Rowland "Shep" Oliver carries a worn notebook and pen with him when he walks
around his 30-acre horse farm, jotting down things that need to be done and
ideas to do them more efficiently. One morning last week, entries included fixing a leaking hose inside a stable,
renailing some wood that had come loose and replacing a metal fence, twisted
almost beyond recognition in one of his pastures.
To some, his style would seem more manager than farmer, and that's fairly accurate. Oliver started his farm with an idea - low impact land use with maximum space usage, and his success, his ideas, are now known throughout Virginia. In 1973, Oliver moved his family from Washington to what was then the country, Fairfax Station, to raise and care for horses on a fairly small plot of land in Fairfax Station while preserving the environment. That required some ideas that could fill more than a few small note pads. Now, more than two decades later, Oliver has been recognized for his ingenuity and success in conservation efforts, receiving the Governor's Model Clean Water Farm Award Thursday night in Virginia.
The difference in Oliver's farm becomes evident almost immediately. Rather than large pastures, land is broken into small parcels. Horses rotate grazing areas to make sure the vegetation in each area remains strong. On rainy days, horses stay in what Oliver calls "sacrifice areas", a fenced off tract with a ground cover of gravel broken asphalt. The sacrifice areas eliminate mud, protecting the grasses during wet weather. Oliver also situates them at the top of hills' so water that runs off from the gravel gets absorbed into grasses, which filter out animal waste and warmer water that could threaten fragile species in the creek and later, in the Chesapeake.
A Model of Land Management
Dr. Paul Peterson, from Virginia Tech's Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, taught a seminar on pasture management at Oliver Stables, using the farm as a model for others. He said the secret of Oliver's success is his management of animals. A combination of innovative techniques allows Oliver to keep more than 40 horses on less than 30 acres. "It's a very heavily stocked farm," Peterson said. "But the major advantage is grasses in individual pasture areas are more vigorous and firm, which eliminates run-off."
But rotating pastures comprises only a small part of the environmentally-friendly measures employed. Horse manure composts in an enormous pile behind Oliver's indoor riding area. Trash, scrap and wood are organized into neat piles to be recycled or reused on the property. Nothing goes to waste; nothing is thrown away. Clover, which neutralizes some harmful run-off, is planted along with grass, producing a filtering effect for water that does make it to the stream. Horses drink well water, allowing Oliver to keep them away from streams on his property.
Proud but Cool
"By taking care of the land, it's going to take care of you," Oliver said. "By constantly moving the horses, I give the grass a chance to recover. The county and state recognized that this is something that really works."
Soil and water conservation groups, scientists and government agencies have given Oliver ideas over the years, most of which he has adopted to make the impact of his farm minimal on the environment. If a new idea comes up, the notebook almost surely comes out.
To Oliver, running the farm in the way he does makes sense, both economically and environmentally, but not everyone has rushed to replicate his success methods.
But for Oliver and his small tract, land management combined with soil and water conservation combine to form a successful farm that does not harm the environment around it. "Everybody here does their thing," Oliver said, "but everybody is conscious, I hammer it on them."