A husband and wife next to a sign on their Delaware farm with their dog

Wetland wonder

Crops, wildlife flourish on Delaware farm

By Megan Lang | May 9, 2018

Felton, Delaware

If ever he wondered if his family had made the right choice by restoring a wetland at their Delaware farm, Matt Spong laid that question to rest with the help of a duck.

Actually, a wood duck and her brood, seven lives that depend on the ecology at Viola Farms Inc.

“One day I saw something small bobbing in the water, and it turned out to be a female wood duck and six babies,” Spong recalled.
A mother duck leads her twelve chicks through the wetland.
A female duck leads her twelve ducklings through the wetland. Photo by Kayt Jonsson, USFWS.

At that moment, he knew: working to keep a healthy wetland paid dividends exceeding the farm’s bottom line. Matt Spong and his wife, Marilyn, are ardent proponents of protecting their wetland and the creatures that live there.

At the same time, their corn-and-soybean farm, located on the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) Peninsula, is a thriving operation. The farmers-turned-naturalists are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) as well as other agencies to make sure their wetlands remain the sort of habitat where ducks and other creatures thrive.

Viola Farms has been in Marilyn Spong’s family for well over 150 years. The changes at her farm mirror what happened to wetlands across the country. For too long, most people took wetlands for granted, said Bill Wilen, who spent 40 years working for the Service’s National Wetlands Inventory. The program provides detailed information on wetlands across the country.

Two Canada geese slowing down over the wetland for a landing
Two Canada geese coming in for a landing over the restored wetland. Photo by Kayt Jonsson, USFWS.

The wetlands, he said, began disappearing, acre by acre, as the country grew and farms spread. The Service’s first Wetlands Status and Trends report, in 1983, offered a grim assessment of American wetlands.

“The report found that there was a net loss of wetland area equal to about twice the size of New Jersey between the 1950s and 1970s,” Wilen said.

That caught federal officials’ attention, and prompted wetland policy changes, Wilen said. Some policies, contained in the U.S. Farm Bill, put money to work correcting damages of the past. Since those policies' enactment in 1985, the government has spent billions restoring wetlands, Wilen said.

Then, in 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) established the Wetlands Reserve Program. Since then, private landowners, land trusts and others have enrolled 2.7 million acres through more than 14,000 agreements — an accomplishment representing more than $4 billion in financial and technical assistance delivered by NRCS.

Some of that funding was spent at the Spong farm.

“The wetland used to just be a wet spot on our farm field,” said Matt Spong, who’s also a registered landscape architect. “Most years, crops wouldn’t grow in the wet spot or yield was poor, so we stopped farming the area and looked into other options.”

The Spongs worked with the NRCS, a branch of the USDA, and the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program to restore that marginally productive farmland to its former natural state. Their collaboration restored the wetland and surrounding upland buffer, protecting a range of living things.

A dry farm field with a barn in the background The same landscape transformed by the introduction of a wetland
Drag the handle to compare before/after photos.
A wet, low-yielding farm field transformed into a wetland. Photos by Matt Spong, Viola Farms, Inc.

That was more than 15 years ago. Now, they are reminded daily that they made the right choice.

“We see a whole lot more shorebirds and water turtles now, and we also see bald eagles that we rarely saw before the wetland was restored,” Spong said.
A fox poking it's head up from a field of wheat
A fox pokes its head out of a field of wheat. Photo by Kayt Jonsson, USFWS.

What happened at Viola Farms is not unique. The Service’s National Wetlands Inventory has tracked wetland change across the country. The findings, said Wilen, show that agriculture – once the leading cause of wetland loss — is leading the way in reversing wetland loss trends.

“This is a success story fueled by collaboration between federal and private partners that benefits not only individual land owners but all citizens,” Wilen said.

With 75 percent of the nation’s wetlands on private and tribal lands, the greatest potential for restoration lies in partnerships like this one.

A rodent's face poking up from off camera on a trail cam
A groundhog posing for a selfie. Photo captured by Matt Spong's trail cam.

The Spongs are happy with their collaboration. After finding the female wood duck and her young, the couple installed wood duck boxes designed to repel predators. They bought three wildlife cameras, just so they can keep an eye on their furry and feathered neighbors. “Thanks to the cameras we are able to identify individuals and watch their behavior,” he said.

A man making a wreath in a wooden barn with a number of other visitors
Matt Spong creating a holiday wreath in his barn. Photo courtesy of Matt Spong.

The wetland has given them a changing annual show, too. The tract is filled with water in the early spring, but the water drops in warmer weather; by summer, the land is dotted with native wildflowers that the Spongs planted. Warmer weather eventually makes way for cooler climes. By winter, the native plants have faded from a vibrant green to various shades of beige.

The Spongs have made this winter landscape part of their family’s traditional holiday celebration.

“Every year, we host 40 friends and family to make holiday wreaths using natural materials, and when we are done we all walk down to the wetland to enjoy it,” said Matt. “Marilyn’s family has been farming this land back to the 1800s, but we can’t remember what it was like to not have the wetland.

“It is an important part of our daily life,” he added.

A frozen wetland surrounded by dormant trees
The frozen wetland at Viola Farms, Inc. Photo by Matt Spong.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped support this Nature's Good Neighbor through our National Wetlands Inventory and Partners for Fish and Wildlife Programs. In addition, the USDA has provided funds for wetland easement. A phone call or email is all it takes to learn more with one of our 250 private lands biologists. If you are interested in improving habitat for fish and wildlife on your land, find your local Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Megan Lang is the chief scientist for the National Wetland Inventory Program out of Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia.