A woman in a blue shirt poses for a photograph next to a river

Tied to the river

Eagles soar over family farm along the Rappahannock River

By Darci Palmquist | July 2, 2018

Port Royal, Virginia

Growing up, Carolyn “Cookie” Davis would look out her bedroom window on the farm to see fish jump and ducks paddle in the Rappahannock River below. The water wrapped the 518-acre property on two sides. Farmland spread all around.

Sometimes her grandfather let her help drive the tractor, she recalled in a recent interview. Other days she played—“these are the woods of Pocahontas and swinging on vines,” she recalled with a smile.

A farm field with young crops poking out of the soil
The Davis family farm. Photo © Steve Droter.

“It’s beautiful land,” said Davis, 75. “... My father always wanted to keep it the pristine riverland that it is.”

With that in mind, the Davis family signed a conservation-oriented easement in September 2017 with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) assisted, helping ensure that 2.3 miles of verdant riverfront land will not be developed. The agreement is proof, too, that conservation and private enterprise can coexist — and even thrive.

The easement not only upholds the family farm legacy, but makes the Davis farm one of the latest pieces in the effort to stitch together parcels of land forming a corridor of protection along a river that plays a key role in the nation’s cultural and natural history.

‘A special river’

The Rappahannock rises out of the Blue Ridge Mountains and winds 195 miles through the state of Virginia before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. The bay was famously explored by English explorer Capt. John Smith in the early 1600s, who on his first voyage there in 1608 was wounded by a stingray at the mouth of the Rappahannock.

A large black bird with a white face holding on to a fish with it's sharp tallons
A soaring bald eagle with a fish in its talons. Photo by Ron Holmes, USFWS.

“You feel the history on the Rappahannock,” said Christina Ryder, a wildlife biologist with the Service’s Chesapeake Bay field office. “It’s a special river. It has both colonial and tribal history, and it has incredible ecological resources.”

The river is a bird-lover’s paradise, home to the largest concentration of eagles on the East Coast. More than 200 pairs of bald eagles were recorded nesting along the banks of the Rappahannock in 2015, according to the Center for Conservation Biology. This—along with the many other species of concern found here, such as yellow-throated vireo, wood thrush and scarlet tanager—led to the river’s 2007 designation as a National Audubon Society Important Bird Area.

“I’ve been boating up the river in winter during migratory bird season and it’s just full of waterfowl, ducks, eagles,” said Ryder. “You see eagles constantly, fishing and gliding. You can tell from the eagles and the waterfowl that this is a thriving ecosystem.”

An eagle flies high over a river marked with buoys
A bald eagle circles overhead. Photo © Steve Droter.

Ryder’s goal is to ensure future generations get to experience this. A sprawling Washington metropolis — which means more development, more pavement, and more pollution running into the river — could mean less quality habitat for wildlife, she said.

“One of the first lines of defense we have is land protection,” she said. “By protecting land we can increase forested and wetlands buffers, which improve and protect water quality on the river and the larger Chesapeake Bay.”

For Davis, easements are an opportunity to keep the farm in the family and protect the land that has sustained generations of her family.

“My sisters and I inherited almost 500 acres on the Rappahannock, and I grew up on it, so I’m tied to the river.”

The family farm

Speaking in a languid Old Virginia accent that could make any history lesson sound like a lullaby, Davis can trace her family’s history in Port Royal back to the 18th century.

“My mother’s people came to Port Royal in 1737 from Scotland, when ships brought indentured servants here to farm,” said Davis, who is also president of the Port Royal Historical Society. “Back then the crop was tobacco. Today we don’t grow tobacco at all; we mostly have soybeans and corn on our farm.”

The Davis family has been farming this land since 1942, when Cookie Davis’ grandfather moved farming operations to make way for Fort A.P. Hill. The U.S. Army base was established in response to World War II.

Her husband, John, today manages the farm operation with a cousin.

“John’s a sixth- or seventh-generation farmer, he just loves it,” Davis said. “He feels about the land like I feel about it: always try to leave it a little better than we found it.”

Man and wife pose for a photo next to a green tractor
Cookie and John Davis. Photo © Steve Droter.

They farm about 245 acres — 170 of that comprising sandy soil that needs irrigation from the Rappahannock. The rest of the property is marsh and forest. Roads for the farm machinery criss-cross the property, and paths lead down to the river.

Davis and one of her sisters often stroll the property, meeting at the old homestead to walk and talk along the river. Every now and then they spy arrowheads poking up from the sand. They rest back at the picnic table by the house, looking at the river.

“The river puts it all together, gives us a sense of peace and quiet,” she said.

A woman sits on a picnic table below a beautiful magnolia tree
The picnic table rests under a magnolia tree. This is a favorite spot to sit and look at the river. Photo © Steve Droter.

Preserving a way of life

The Davis family learned of easements through friends. The idea appealed to them as a way to keep the land from being developed and to maintain their family’s history on the land.

“Farm people don’t want their land developed,” Davis said. “We always want it to be preserved.”

The Davis farm sits in the section of the Rappahannock that is considered the most pristine stretch of the river, where the shoreline is still lush with forests and wetlands. Its proximity to wildlife and Fort A.P. Hill garnered the easement funds from the Service and the army, which seeks to protect open space near installations.

The Service has helped create easements to the north and south of the Davis farm. The agency manages the nearby Eastern Virginia Rivers National Wildlife Refuge complex and owns a number of units and easements along the river.

Easements support conservation and can help small family farms stay afloat, Ryder said.

“This is a great way to work with a community so that development doesn’t permeate every nook and cranny,” Ryder said. “We’ve found that when one family gets involved and has a positive experience, it creates a domino effect, others come along, and we’re able to create a corridor of protected lands.”

Unlike industrial farm operators, who emphasize production and yield, small-family farmers often have a better understanding of the nuances of working with the ecology of the land, Ryder said. The ecological impacts of a family farm can be inherently less than an industrial farm.

For example, the easement requires landowners to maintain a 200-foot plant-and-tree buffer between the farm and the river. This captures runoff and maintains wildlife habitat. It doesn’t happen much on an industrial farm, where crops often run to river’s edge.

“Family farms are a dying tradition here and nationally,” Ryder said. “Easements are a way to keep the tradition of family farms going, while conserving habitat for wildlife and improving water quality of the river.”

A woman sits on the front steps of her childhood home with fields of corn in the background
Cookie Davis sits on the steps of her childhood home. She and her sister shared the bedroom above with the window overlooking the river. Her father planted the huge tree on the right the day Cookie went off to college. Photo © Steve Droter.

Davis wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This easement is a way of keeping our family together,” she said. “We love it here, the river and wildlife are really special to us. It’s just part of who we are.”

Darci Palmquist is a public affairs specialist for the Northeast Region in Hadley, Massachusetts.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported this Nature's Good Neighbor through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act program, which provides grants to wetlands conservation projects that increase bird populations and habitat, while supporting local economies and American traditions such as hunting, fishing, bird watching, family farming, and cattle ranching.