Farmer Spotlight: Sassafras Creek Farm

Dave and Jen in high tunnel 2015In honor of Military Appreciation Month, our latest Farmer Spotlight story features military couple David and Jennifer Paulk who went from serving our country to now serving our community. The former suburbanites never imagined that their small traveling backyard garden would one day inspire them to begin their own farming operation, Sassafras Creek Farm, in St. Mary's County, Maryland.

After serving in the United States Navy for 26 years, David began considering second careers as a veteran. In 2011, he applied for the Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (CASA) Beginner Farmer Training Program where he apprenticed once a week at Calvert's Gift Farm in Baltimore County. Through his apprenticeship, he was able to learn the ins and outs of a small, organic farm.

20141016_104246Paulk explains that his military career allowed him time to get to know himself. By having real life experiences " . . . veterans are well suited to farming as they are used to maintaining structure, a skill required of any successful business owner who needs to develop a business plan and marketing strategies." Financial resources, coupled with that military background, allowed David to purchase an 80-acre property in St. Mary's County.

The property, Sassafras Creek Farm, consists of 46 tillable acres with the remaining 34 acres in forest cover. Forty of the 46 acres are in constant cover crop, which are " . . . key to building what is the essence of an organic farmers' healthy soil." Two seasonal high tunnels allow the Paulks to extend their growing season, and they plan to put up a third one in the next two weeks. The couple installed a 13 kW solar panel that generates more than enough power to run the greenhouse, walk-in coolers, lighting, and more. They grow spinach, lettuce, spring mix, beets, 20160515_160553_resizedkale, turnips, and carrots in the high tunnel, which extends the season and allows them to generate revenue year round.

While David runs the day to day operations on the farm, Jennifer (also certified a Maryland Master Gardener) manages the books, organic certification, and helps on the farm despite having a full-time career as an Environmental Scientist for the Department of the Navy. David explains that growing organic is in line with their beliefs and how they want to produce their own food. The USDA Organic Certification requires a third party inspection, adds certainty to their business model, and reassures their customers that the practices they are using are best for their own health as well as the health of the land and water around them.

David's advice to someone who is considering farming is clear: " . . . don't jump off the deep end into it. I had basic skills and financial resources. Starting a farm takes a small capital something that many fresh out of college do not have." Additionally he encourages all future farmers to go work on a farm or two and see first hand every aspect that goes into farming.

The Paulks show that the dream of having one's own farm is attainable. David recommends that anyone considering an occupation in farming work on a farm whether by volunteering or as a part of an apprenticeship program. Six years after graduating from the Future Harvest CASA program, he now serves as a mentor to new beginner farmers.

The organic produce from Sassafras Creek Farm is sold through a number of venues: California Farmers Market; Chesapeake's Bounty in North Beach; MOMS organic market in Waldorf; a natural food store in Leonardtown; and on the plates of guests at farm-to-table restaurant Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore City.

We are grateful for people like David and Jennifer who not only serve their country, but now serve their community through sustainable, responsible agricultural practices.

—Kellie Rogers

Learn more about how farmers across the watershed are working to improve both water quality and farm productivity in our Farmers' Success Stories series.


Teachers on the Bay

Image003Last summer, I participated in CBF's Chesapeake Classrooms course, Teachers on the Bay, thanks to a scholarship from the Garden Club of the Northern Neck. My goal was to bring some of the participatory lessons CBF teaches back to Northumberland County Public Schools, specifically middle schoolers and my 6th grade Community Problem Solving team, which I tasked with taking on a Chesapeake Bay-related problem.

Some of my students come from families who have worked on the Chesapeake Bay for generations; others have never been out on the water. What most students and I have in common is a lack of hands-on understanding of the Bay.

The week-long teachers education program began on the Rappahannock River where we learned how to test water quality and watched the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries electrofish to monitor species, most of which were invasive blue catfish. We listed types of marsh grasses, species we sighted, including 50 bald eagles in our first hour out on the water and a nesting pair of peregrine falcons that live under the Robert O. Norris Bridge in Tappahannock. We motored part of a route once traveled by Captain John Smith, some of which has barely changed. We also learned about the threat of development to the river and Fones Cliffs, where we spotted most of the eagles.

