People choose The Ford Plantation for contemporary coastal living far from the frenzy of city life. But almost without exception, new member surveys reveal that a chief element of the alchemy that sets Ford apart from other properties stems from the nature that envelops, permeates, and shapes the unsurpassed beauty of Ford.
From protected wetlands to abundant wildlife, the diverse ecosystem on the property must be as inviting to creatures as it is for members. This commitment to protecting and preserving nature is evident in dedicated naturalist programs supported by staff and members—the true stewards of the land.
“The barrier islands and the marsh creates a special layer of protection for the coast,” says Brittany Dodge, the property’s on-site naturalist. “It’s important that we realize we not only need to be good stewards of the land and wildlife but also pass on that education and appreciation to our younger generations.”
Working out of what is known as the Oyster House, an unassuming cabin that once served as Henry Ford’s equivalent of a “man cave,” Dodge develops environmental education and outreach programs for members that include nature walks, plantings, and species tracking. She also conducts essential data gathering to assist the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other scientists studying declining species. Some of this data collection includes animal tagging, monitoring eagle nests, tracking manatees that venture too far up the river, and bird counting—all of which Dodge encourages participation from volunteers. “I create a lot of programs members think are fun, but they really have ecological importance,” Dodge explains. “It is very important to engage youth as well, though the adults seem even more amazed than the kids by the experiences they have and what they learn.”
BioBlitz is a program that leverages citizen scientists to identify and count as many plant, animal, and insect species as possible over a designated period. This effort creates a snapshot of an ecosystem’s biodiversity and health that can be used to benchmark trends. During the Audubon BioBlitz in 2017, Dodge established four volunteer teams of members to search for, count, and photograph various species during a two-month-long national challenge from October through November. The images were submitted to Dodge for identification and cataloging. “I ended up getting 3,000 emails from our team members asking, ‘What is this?’” she laughs. “It took me hours upon hours to figure out what all the species were but it’s made me a better naturalist because now I can identify them on sight.”
That year, The Ford Plantation teams identified 601 unique species, the highest species count of any property in Georgia. The success of this program is due to the enthusiasm and activism of the members combined with the richness of the environment. “It’s such a diverse and blooming ecosystem,” notes Dodge. “It’s beautiful from our perspective but it’s also attractive to the animals because we offer a lot of the habitat they need to thrive.”
Members are once again participating in the 2019 BioBlitz this March through April, intent on gathering data about the kind and number of species present during this particular season. Dodge uses all of this information to update the Wildlife at Ford map which documents the location of the many eagle nests, fox dens and more that she or members have spotted in the past two and a half years that Dodge has been on staff tracking such things.
Operation Pollinator, perhaps the widest reaching nature program at The Ford Plantation, functions in tandem with golf course management. The goal of this international biodiversity program is to boost the number of critically essential pollinating butterflies, bees, and birds in golf landscapes by creating natural habitats that attract them. Research shows that planting wildflowers like purple coneflower (seen on the cover), black-eyed susans, tickseed species, cosmos, corn poppy, phlox, and more in the out-of-play areas on the course attracts creatures necessary to maintain a thriving and beautiful ecosystem, advances sustainable golf course management, and enhances the appearance of the landscape, thereby making the program a win-win-win for courses, members, and creatures alike.
Bees are also excellent pollinators because they move from plant to plant, spreading the diversity of plants over large distances—something that helps make The Ford Plantation property become more and more beautiful with the passing of each year. In fact, the food and beverage team initially came up with the idea of bringing in beehives to help pollinate the local flora as part of an effort to use more natural products sourced from the property, including honey. Once construction on the new community farm in Silk Hope is complete, Executive Chef Jerry Ford and members alike will be able to once again plant, grow, and harvest natural foods for authentic farm-to-table eating.
Under the umbrella of Operation Pollinator is another innovative program called Monarchs in the Rough. As the name implies, this effort was specifically created to increase the number of monarchs—also essential pollinators— whose numbers have declined nearly 90 percent over the past two decades. The program provides seeds of key plantlife for members to spread around the golf course in out-of-play areas. For example, milkweed is essential for the reproductive cycle and as a food source for monarch butterflies nearing extinction.
“Encouraging populations of butterflies to help pollinate the environment also helps reduce water consumption and fertilizer use,” says Dodge. “In many ways, it’s the perfect chance to give back to the ecosystem what gets culled for recreational purposes.” The golf course is intended to be a place for all members, not only golfers, to enjoy. “We want the course to be a place where people can also ride around and enjoy nature or take photos,” says Dodge.
Also in support of butterflies, Dodge works with Monarchs Across Georgia to develop a certified butterfly sanctuary at the Oyster House. There she has three planter boxes that contain plants like coral bean, milkweed species, passionfruit vine, asters, goldenrod and purple coneflower where butterflies will both lay their eggs (on host plants) and feed (on nectar plants). Dodge shares information about landscaping to attract wildlife with interested members so they can grow plant species at home that will help their yards naturally attract and benefit from these stunningly beautiful and efficient pollinators.
“A lot of people don’t realize that when you encourage pollinators, you’re also reducing the amount of pollination that you have to do artificially,” Dodge points out. “A yard will be beautified by having these creatures in abundance.”
Creating Alternative Habitats
Birds and bats are also essential to the ecosystem, but their natural habitats are often the first to go when homes are built. “The number one thing people remove when they come to an area is dead trees,” admits Dodge. “But dead trees are often the habitat of many animals.” To simulate and artificially replace the habitat, there are a number of bird boxes throughout the property—owl boxes, wood duck boxes, bluebird boxes, and bat boxes—to encourage different species to remain as a safe place to raise their young.
The golf course boxes are for bluebirds, though they also house chickadees and sometimes flying squirrels. The bat boxes are positioned in key areas to keep mosquito populations in check. “One tiny brown bat can eat 1,000 mosquitoes in a single night,” says Dodge.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of The Ford Plantation’s commitment to being a good steward of the land is its dedicated effort to become Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certified. To be certified, a property must demonstrate specific actions taken regarding environmental planning, wildlife conservation and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation, water quality management, and outreach and education. With only one of those six actions remaining to complete, The Ford Plantation will be certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary for Golf community. There are fewer than 1,000 certified members nationally and The Ford Plantation is on track to become one of this elite group of conservation-minded clubs.
The fact that the naturalist program at The Ford Plantation works cooperatively with every aspect of the property from food and beverage, to golf course maintenance, to private landscaping illustrates the keen understanding that the land and its many creatures don’t belong to us—we coexist peacefully. “There is a balance to everything in nature,” says Dodge, and it’s a balance The Ford Plantation is intent on maintaining.