Township Counts on Farmers to Curb Runoff

10/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

LAMPETER, Pa. — Farmers and local government officials share a monumental task: improving Chesapeake Bay water quality by reducing runoff after storms.

Municipal leaders and professionals from five Pennsylvania counties packed the West Lampeter Township building Wednesday to learn about the rural and suburban township’s efforts to collaborate with farmers on reducing runoff loads.

The township of 15,000 residents southeast of Lancaster city wants to stay rural and is pursuing on-farm improvements in lieu of highly expensive stormwater system revamps, Terry Kauffman, a township supervisor and former county commissioner, said.

Over the past two years, staff from the nonprofit Lancaster Farmland Trust visited all of the farms over 10 acres in the township to document each farm’s use of best management practices and to listen to farmers’ concerns about the improvements needed to comply with EPA regulations.

The southeastern part of the municipality is bounded by the impaired Pequea Creek, so the township is subject to the waterway’s total maximum daily load requirements, Chuck Haley, the township engineer, said.

The farm visits coincided with the township’s effort to renew its stormwater system permit.

Kauffman said he found that the message, “We’re from government, so you can trust us” did not go far with farmers, so the supervisors enlisted the nonprofit to do the visits for them.

Stephanie Smith, the trust’s municipal outreach coordinator, said her organization was well-positioned to conduct the inventories because it has gained the trust of farmers, particularly the Plain Sect farmers who make up a large portion of West Lampeter’s growers.

The trust staff is qualified to write conservation, manure and nutrient management plans, and is seen as a resource rather than a regulator.

The Farmland Trust announced the farm visits in January 2012. Joella Garber, the stewardship coordinator with the trust who made the farm visits, said about 75 people attended the rollout meeting, and about 10 percent of the township’s farmers proactively called to schedule the on-farm assessment. The rest were mailed letters, to which many farmers responded.

Some of the visits took no longer than 10 minutes, as Garber wanted to respect the farmers’ time. Many of the visits took longer, as she allowed as much time as the farmers needed to air their concerns about the township’s approach to agricultural runoff.

During the visits, Garber recorded best management practices such as riparian buffers and manure management plans, land uses such as crop or pasture, and proximity to streams.

“It’s all about the relationship,” Garber said. “Even on the short 10-minute visits, it was still a way for West Lampeter to say, We care about what’s happening in the township.’ ”

The visits are now complete, but the trust is still processing the data it gathered. Of 93 farmers analyzed so far, 66 were compliant and most farmed within 100 feet of a stream.

Farmer feedback is helping to shape the trust’s future conservation plans. The trust is looking for ways to help farmers calculate the cost-effectiveness of improvements.

“What are corn prices? What is pasture forage worth? Maybe the farmer rents his land out. What are his rental payments?” she said.

The relationships the trust and township supervisors have built with West Lampeter farmers will help some farmers — mostly Plain Sect but also mainstream — overcome wariness of perceived government meddling, she said.

Kauffman, the supervisor, said the township’s partnership with the Farmland Trust is “the answer” to helping farms reduce runoff.

“All but one farmer communicated with us, and I think that’s pretty outstanding,” he said.

The next steps are to identify farms where future conservation work could take place and to figure out whether farmers are actually implementing their conservation plans.

Funding for future West Lampeter-Farmland Trust projects will likely need to be supplemented with private grants, Kauffman said.

Most farmers would likely prefer to work with local officials — one farmer scooters over to Kauffman’s house to talk ag — than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, so municipal governments need to take responsibility for their localities’ pollution goals, he said.

“It really requires a team effort” and creativity from township supervisors and staff to find ways to decrease runoff, he said.

It also requires a tone of helpfulness rather than fault finding. “We don’t want to become regulators,” he said.

West Lampeter also got a chance at the meeting to showcase a project in the township that has dramatically reduced sediment loads on an agricultural section of Big Spring Run near the municipal building.

Jeff Hartranft, a water program specialist with the state Department of Environmental Protection, explained that the project, sparked by Franklin & Marshall College research and completed by DEP, F&M, and a host of partners, removed thousands of cubic feet of soil from the stream bank

He said he believes the soil had piled up several feet behind one of the county’s long-gone colonial-era dams. When the creek swelled, the unnaturally high banks made the water move faster and cause more erosion.

The September 2011 excavation created a broader, lower-lying area that slows the water down and spreads it out during heavy rains, he said.

Hartranft showed photos of the new floodplain as it filled during a 2012 rainstorm. Thanks to the composition of the no-longer-buried wetland soil, the presence of wetland plants and the slower water speed, the streambed was still intact the morning after the storm.

Attendees visited the Big Spring Run site after lunch.

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