After two days on the Rappahannock, we went out on the Bay and tested the water at about 126 feet, one of its deepest points. We spent the rest of our time at CBF's Fox Island Education Center in the middle of the Bay. We learned the purpose of marshes and climbed into thick gooey mud holes, a practice known as marsh mucking (highly recommended!). At one point, I was buzzed by what turned out to be a peregrine falcon on its way to harass some oyster catchers.

Image002Across the water, watermen from Tangier and Smith Islands scraped Bay grasses for crabs, a method that glides a mesh bag over grass beds. We, too, scraped the underwater grasses, bringing aboard oysters, crabs, pufferfish, and the occasional seahorse to observe, study, and then release. In a few months my 6th grade students would be doing the same thing, punctuated by squeals of delight, though some still apprehensive about handling a crab swiping at them.

Last year, Virginia Gov. McAuliffe signed an executive order, establishing the Environmental Literacy Challenge, a voluntary effort to increase meaningful, outdoor experiences and sustainability projects to improve student knowledge about their environment. Finding school time and money to accomplish this is a task, but I found there are resources from grants, support from local businesses as well as state and local officials who will volunteer their time.

In our county, a local environmental group, Northumberland Association for Progressive Stewardship funded a fall trip for a group of 7th and 8th grade students aboard a Waterman Heritage Tour. The trip along the Little Wicomico River and out to the Bay was modeled after the CBF teacher's program. Students counted species, learned how water quality is tested from a local shellfish sanitation official, and toured a working oyster aquaculture farm and oyster house. 

Also in the fall, my 6th grade Community Problem Solving team of 14 students spent three days at CBF's Port Isobel Education Center. Students crabbed, scraped, tried out a new tow net, did a night walk and marsh mucked. They spent time on Tangier Island visiting Mayor "Ooker" Eskridge's crab shanty where they saw shedding crabs and tried wrangling his eels. They walked the island to get a feel for life there and watched a movie at the museum about how the island is disappearing from rising sea levels, subsidence, and erosion. They were touched by the experience and back at school they announced their problem solve would be to "Save Tangier Island."

IMG_0337Their resulting two-year project encompasses raising awareness through education and fundraising to build a living shoreline to help the people of Tangier remain on their home or to help them move if it ever comes to that. The students have partnered with Tangier Town Manager Renee Tyler and participated in a webinar and other interactions with the Norfolk Division of the Army Corps of Engineers to learn more about living shorelines.

Last month, Tangier Town Manager Tyler invited the students to meet with the crew of the Polynesian Voyaging Society's Hōkūleʻa expedition when the Polynesian voyaging canoe visited Tangier. The resourceful students held a bake sale, got a grant from NAPS, and another $100 from the school superintendent so they could hire a heritage waterman to take them to Tangier. They then invited Norfolk Army Corps Commander Col. Jason Kelly, Corps Scientist David Schulte, and Virginia Institute for Marine Science Scientist Molly Mitchell. Along with Tangier's 6th graders and educators from the Hōkūleʻa, the group sat together and discussed climate change and Tangier’s fate along with the potential loss of its heritage and culture.

Community Problem Solving teams are a great way to align environmental literacy with classroom work, and CBF's teacher professional learning courses enabled me to use new lessons (and those shared by other teachers) to do just that. I have about one hour each week to pull students out of a morning class to work on their project. My team's work is entirely student driven while I coach. The students conduct research or bring in experts and plan field trips. The program usually runs for the length of a school year, but this time students are committing two years to the project due to the complexity of their problem. Community Problem Solving and environmental literacy are a great way to keep students motivated and focused on a project as they become active and knowledgeable members of their community.

 —Pamela D'Angelo Hagy
Hagy is a journalist covering the Bay for public radio and various publications as well as a part-time educator.

If you'd like to participate in a Chesapeake Classrooms teacher professional learning course this summer, see the schedule and course descriptions at www.cbf.org/CCsummer. There are still openings on a few courses!


