work that our partners are doing in our community. We are glad to assist them in any way that we can. Each of these practices and programs benefits our natural resources and ensures a better environment in the future.