Then, just as now, farming within sight of the Chesapeake Bay and several creeks and tributaries, soil and water conservation play a major role in the operation’s success.
“It’s an increasing part of everything you do now,” Sturgis said. “You’ve got to be be a good neighbor.”
Tri-S Farms, which now stands for him and his two sons, Kyle and Jarrett, has been practicing no-till since the 1970s and continually adds conservation practices, working with the Eastern Shore Soil and Water Conservation District, that help the environment and the farm’s bottom line.
At the end of last year, Sturgis was recognized for conservation efforts with one of 10 Grand Basin Clean Water Farm awards from Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Sturgis has about 1,000 acres in his operation, growing corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum, but also does custom farming work on another 2,000 acres.
On the land, he’s using cover crops, buffer systems, retention ponds with water control structures and diverting ditches to keep water and nutrients from leaving the land.
Precision agriculture tools play a role, too.
He uses section control on his sprayer to reduce overlap in the fields and last year started soil mapping fields with a Veris machine and said he’s already realized significant savings in fertilizer.
He’s also installed a 12-acre pollinator habitat in a hard-to-irrigate part of a field. Similarly, a neighbor began keeping bee colonies on the farm.
In the water, Sturgis is a partner in C&S Seafood, raising millions of clams for Cherrystone Aqua Farms annually for decades.
“I’ve got a dog in the fight every way you look at it,” Sturgis said. “All my land is either on the Bay or on (Cherrystone) Creek. I’m just doing what we should be doing.”
The area’s history and character also play a role in Sturgis’ stewardship. Many of the properties he farms have homes that date back centuries and owners intent of preserving them.
“All these are very old historic farms and they have a lot of value and a lot of meaning to the people who own them,” Sturgis said. “All farmland is precious but the historical value means a lot to me. I consider it a privilege to farm this land.”
Along with putting the practices in play on the ground, Sturgis continually promotes their use to other farmers and the non-farming public.
He serves as president of both the Northampton County Farm Bureau and the Virginia Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services and is involved in other local and state farm organizations.
“Steve Sturgis richly deserves the Grand Basin/Clean Water Farm Award as he truly exemplifies an outstanding steward of the land and water on the Eastern Shore of Virginia,” said Robin Rich-Coates, ESSWCD chairperson. “He is an excellent role model for other farmers and landowners by advocating conservation in agriculture.”
Cole Charnock, an ESSCWD conservation planner who helped prepare the nomination, said Sturgis’ combination of advocacy and implementation made him a prime candidate.
“Though he participates in the DCR cost-share program through the District as well as NRCS programs, he voluntarily implements many other methods of conservation such as no-till, cover crops and buffer systems,” said Charnock. “His positions in several other programs and organizations to educate and promote conservation throughout the community characterize him as going above and beyond as a steward of environmental preservation.”
Sturgis said though he and other farmers may do more than what’s required on some practices, there remain some people and groups that contend he hasn’t done enough.
“Some folks will say ‘well, your buffer’s 15 feet, it should be 100 feet,’” Sturgis said. “To those people I say ‘prove to me that that is better than what I’m doing.”
Relying on the state and federal technical assistance from the conservation district help him make a lot of conservation decisions on the land he manages. “They’re the ones that are in the business of doing it,” he said.
The award came with a yellow and blue metal sign Sturgis mounted on a post at the edge of his driveway.
“I’m proud of it. But I put it up there for people driving by to see that farmers in general are doing things that help the water, not just me,” he said.