This Week in the Watershed

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With the positive trends in Bay health, there is reason to be hopeful water quality will continue rising. Photo by David Cunningham.

In this season of graduation gowns, commencement speeches, and flying mortar board caps, graduating students celebrate their accomplishments and are hopeful for a successful future. Of course, to reach graduation day every student has to receive passing grades. This week, the Bay received its own grade, earning a "C" on its health report card from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

A student graduating with a GPA in the "C" range wouldn't be among the most accomplished of his or her peers, but for the Bay, a "C" grade is a sign of progress. This is only the third time since the report card was first issued in 1986 that the Bay received a "C." The other two years, 1992 and 2002, were years of drought, when there was little precipitation to wash polluted runoff into the Bay. In contrast, 2015 was an average year for precipitation. Additionally, Bay health has been on a steady upward trend, scoring a 45 percent in 2013, 50 percent in 2014, and 53 percent for its 2015 report card. This good news reveals the progress being made in reducing pollution to the Bay. All signs point to the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint working.

That said, there is plenty of work left to be done. And as Kim Coble, CBF Vice President for Environmental Protection and Restoration, reminds us, "The region is not on track to meet its long-term goals and Bay jurisdictions, with EPA's leadership, need to do significantly more if we are to realize a restored Bay by 2025 as the states and EPA committed to achieving." While the Bay certainly hasn't "graduated," there is reason to be hopeful that with the continued implementation of the Blueprint, the Bay can truly be saved.

This Week in the Watershed: Grading the Bay, Contaminated Wells, and Baltimore Basements

What's Happening around the Watershed?

June 3

  • Shady Side, MD: Break a sweat and help Save the Bay—join CBF in cleaning the "homes" of the next generation of Chesapeake Bay oysters! Help restore the Chesapeake's native oyster population by cleaning oyster shells. We'll be shaking off the dirt and debris on shells so baby oysters can successfully grow on them. This "shell shaking" event is a bit of a workout but a fun, hands-on experience. With lifting involved, it is not recommended for individuals with bad backs or other health concerns. A tour of our restoration center will follow the shell shaking. Click here to register!

June 4

  • Baltimore, MD: For nearly two years, CBF has been working on renovating a vacant lot in West Baltimore into a green space. Join us as we put on the finishing touches and celebrate! The morning will include a final planting of perennials followed by an opening ceremony. Everyone is welcome to join the fun and help finish the planting, be inspired by our community leaders, and eat some hotdogs, potato salad, strawberries, and watermelon. (This event was rescheduled from May 14 due to weather). Click here to register!
  • Throughout Virginia: Join us for the 28th annual Clean the Bay Day! One of the largest volunteer efforts in Virginia, roughly 6,000 volunteers remove more than 100,000 pounds of harmful debris from Virginia's waterways and shorelines. With sites all across the Commonwealth, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. Click here to learn more and register!

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Summertime Fishing

Locklear Story 0416 II Sam Loustanua"How will I know when a fish bites?" "Young Sam" asked his grandfather, Sam Locklear. Both Sams and younger brother, Nate, were fishing the Severn River with me last summer. It's always a treat to have enthusiastic ten- and seven-year-old anglers aboard, especially when a trip starts like this one. The words were hardly out in the air before two chunky white perch climbed onto the teasers on Young Sam's line, nearly taking the rod out of his hands. 

We were fishing a 12-14-foot-deep restoration oyster reef near the U.S. Naval Academy. This particular reef, an underwater point jutting out into the channel, is an example of where oysters thrive. The reef is elevated in the water column where currents bring the oysters food, carry away waste, and attract other critters—like worms, barnacles, grass shrimp, and mud crabs—that in turn attract predators like white perch and rockfish. We could see the perch on my skiff's fishfinder. The Severn has more successful restoration reefs like this one—they form the happy side of this story. 

