By John Markon, submitted by Virginia USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Hundreds of farmers in southeastern Virginia have two things in common — they have a Howell on speed dial and they welcome the chance to use that contact. Such is the rapport that Anthony Howell and his son Trenton have built with agricultural producers in their service areas for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
These district conservationists have been trusted advisers for years, but Field to Market has now made it official by honoring them as two of six conservation professionals named to its 2021 Trusted Adviser Spotlight Series. The national nonprofit dedicated to promoting healthy eating and sustainable agricultural practices made the announcement today at its annual plenary meeting in Washington, D.C.
The story of this accomplished family’s connection to the USDA begins in 2002, when Anthony Howell left his position as a water quality specialist with the Peanut Soil and Water Conservation District to sign on with NRCS. Howell first worked in the Sussex field office and then provided dual coverage for the Dinwiddie and Prince George service centers before they were consolidated. Long-term NRCS clients have come to rely on his knowledge and experience.
Of Anthony and Cynthia Howell’s three children, Trenton had the keenest interest in his father’s work. The younger Howell received another push in that direction when he was approved to participate in the 1890 National Scholars Program, a partner internship program linking the USDA to 19 historically black land-grant colleges, following his freshman year at Virginia State University, also his father’s alma mater.
After his 2014 graduation, Trenton was assigned to the NRCS field office in Chatham, Va., where he was named district conservationist in 2018. Two years later, a vacancy in the Chesapeake field office prompted a return to the family farm and reunited the team in the same region of the state.
Over the years, the pair has seen “just about everything” in working with Virginia producers. They have also had some interesting dinner table conversations on a wide range of topics from customer service to the concept of being a trusted adviser.
“Building that kind of relationship takes time,” Anthony said, “and I think it starts with learning and listening. When I first meet a farmer, you won’t see me doing a lot of talking. Breakthroughs come when we can match one of our NRCS programs with a producers’ needs.”
Both Howells commute to their offices and team with Anthony’s brother Darren to farm the family property on weekends. While Anthony’s office in Dinwiddie oversees a more traditional agricultural area, Trenton’s territory includes the cities of Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Portsmouth.
“Our farmers rely on us to be experts in what we do,” said Trenton, “because they usually have to be their own experts on accounting, chemistry, equipment repair and a bunch of other things that go into operating a farm. They’re very smart people and they usually come to you with an idea of something they want to do or somewhere they want to go.”
As designated Trusted Advisers, the Howells will have increased opportunities to speak on the topic of maximizing productivity while engaging in environmentally responsible farming. Some of the nuances of building trust and relationships, however, may still be reserved for mealtimes.
“There are a lot of little things,” Anthony said. “I have to be careful, for example, not to talk up some of our programs to farmers who may not have the equipment they need to participate in them. It’s all about knowing who you’re assisting, and there usually isn’t a shortcut to that.”
Chesapeake and Virginia Beach profile more like counties than cities in that they contain large rural areas and numerous farms. They also have large urban and suburban populations and are home to more than 700,000 residents.
“Some of my urban and suburban growers are just starting out,” added Trenton. “They all start at a different point in terms of how much they know, and a lot of them aspire to being certified organic, or at least environmentally friendly. Sometimes they have needs outside our agency and my role turns out to be directing them to someone who can help them more than I can.
“Dad once said our two ears are the best tools we have. If I’m willing to listen, sooner or later a producer’s going to tell me exactly what he or she needs. One of the first things I learned is that no two cases are ever the same.”
Field to Market is a national alliance for the promotion of sustainable agriculture with its main office in Washington, D.C. More about the organization, its activities and the Trusted Adviser Series is available at fieldtomarket.org.