The district also honored some Upshur County schools’ Future Farmers of America chapters for their performance in district-sponsored contests, and presented a special award to Big Sandy and Hawkins Journal editor Seria Dassing for journalistic excellence.
About 100 persons attended the district’s 59th banquet at the Upshur-Rural Electric Co-op auditorium.
Established in 1941, the Gilmer-based district promotes protecting health, recreation, safety and general welfare of people by encouraging conservation of soil, water, plants and animals.
Wills, a professor at both Kilgore College and Troy University, was honored for a “huge restoration effort” on his 29-acre family farm in the Little Mound Community. He was cited for an “extremely innovative and diverse operation” consisting of grape vineyards, orchard, grazing land and wildlife land.
He removed iron ore rock, and constructed the levee system utilized in a vineyard he established. Some six of 15 acres of vineyard are complete, and progress has been made in preparing a winery.
Wills’s property contains rosemary bushes, hives of American and African bees which aid with pollination in the vineyard, and a variety of small fruit trees planted last spring: pear, peach, plum, paw paw, mayhaw and apricot.
In addition, St. Croix sheep graze pastures, while providing a natural method of weed control and fertilization between rows of grapes.
Productive woodland soils surround the property’s stock pond, while a hardwood forest provides plentiful habitat and cover for wildlife.
Wills utilized the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) in 2011, installing a fence for livestock production.
Rhodes, who is 77, was honored for work on his 964-acre “vast wildlife refuge and sanctuary” just south of Big Sandy.
He planted loblolly pine trees, including an initial planting of 268,000 seedlings. In 2009 and 2010, he participated in the United States Department of Agriculture’s EQIP program, utilizing cost- share funds to establish 198 acres of such trees.
Rhodes’s property was described as “the perfect wildlife habitat,” abounding “with a variety of population.”
To improve its deer herd, he placed five feeders on the property and feeds year round. He also stocked a 10-acre pond with thousands of fish.
In 2012, the grand property was accepted into the USDA’s Conservation Security Program, which recognizes producers who are voluntarily applying conservation practices and encourages implementing additional prescribed practices.
Rhodes was quoted as saying his relatives “understand how I feel about the land and the animals that inhabit it. I have a rule: Unless it’s a snake, don’t kill it unless you plan to eat it!”
District Conservationist Robbie Clemens presented a pictorial show on Wills and Rhodes, which she narrated. The presentation also featured some of the district’s work with youth.
The district also honored FFA chapters for their finishes in four contests the organization sponsored. They were:
• Plant ID—Union Hill No. 1 team, first place; Ore City No. 1 team, second place; Ore City No. 2 team, third place.
• Woodland Clinic—Harmony No. 1 team, first; Gilmer No. 1 team, second; Gilmer No. 2 team, third.
• Wildlife Clinic--Gilmer No. 1 team, first; Harmony No. 1 team, second; Harmony No. 2 team, third.
• Land Judging—New Diana No. 1 team, first; Ore City No. 1 team, second; Big Sandy No. 1 team, third.
A 5-member Board of Directors oversees the district—Chairman Melvin Reynolds, who presided at the banquet; Vice Chairman Harold Stone; Secretary-Treasurer Victor Hill; Steve Still and Bobby Fortson.
Longevity service awards were presented to Ms. Clemens and Stone (20 years); and to Reynolds and District Technician John Wade (15 years).
Hannah Bolt of the Union Hill FFA led the pledge of allegiance, whlile Courtney Bingham of the Ore City FFA led the pledge to the Texas flag. Javier Valdez, pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista in Gilmer, offered the invocation before the meal, catered by Longhorn Smokehouse.
Near the banquet’s conclusion, Reynolds called on former district employee David Powell for some impromptu remarks. Powell, who worked for the district 33 years, said the Upshur-Gregg SWCD has been judged “one of the best in the state.”