The other side isn't as pretty. With supper on ice, the Sams, Nate, and I went upriver to a 25-foot-deep reef that showed hard bottom but no fish. It's a survey site for an upcoming restoration project, so we got out an electronic temperature/salinity/oxygen meter and lowered its sensor's ten-meter cable to get a profile of the water column. As usual for summer here—and in too many other parts of the Chesapeake system—the dissolved oxygen measured below two milligrams per liter from the bottom up to about 15 feet. That's a lethal level for perch and rockfish and stressful even for crabs. In fact, on the bottom that day, the level was below 0.5 mg/l—low enough to kill worms. No wonder the fishfinder screen was blank below 15 feet. That's what a "dead zone" looks like. This is the ugly side of the story. It illustrates why we concentrate oyster restoration in shallower water. 

As Memorial Day approaches, we've got dead zones on our minds. But why do dead zones form each summer? From human-caused nitrogen pollution. Take a look at this excellent graphic from YSI, Inc. (the maker of my oxygen meter). It concentrates on the Gulf of Mexico, but the global map shows hypoxia ("the environmental phenomenon where the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water column decreases to a level that can no longer support living aquatic organisms") all over the Earth, including the Chesapeake.

What can we do about it? We have a plan called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, and it's slowly turning the bad stuff around while we celebrate successes like these new oyster reefs. Want to make sure that Young Sam, Nate, and thousands of other youngsters have a healthy Bay to grow up around? Click here to find out how you can help.

John Page Williams, CBF's Senior Naturalist

 


Photo of the Week: The Bay as My Home Port

Sunset_tilgman_island-5924[These are] two images from a sailing trip to Tilghman Island last summer. One is right at Knapps Narrows and the other is from the inn just north of the narrows . . . they show just a taste of the beauty that the Bay has to offer.

The Bay is a big part of my world. I live part time on my sailboat in Tracys Landing, Maryland. It is my home. I rejoice at oyster season, dream of Rockfish Bites with buffalo sauce, [admire] sunsets on the wetlands behind my marina, and love to sail from port to port tasting the many flavors of the towns along the Bay. So many parts of my life revolve around the Bay, from my brother the oyster farmer in the South River, to the many dockbars that I love to haunt, to the adventure of sailing her beautiful waters.

I am a pro photographer, and I have hundreds of thousands of images from my travels, but I always keep coming to the Bay as my home port.

—Mark Schwenk 

Ensure that Mark and future generations continue to sail and enjoy extraordinary places like these along the Chesapeake. Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—the plan to Save the Bay! 

Do you have a favorite Chesapeake photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? Send your digital images to CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign] cbf.org, along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo, and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. We look forward to seeing your photos!

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Farm Bureau Can Choose to Be a Sore Loser or Part of the Solution

The following first appeared in the Bay Journal.

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The Bay will not be saved if agricultural pollution is not addressed. Photo by Dave Hartcorn.

The long and expensive fight by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Fertilizer Institute and their allies to derail the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is finally over. The Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal of a lawsuit that they had lost in both the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg and in a unanimous decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

Now that their legal opposition has finally been turned back, we reached out to the Farm Bureau and its allies to encourage them to work with us, rather than fight us.

But despite the decision by the Supreme Court, the Farm Bureau continues its anti-EPA rhetoric. In a recent press statement, they continue to contend that the "EPA has asserted the power to sit as a federal zoning board, dictating which land can be farmed and where homes, roads, and schools can be built." This argument has been repeatedly rejected by federal courts.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint pollution caps are still under attack. Timothy Bishop, a partner with Mayer Brown LLP in Chicago who represents the American Farm Bureau Federation, is quoted as saying the question of the EPA's authority has "just been postponed" until there are nine justices on the court.

There is a real danger in denying agriculture's role in restoring water quality. The very best estuarine science in the world has presented indisputable evidence that agriculture is part of the problem and must be part of the solution.

Beyond the Bay, as well, a recent University of Michigan-led multi-institution study concluded that a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus runoff from farms and other sources would be needed to stem the harmful algae blooms and dead zones plaguing Lake Erie.

If that 40 percent reduction sounds familiar, it should. For decades, Bay scientists have known that to restore our local rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay, we need to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by 40 percent.

