Joe Thompson wasn’t in the Armstrongs’ town-and-country-style living room long when riparian buffers came up.

The Armstrongs, whose family has lived on the almost 200-acre farm north of Upperville, VA, since the early 1940s, didn’t know they were talking about buffers when they mentioned their desire to mow down the “trash trees” that have grown along the creek in order to have a clearer view of the water.

Thompson, who was visiting the Armstrongs in his role as landowner adviser with the Potomac Conservancy, knows that tree- and brush-lined streams are one of the best ways to improve water quality. He was biding his time.

First, he wanted to hear what they had in mind for the land, which Lucy Brown Armstrong owns with her mother and sister. They’ve leased the surrounding soil to livestock farmers since 1978, but are ready to rethink their role as owners.

Though Lucy and her husband Jimmy live in a stately late-1700s home on the property, they are technically absentee landowners, or those who own but do not operate their agricultural lands, according to the Potomac Conservancy.

They live within walking distance of several creeks on the property but, before Thompson’s visit, couldn’t say whether cattle had direct access to them.

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, they’re in good company.

Absentee landowners own an estimated 45 percent of agricultural acreage in Virginia, according to the latest land ownership survey that was part of a 1997 Census of Agriculture. The statistics are just as staggering for other states in the watershed, with absentees owning 57 percent of agricultural acres in Maryland and 73 percent in Delaware, at the top end of the spectrum.

Aimee Weldon, senior director of land conservation at the Potomac Conservancy, estimates these percentages have only grown over the last decade. The average age of farmers in the country has crept upward, leaving more retired farmers to rent out their land in larger chunks.

In the Armstrongs’ case, Lucy’s grandfather was the last one in the family to operate Kirkby Farm as a farm. Her parents had jobs elsewhere when he passed away, and farming the land themselves was not part of the plan.

The majority of leased farmland in the region is handled with year-to-year contracts that are sometimes penned with little more than a handshake.

“When an operator has no real lease, what incentive do they have to invest resources and put land in conservation when they might not be on that land next year?” Weldon asked, raising a question that led her organization to focus on landowners.

The Potomac Conservancy began reaching out in early 2011 to landowners that fit the absentee profile in Maryland’s Carroll and Frederick counties, sending flyers and conducting surveys to see how they might spur more of them to participate in conservation programs. Surveys showed that about 10 percent of these owners had conservation easements on part of their land and just 3 percent participated in a cost-share program to help fund conservation practices.

Last year, the Conservancy received a $200,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to expand the absentee project to parts of West Virginia and Virginia. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Loudoun County, along with Soil and Water Conservation Districts in the region, heartily endorsed the project, recognizing the need to engage this sizable proportion of landowners in conservation — and that they could use the help to do so.

Expert advice

While outreach materials and phone calls have garnered decent responses from landowners, the most effective strategy so far has been sending Thompson.

With a 30-year career at NRCS under his belt, Thompson is no stranger to helping people implement conservation practices that fit their land, lifestyle and budget. He also grows organic grains on some land in Virginia’s Northern Neck, and is associate director of that region’s Soil and Water Conservation District, to name a few of the many hats he wears.

“With someone that’s farming, I let them know I understand both sides,” Thompson said.

He can also play the role of naturalist or biologist, riffing on everything from which grasses foster lively quail populations to whether peonies would be too intensive a crop to grow on the side. (The answer is yes, probably.) But he started his late-September meeting with the Armstrongs by listening.

Lucy explained that she’s considering bringing horses onto the land, which is leased to a pasture-based cattle operation, and that she’d like to hear about different grasses that can bring back the health of the soil.

“It’s just drained of all nutrients, and we’re trying to get it back in shape,” she said.

Then she floated her ideas for opening up the land and taking out fences to let the animals roam, drawing from an open-spaces ideal that Thompson finds many landowners desire. But he softly redirected her vision, suggesting some factors she hadn’t considered.

“One of the challenges, if you go to an open system, is animals are like people. They like what tastes the best. So you’ll have areas where they’ll really graze it hard, and other areas where they haven’t touched it,” he said. “It will be a much bigger job to keep things maintained.”

This topic segued nicely for Thompson into a question he asks during most of these visits: Do the animals have access to the streams?

Lucy and Jimmy went back and forth a bit before deciding that they’re not quite sure. “We can take a look today,” Lucy said.

