“What can we do as a college and a university to work with farmers, communities and municipalities that are dealing with issues related to water quality, and really meet what we try to say are the dual goals of productive viable growing of agriculture into the future, healthy communities, and also clean rivers and streams?” asked Matt Royer, Director of the Penn State Agriculture & Environment Center at the Winter Farmers Meeting in Mount Joy, PA. The meeting was held at the Acorn Farms Conference Center located in the Chiques Creek Watershed, local tributaries which impact the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Royer says progress is being made: there is a lot of no-tilling and cover cropping going on, and even riparian buffering. The strategy relies on a mix of technical and financial assistance for farmers, technology, expanded data gathering, improved program coordination and capacity and — only when necessary — stronger enforcement and compliance measures.
“If you want to throw a wet blanket on all the good news,” says Chris Thompson, Lancaster County Conservation District, “you start talking about regulations which, in some ways, inhibits the good progress of going forward.”
On June 22, 1937, the Clean Streams Law was passed seeking to preserve and improve the purity of local waters. “That law governs a lot of what we’re doing today,” says Thompson. “The Clean Streams Law in 1937 was trying to address practices that were in place that were actually detrimental to the environment.” On May 18, 1971, Article 1, Section 27 was added to the Pennsylvania Constitution: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment.”
All farms have been required to have some type of regulation governing what they do, whether an EMS plan, an erosion-sediment control plan, a nutrient management plan, and/or a mineral management plan. Briefly, these are management tools meant to help you keep your soil on the ground instead of in the streams and guide you in what you do with manure.
Lancaster County, with its 944 square miles, has 5,500 farms. Three-fourths of the county is in agriculture. It is further populated by 1,400 streams, roughly 700 miles of them impaired largely due to agriculture. The EPA has mandated the Conservation District to inspect 10 percent of these farms each year. Three hundred letters were sent out to farmers, chosen at random, with the aim of visiting every farm once every 10 years. “But,” Thompson adds, “300 visits doesn’t add up to 5,500 farms. If you are already regulated, if you are CAFO for example, you are already being visited. So, we immediately took off about 1,500 farms…The balance is about 3,500 farmers we don’t know. We do not have a relationship.”
Pennsylvania’s Executive Director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Harry Campbell, is credited with saying, “A well-managed farm with implemented BMPs is second only to an undisturbed forest in the effort to protect the quality of the local stream.” All of the regulations cited at this meeting came into play as a result of inaction in implementing plans, or a change in practices. “Become proactive,” Thompson advises. “We don’t want another follow-up regulation to make us do something we don’t want to do.”
“I’d like to talk about the Chesapeake Bay challenges, establishing cover crops, and planting green,” Jim Hershey of the PA No-Till Alliance said, “You want to keep your ground covered 365 days a year.” As Hershey moved into cover cropping, he came to learn there’s more value than what’s growing on top of the ground — there is more to soil structure underneath. There are species which will add value to your soil and the crops you plant. Various cover crop establishment programs involve aerial seeding, high boy seeding, inter-seeding, and planting after harvest. One cover crop Hershey has found to be successful over the past three years is a five-way mix comprised of triticale, oats, Austrian winter pea, tillage radish, and crimson clover. But it has to be planted before September 30. The benefit to keeping soil busy for those 365 days is several-fold: it keeps the soil from drying out, increases water holding capacity, creation of biomass which increases organic matter, reduces weed pressure, and encourages nutrient recycling.
Lamonte Garber with the Stroud Water Research Center says, “So much of what we’re trying to do here with the Chesapeake Bay mandate and our local streams, storm water (not just with farms) deals with run-off and pollution that is mobilized when it rains.” Garber studies how streams work. The goal for farmers, he says, is not to fix the Chesapeake, but to fix nearby streams — the tributaries — and to get those streams off the so-called impaired list of PA’s Department of Environmental Resources. “As our streams are getting healthier, and we’re getting our streams closer to being taken off the dirty waters list, the streams are actually getting more effective at removing pollutants that are the problem in the first place, particularly nitrogen.”
Nitrogen, in fact, is PA’s number one challenge. Streams remove the nitrogen from the system and send them harmlessly back into the atmosphere. If you are considering a riparian buffer for your stream, Garber points out grass buffers lack many benefits. He recommends a forested riparian buffer zone with “the trees starting probably 10 feet from the stream banks and going back to a width of 100 feet, the minimum being 35 feet for each side.”