We have made progress, but much of it has been achieved by reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants. While many farmers have implemented best management practices, the full agricultural community must do its fair share.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint provides a road map to recovery, but it must be fully implemented. With the 2017 Midpoint Assessment just around the corner, it appears that the region will miss another mark, by millions of pounds of pollution, largely because of Pennsylvania, and primarily from agriculture.

The commonwealth's officials have acknowledged the problem, and said they are committed to getting the state back on track. Our reaction is to trust, but verify.

An editorial in Lancaster (PA) Farming put it well:

"We should always keep careful watch of what the government is doing, especially with our money and our freedoms.

"But TMDL requirements provide an opportunity to show the rest of the nation that farmers can co-exist with nonfarmers and that the environment doesn't have to suffer as a result.

"Farm Bureau may have lost its battle, but farmers have a chance to win the pollution war."

We in the Chesapeake Bay region have the opportunity to show the nation, and the world, what can be accomplished if businesses, governments, individuals—and even the Farm Bureau—work together to reduce pollution in our local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

William C. Baker, CBF President


What's Bill Seeing in the Field: Opportunistic Eagles

For more than 30 years, CBF Educator and photographer Bill Portlock has been exploring, documenting, and teaching the wonders of the Chesapeake and its rivers and streams. With his vast, intimate knowledge and experience with the watershed, we thought who better to check in with about what he's seeing in the field right now . . .

Bill
On a recent spring morning, I was fortunate to be in my skiff on Cat Point Creek, a tidal tributary of the Rappahannock River in Richmond County, Virginia.

Eagle-rich Fones Cliffs, just four miles upstream from Cat Point Creek, is a unique Bald Eagle concentration zone, with thousands of eagles from Labrador to Florida as well as native Virginia birds using the area for nocturnal roosts, foraging, and (for residents) nesting. Many eagles spill over into Cat Point to forage on its abundant fish, primarily blue catfish and gizzard shad, but at this time of year there are migratory river herring and shad in the river. That the herring spring run to spawn is tied to bald eagle reproduction is yet another interwoven cycle of nature. It is a cornucopia of protein for a couple of months.

Bill1One eagle caught my attention that day by successfully capturing an alewife, a river herring just in from the ocean to spawn, in an oxbow of the creek. After the successful catch, he flew to a low branch over the water to eat his catch. Males are about 20 percent smaller than females, and when females are incubating eggs, males do most of the fishing. I allowed the ebbing tide to quietly drift me toward the scene. Today, this eagle was more focused on consuming his meal than paying attention to me.

Alewives and blueback herring are related to hickory and american shad and are members of the herring family (Clupeidae). These are anadromous fish, meaning they spend the majority of their adult lives at sea and migrate up coastal rivers in the spring to spawn in freshwater.

Bald eagles reproduce earlier than most birds in the Bay region, starting nest construction or repair in December and January. Egg laying and incubation takes place as early as December (and can run until March) in the Chesapeake Bay region. The hatching and rearing of young eagles takes place from March to June. Thus, the spawning run of herring and shad feed young eagles and the parents.

There were dozens of Wilson's snipe feeding on insect larvae, worms, and other invertebrates in the arrow arum marshes. These medium-sized shorebirds frequent the creek during winter before migrating north in April. Two pairs of blue-winged teal and a handsome pair of common mergansers were the only ducks present. But the main show on Cat Point that morning was this adult Bald Eagle capturing and eating this 12-inch river herring right in front of me.

4At one time in the not-too-distant past, coastal rivers supported thriving herring and shad industries, with millions of fish harvested each year. However, populations of these fishes declined dramatically in the last century due to dam obstructions, overharvesting, and pollution. The river herring fishery (which includes the alewife and the blueback herring) has been one of the most valuable in the Bay, with annual catches once exceeding 8 million pounds in Maryland and 30 million pounds in Virginia.

Opportunistic feeders, bald eagles also catch ducks, turtles, and small mammals (muskrat size). But fish make up the bulk of their diet, especially in warmer months. Availability of non-migratory gizzard shad and the introduced blue catfish make up the majority of prey captured now.