On the farm

As Jimmy’s SUV drove past a historic marker for the Battle of Upperville (which took place on part of this land) and into an open field sprouting knee-high cockleburs, Thompson explained that mowing down these types of plants, which the cattle will eschew eating, before they go to seed is key to maintaining good pastures.

The tenants are supposed to mow the grasses frequently, the Armstrongs said, but such stipulations are not laid out in writing. It was necessary to scale the first of many electric fences on parts of the land, something the Armstrongs seem to have discovered for the first time.

Driving toward Panther Skin Creek, the low-lying grasses transitioned to thick undergrowth and trees along the water.

Lucy seemed annoyed that she had to bushwhack her way to the water that she grew up playing in as a child. But Thompson explained that this kind of brush is good.

“The farm’s been well-managed because they kept this forest along with the trees, even though they’ve grazed it,” he said, referring to a vague cow path leading to the water. “If we can get the creeks protected and get woody buffers adjacent to it, that’s half the battle.”

At another electric fence, Thompson used a blade of grass to test whether it was live (it was) before using his notebook to hold it open for everyone to pass through.

“You know everything,” Lucy said.

The group walked down a dry, rocky part of the stream bed, which was the likely source for several historic stone walls around the farm, to a section that opens up into a wide fishing hole.

Thompson grinned to see that trees along the stream have largely done their part to keep soils intact and aid in water filtration. Using an aerial map of the farm he brought with him, Thompson pointed out that any problem here is more likely the result of what’s happening upstream, where an adjacent property has mowed down almost all of the vegetation on both sides of the creek.

Lucy had noticed the tendency in this part of Loudoun County to clear out the wild growth and keep it mowed for a more polished, suburban look.

“You can tell from our border with our neighbors, they’re suburbanites that want to take every piece of growth off the fence lines,” Lucy said. “Our theory is that’s where the little critters live, so we leave them overgrown, except in front.”

While the land along this creek looked well-maintained, other parts of the Armstrongs’ property provided a helpful comparison — and areas for improvement.

There was evidence of good rotational grazing and little erosion was occurring on most of the pasturelands, but it soon became obvious that the cattle did have access to the creek. Driving past a herd of heritage breeds lying in the shade, the SUV came upon a cow with all four feet in the water, taking a long drink.

Hooves had worn down the sides of the creek to expose bare dirt, and the few trees interspersed along it aren’t enough to make a difference. The water looked murky and stagnant.

“That was nice to have that comparison,” Thompson said later. “You couldn’t have asked for a better scenario than the cow standing in a creek versus that nice area that was fenced off and the creek looking very nice.”

Who are the absentees?

Thompson said the Armstrongs were more knowledgeable about and receptive to conservation practices than many of the landowners he meets. Jimmy, 57, knew quite a bit about cattle from owning a ranch in Texas and Lucy, 59, had spent much of her childhood exploring the land that was her grandfather’s at the time.

Because there’s no real list of absentee landowners, the conservancy had to do some “detective work” to identify its audience, Weldon said. Using a mix of data and aerial imagery, the project was able to narrow down a list of absentee landowners to receive outreach materials.

A survey of some of these landowners revealed that almost three-quarters of them had higher incomes than the average in their states. Most had either purchased the land they own as an investment or inherited it.

When asked which factors influence their decisions about the land, respondents answered that they valued the environment, wildlife and aesthetic aspects more than income from the land or “the way things have traditionally been done.”

“We have this audience that’s pretty big and also may not be aware that there’s dollars out there to help them improve their land,” Weldon said.

So far, the project has been able to make that connection for some landowners, though the process has been slow.

Harry George, an absentee owner of 200 acres in Frederick County, MD, wrote a letter to fellow landowners describing his positive experience working with Thompson and urged them to respond to the conservancy’s outreach efforts.

After visiting his property and finding a program that would be a good fit, Thompson helped George secure $25,000 to plant trees and implement erosion control measures on the land.

He went to similar lengths for the Armstrongs a couple weeks after his visit, sending them a mapped profile of their soils that could help them make informed decisions about which practices to implement where. He included information about grass-fed c attle, organic wheat and native plants to answer the Armstrongs’ questions about how they might draw income from the farm.

And he provided contact information for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and easement programs, telling them which portions of their land might be eligible.

“A lot of these owners, particularly in Virginia, are retired or looking at a transition, looking to give more back to their land,” Thompson said. “I really try to come up with those alternatives.”