When your livelihood depends on healthy soil and clean water, you make it your business to manage it and implement environmentally sound strategies. That is why farmers are natural environmentalists.
For all the talk about the important Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plans, it is worth noting that most farmers in and outside of the watershed are working toward bringing their farms into compliance. Our efforts to reduce runoff reaches all the way across Pennsylvania, well beyond the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
We are interested in clean water and rich soil everywhere.
Pennsylvania has a rich history in conservation stewardship, both at the farm level and state level. This legacy is rooted in the requirement to have a conservation plan.
Meet two farmers who say it feels good to have accomplished everything in their conservation plans:
Ross Orner Jr. of Rockton, Clearfield County, works Orner Farms Inc. with his brother David Orner, cousin Frank Orner and uncle Russell Orner. They have 325 tillable acres and are transitioning out of milking cows while still raising heifers.
Set on a hill, the farm straddles the Continental Divide with water on the east flowing toward the Chesapeake Bay, and water on the west flowing toward the Gulf of Mexico.
A half mile downhill from the farm is the city of DuBois’ drinking water reservoir.
“In our mission statement for our business plan, protecting that water supply is the first thing in there,” Ross said. “That’s how strongly we feel about it. We’ve always been a good neighbor.”
Every farmer has the potential to affect drinking water. With commitment to best management practices, your farm can avoid harming water.
Years ago, representatives from DuBois asked Orner Farms Inc. for a list of all insecticides used.
“I gave them a list and said, with all our BMPs — contour strips, buffer strips and diversion ditches — we’re probably pretty safe,” Ross said. “They’ve never found a trace of anything we use that they’ve tested. That makes you feel that all the practices you put in place do something. It’s worth it.”
The farm used to plow and disk the land, but now they prepare for fall by planting cover crops, which prevent nitrates from flowing off the farm.
In 1976, the farm bought its first no-till grain drill, then in 1984 they invested in a no-till corn planter, and today they are 100% no-till and they have loads of worms to prove it.
“No-till has improved the soil,” Ross said. “You take a soil test and look at the organic matter in the soil after no-tilling. Compared to 15 years ago, it’s just amazing.”
Ross is a former member of the State Conservation Commission.
Ron Kopp of Middletown is a current commission member and serves on the Dauphin County Conservation District Board.
He has Stoney Lawn Farms in Dauphin County, a third-generation dairy farm with 170 milk cows. He raises replacement heifers, grows hay and grain, and is passionate about protecting the land.
“What is good for our land is good for our soil and our bottom line,” he said. “In years past, farmers would take corn down. And then winter rains can be very destructive; everything runs off. If you see soil on the road, that came out of the field. That is the productivity of the farm leaving the field.”
Stoney Lawn Farms has sloping land, so they installed over a mile of crop terraces and waterways, which guide water out of the field. It also has pasture land for the heifers with fencing covering the stream banks and fenced stream crossings to keep the heifers mostly out of the stream.
“That in combination with no-till have helped us transition to where we are today,” Ron said. The farm has been no-till for 20 years.
No-till allows farmers to be more efficient and productive, covering more acres with less fuel, time and manpower. It develops better soil with less sediment eroding off the field and getting into the stream.
Change does not happen overnight. It’s intentional. One project at a time, a farm grows into its conservation plan.
It took years of planning and finding funding resources for Ross and Ron to complete their conservation plans.
If your farm has not yet met all your conservation plan goals, after you catch your breath from fall harvest and getting your fall cover crops in, take time to review your conservation plan.
Forecast what part of your conversation plan you want to tackle next.
Once you identify your next conservation project, contact your local county conservation district and USDA Natural Resource Conservation offices, which provide a lot of technical and financial assistance for farmers to design and install animal manure handling systems.
You can currently find grant opportunities to cost share, including Conservation Excellence Grants for farms in the high-interest counties of Lancaster and York, and later this year in Cumberland and Franklin counties. These four counties have nearly $4 million in CEG funding currently available.
Farmers can also obtain Pennsylvania Resource Enhancement and Protection tax credits to help assist with out-of-pocket conservation best management practice installation costs not covered by various state and federal conservation grant programs. The REAP Program was allocated $10 million in credits this fiscal year, and approximately $5 million are still available for eligible farmers. When combined with cost-share funds, REAP tax credits can significantly minimize any out-of-pocket expenses for conservation BMPs.
Also, look into the USDA NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program and other federal funding opportunities.
Last year, USDA NRCS provided nearly $38 million in incentives to Pennsylvania farmers for conservation work on their farms. In the Pennsylvania Chesapeake Bay Watershed area alone, NRCS designed and helped install 91 systems in fiscal year 2020, providing more than $4 million in federal funds.
Farms with well-developed conservation plans and BMP designs are best positioned to get the funding.
I am proud of the conservation work being done by Pennsylvania farmers and want to encourage all farmers to develop and implement conservation plans. As Ross and Ron demonstrate, conservation plans are good for their family, their business and the community.