Plain Initiative Hits Goal; More Work Needed

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

LANCASTER, Pa. — Four years ago, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation embarked on a task it knew would be difficult: persuading Amish and Old Order Mennonite farmers to take government money.

The foundation surpassed its initial goal of helping 50 Plain Sect farmers, especially dairy operators, enroll in water-conservation programs, said Lamonte Garber, the foundation’s agriculture program manager for Pennsylvania. More than 60 farmers participated.

Garber recapped the success of the Plain Farmer Initiative last week at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Ag Issues Forum at the Farm and Home Center.

Plain farmers tend to steer clear of government programs, but the programs the foundation pushed are designed to improve water quality throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The nonprofit foundation launched the initiative because it recognized that Plain farmers would need to install riparian buffers, barnyard improvements, stream crossings and other improvements if Pennsylvania hoped to meet nutrient runoff goals set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Protection.

So, in conjunction with the Lancaster and Chester County conservation districts, Lancaster Farmland Trust, and other industry partners, the foundation tried to convince Plain farmers that building a healthy watershed was a worthy reason to take public money.

Although fencing animals out of streams is a fairly simple way to improve water quality that is fairly palatable to most farmers, the foundation was thinking bigger for this project, Garber said.

Many Plain farmers’ dairy buildings are old, near the road and sometimes near streams — prime conditions for water pollution, Garber said. As a result, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was particularly interested in helping clean up barnyards.

“It’s something people can see from the road. It’s something the regulators are going to see,” he said. “We want to get you to a place where if you see a DEP truck coming down your driveway,” the farmer is confident the inspector will be pleased.

While the foundation respected Amish and Mennonite reservations about government money, it also recognized that no farmer was going to listen to, or be able to afford, a plea to take $100,000 or more out of a milk-check livelihood to clean up water.

In short, the upgrades were not going to get done without government assistance.

“There’s not a really great Plan B for funding farm projects” besides NRCS programs like CREP, he said. “We knew this was going to be a hard, hard sell.”

Part of the difficulty was that barnyard improvements make more work for Plain farmers, Garber said. For example, the Amish must hook up the mules to haul manure to storage areas.

Some of the projects also seem unnecessary at first. Farmers often discount the need to build cattle walkways over small rivulets, but tiny streams are easier to clean than larger bodies like the Conestoga, he said.

Most of the farmers who worked with the Plain Farmer Initiative were Amish. Old Order Mennonites, especially from northern Lancaster County, have been more reluctant to join the program, Garber said.

Though the program officially ended April 30, “we continue to work with additional Plain Sect farmers wherever we can,” Garber said in a follow-up email.

The initiative helped implement 367 agricultural best-management practices, and 47 participants have installed buffers that are at least 35 feet wide.

The foundation is also using the Plain initiative as a springboard for larger projects. It is working with the five farmers who live along an unnamed Mill Creek tributary in eastern Lancaster County to build riparian buffers along the entirety of the creek.

“Incremental change is fine for farmers who are just getting started,” but heavily agricultural Lancaster County really needs larger projects like buffers to meet EPA expectations, Garber said.

Riparian buffers count more than stream fencing, so the foundation offers $4,000 an acre on top of CREP funding for farmers who put in 35-foot buffers on both sides of streams.

That money must be used for other conservation projects on the farm and is available to Amish and non-Amish farmers.

All farmers, whether large or small, Amish or not, need to be united in reducing the pollutant load that flows into the Chesapeake, Garber said. If Pennsylvania has not made sufficient progress by 2017, the EPA will “inflict pain” on farmers in the state, he said.

The EPA’s enforcement power is basically limited to outfits that need permits. For agriculture, the burden would fall on larger producers like concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs.

The EPA wants total-maximum-daily-load goals to be met by 2025. There may not be a gigantic amount of progress from now until then, Garber said, because riparian buffers take many years to mature. The bay will not be saved by 2025, but the states need to show that the bay will be on the right course by then.

Garber tied in the long-contested Farm Bill, saying that while cuts to the law’s entitlements are good for the federal deficit, the economizing decreases the money available for needed conservation projects.

“Pennsylvania farmers are largely responsible” for recent reductions in Chesapeake pollutants, Garber said. When the recent TMDL program began, Pennsylvania was contributing 130 million pounds of nitrogen per year. That load has dropped to 100-110 million pounds, but the goal is 78 million pounds.

Although some of the costs for the project should fall on the public because everyone benefits from a cleaner bay, “some of it should be on the backs of farmers” because they should be following best management practices, he said.

The final Ag Issues Forum of the year will be Dec. 12.

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