But on this day, a migratory alewife was the prey of this hungry eagle. Drifting slowly in my skiff to within 30 feet of the perched eagle, I was able to quietly watch and photograph the eagle. I  felt privileged to be there.   

—Photographs and Text by Bill Portlock, CBF Senior Educator

What else is Bill seeing in the field these days? Click here to see.

 


Photo of the Week: Nothing More Relaxing

JeffWertzel

I took this early one November day at Conowingo Dam. The bird in the tree is an adult bald eagle.

I have been boating on and off the Bay for close to 50 years. There is nothing more relaxing than being on the water. I had an aunt and uncle who lived on Kent Island, and as a kid, I would try and go down as much as I could. To this day I still boat on the Bay with my wife and two labs at Middle River.

—Jeff Wetzel

Ensure that Jeff, his wife, his two labs, and future generations continue to enjoy extraordinary places like this along the Chesapeake. Support the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—the plan to Save the Bay! 

Do you have a favorite Chesapeake photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? Send your digital images to CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign] cbf.org, along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo, and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. We look forward to seeing your photos!


Runners, Take Your Mark!

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Photo courtesy of Swim Bike Run Photography.


This November, 25,000 people from across the country will participate in an historic event—the third annual Across the Bay 10K Chesapeake Bay Bridge Run!

Scheduled for November 6, the run begins on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and finishes with a post-race celebration on Kent Island. Most of the course—4.35 miles—will be on the bridge itself overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. The dual-span bridge doesn't allow pedestrian traffic at any other time of the year, so this is a unique opportunity—and the view is amazing!

You can be part of the fun and support CBF! As an official charity partner we have a supply of charity bibs available for $150. This purchase guarantees entry into the race and provides a donation towards CBF's work to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay. Click here to purchase your charity bib today!

For more information about the event, visit the official race website at bridgerace.com.

Thanks for your support–we hope to see you there!

—Melanie McCarty
CBF 's Donor Communications Manager

 


A Park Manager Looks Back on 27 Clean the Bay Days

59093_1590688095987_7547821_nIn the spring of 1989, 16-year-old Cameron Swain went on an outing with her family in Hampton Roads to pick up trash on a beach. As a teenager, she didn't realize that the small informal cleanup would become the first ever Clean the Bay Day, now going stronger than ever as it enters its 28th year. 

Swain has watched the event grow from its grassroots infancy in the late 1980s and early 1990s to a longtime Virginia tradition that mobilizes thousands across the Commonwealth to beautify their local waterways.

In recent years, Clean the Bay Day has attracted 6,000 to 8,000 volunteers at sites stretching from coastal Virginia to Richmond, Charlottesville, the Shenandoah Valley, and Northern Virginia. In just three hours participants often pick up well over 100,000 pounds of trash.

Just as she has for nearly 20 years, on the first Saturday of June Swain will lead her own Clean the Bay Day site at False Cape State Park in Virginia Beach, where she is the assistant park manager. At False Cape, a few dozen people usually come out to clean the six miles of beach, often picking up between 500 and 1,000 pounds of trash in one morning.

"You get the same volunteers year after year. Now they are bringing their children," Swain says, recalling toddlers at the first cleanup who now come out as adults. "You see these people evolve and grow."

11066783_10153821018615943_1759498088508493681_nOver the years, participants have recovered all sorts of trash from the park's beach. "Now that I've been doing it so many years, nothing really surprises me," she says, listing everything from computer screens and light bulbs to tires and bathing suits. "You name it, it's probably washed up on the beach at one time."

When you consider the sheer number of people who participate, it is amazing how one morning's effort transforms hundreds of miles of beaches, parks, rivers, and streams. The massive collaborative effort across Virginia every Clean the Bay Day is "heartwarming," Swain says. "Even if it's the only time they do it this year, that makes a real difference," she says.

—Kenny Fletcher, CBF's Virginia Communications Coordinator

Be a part of the Virginia tradition! Sign up for this year's Clean the Bay Day.