Conserving History for the Future at Bullard Farm by Judy Schwab

Laura Bullard can stand and scratch a cow’s back while both of them look at a view over Claytor Lake that developers, like the cows, drool over. “We saved the land for ‘the girls,” Laura says, referring to the cows enjoying the pasture grass and who knows, maybe the view, too.

The 500  acres of farm land in Southwest Virginia is what’s left of thousands of acres received in a land grant from King George II back when the Commonwealth of Virginia was a mere pup of a colony. Through the years it passed along to Laura’s family on her mother Mary’s side.

The land was whittled away by various means. Laura’s grandfather, David Cloyd Barton, had to sell off some of the 700 acres he inherited just to get the land cleared and buildings up. In 1939, the Appalachian Power Company created Claytor Lake for a hydroelectric project and took the fertile river bottom land with it. Then Interstate 81 took another slice out of it.

But thanks to Laura’s mother, Mary Ingles Barton Bullard, the land will remain intact for “the girls” and their human care takers. Mary Bullard is the great-great-great granddaughter of Mary Draper Ingles, a famed pioneer who escaped from captivity among the Shawnees during the French and Indian War, following the Ohio, Kanawha, and New Rivers several hundred miles back to her New River Valley home. And though Mary Bullard learned about land trust easements through the New River Land Trust late in life, it was not too late to save the day. She died in 2008 at the age of 93, after ensuring the easement and creating a family partnership that will protect the land. 

When Mary Bullard was in her nineties, daughter Laura Bullard would drive her in their Mercedes onto their lakeside pasture. The 500-pound calves liked to come over and lick the hood ornament. But the Bullards didn’t care. The car was already 26 years old, and they had bought it used. That Mercedes in the pasture sums up the Bullard attitude of unpretentious elegance.

These two women, with the support of their family not only acted to preserve their 500-acre farm by granting a conservation agreement to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, but Laura is rescuing it from neglect through hard work. In an interview before she died, Mary said of the decision to protect the farm with an easement, “When we were growing up there was plenty of everything, water, grass. I think we’ve done the right thing.”

When Laura and her brothers spent their summers on the farm, they were gone until dark everyday. With her father in the Navy, Laura traveled the world growing up. Since 2001 she’s been farming the Bullard land full-time. Not only has she improved soil and fencing, but she’s working with the NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which encourages rotational grazing. With the help of the Skyline Soil and Water Conservation District, she’s also working on shoreline protection. Cattle no longer can crowd into the lake, degrading the lake’s water quality. They drink from large fountains in the fields supplied by two miles of waterline fed by a single well. Gradually the shoreline is being lined with rip rap, large stone that protects the banks from erosion.

The Bullard property lies a mile and a half downstream of Claytor Lake State Park along a popular route for boaters who leave the state dock and head toward the dam. The Bullards could have sold their lake shore property to developers for a great deal of money, but they decided to keep and nurture it. Laura calls it a sort of memorial to the family.

But as the largest privately owned tract on Claytor Lake, it’s more than that. It’s part of a growing legacy in the Commonwealth. In the six years since Virginia enacted its Land Preservation Tax Credit program, the New River Land Trust and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation have partnered to conserve over 17 miles along the New River and Claytor Lake and over 30,000 acres in Virginia’s New River watershed.

The result is the permanent protection of places like the Bullard farm, with its stunning view of the lake from a pasture where cattle willingly approach Laura for petting. Cottage owners on the lake’s opposite side get an equally stunning prospect of a clean shoreline backed by fields and trees — truly a win-win situation.

Judy Schwab is an artist and writer living in the New River Valley of Virginia.

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