For some growers, that is the question

It’s been scientifically shown that some excess sediment, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and other pollutants associated with human land use can be diverted from small streams – the source of most of the nation’s freshwater – with a riparian forest acting as a buffer zone or filtration barrier.

“Buffers are BMP, whether you’re growing beans or [raising] beef, and for mostly the same reasons,” says Bern Sweeney, director, president and senior research scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pa.

Centuries ago, all around Pennsylvania, on vast tracts of land once called Penn’s Woods, some of the first forest to disappear was streamside riparian forest. Mostly, this was because it served as a wood source, but the land was also cleared for agricultural use and to provide access to irrigation.

In 1985, the Food Security Act established the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). It provided funds to remove some 45 million acres of highly erosive land from agricultural production and to establish stream borders of grass or trees.

Since 1998, a further extension, the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), has been billed as a premier conservation program. Early in 2005, Pennsylvania became the first state to mandate riparian trees to qualify for the state’s CRP subsidy.

Lamonte Garber, Pennsylvania’s agriculture program manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), speaks of the Buffer-Bonus Program for Plain Sect Farms in the Conestoga, Pequea, Octoraro and other watersheds. “With CREP, we have a federally funded program that enables us to build quality forested buffers at a net profit to the landowner, given that it also pays rent for the ground that’s taken out of production,” he explains.

The bonus provides an additional $4,000 for every acre of a CREP buffer, payable as a BMP (best management practice) Voucher. The funds must be used for other conservation work on the farm.

The bonus program attempts to promote buffers among Amish and Conservative Mennonites in soil-and-stream-rich Lancaster and Chester counties. Many are interested, but they’re not necessarily acting on that interest. Traditionally, the move has been a hard sell among these groups, because they would prefer to actively manage and harvest the buffers, which is unacceptable in the program.

Still, buffers are as relevant for fruit, nut and vegetable growers as for livestock and crop producers.

“Buffers are BMP, whether you’re growing beans or [raising] beef, and for mostly the same reasons,” says Bern Sweeney, director, president and senior research scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, Pa., which has authored many studies on the value of buffers, an essential part of stream and Chesapeake Bay restoration. Since 1997, CBF has helped reforest about 2,000 miles (covering 25,000 acres) of streams in Pennsylvania.

However, Garber is clear that enrollment is not as strong as it was in CREP’s earlier years, and vegetable, fruit and nut producers haven’t been a particularly strong audience.

Searching for solutions

Based on geography, CREP dictates a certain number of trees and shrubs per acre, and tubes are required.

At Briar Hollow Farm in Lincoln University, Pa., an Amish operation grows a full line of market vegetables – most notably sweet corn, beans and tomatoes – and raises livestock. Issac E. Stoltzfus has 49 acres left after parceling off two 10-acre sections for two sons. Henry has the orchards – peaches, apples and Asian pears – at Clover Hill Farms. Abram operates Windy Acres Farm. The youngest of Stoltzfus’ seven children, Levi, 19, remains with his father, but often feels the tug from his brothers.

Briar Hollow was so named because when Stoltzfus bought the property in 1980, it was all briars, mostly multiflora rose, and the soil was depleted. “It was like a war [taming it],” he says. “My work is never done, and then I’m always getting into new things like this.”

He’s speaking of pursuing a forested buffer along 9 acres of Little Elk Creek. All spring he had visits from CBF, Stroud and other officials associated with CREP, a program a downstream neighbor has adopted, but one Stoltzfus is ambivalent about. He is interested mainly in memory of a friend, David MacLeod, a tree lover who died in a car accident this past summer.

Among the Amish, there’s a clear dual necessity to planting trees as a buffer: to help ecology and improve water quality, but also to foster viable economic return to the grower. “I’ve been interested in talking about it, but like David told me, ‘Ike, we can dress up that stream and make an example of Little Elk Creek, but in ways other than CREP.'”

Stoltzfus has observed the neighbor’s, and flatly told those who have come knocking, “I do not want that on my farm.”

MacLeod’s experience with CREP, according to Stoltzfus, was “unsatisfactory.” Just 16 percent of thousands of trees that he planted in growing tubes survived. “He became desperate for something different,” Stoltzfus says. “One solution does not fit all.”

Among MacLeod’s ideas was that trees, if given a chance, would grow naturally on their own rather than in protective tubes. Though not Amish, as a friend of the sect, he also stressed that they could plant trees and continue to use the space for pasture and/or crops “and keep the land productive,” as Stoltzfus says. “I’m just learning and feel like a fish out of water with David gone, but I’m fascinated by his ideas.”

Among the Amish, there’s a clear dual necessity to planting trees as a buffer: to help ecology and improve water quality, but also to foster viable economic return to the grower.

As an example of natural tree growth, he points out an island in his creek now bordered by willow trees. The island created itself, and the trees have grown around it, though none of it prevented six high-water events last year that continue to cave in the banks and alter the creek’s flow. He’d like to plant trees to control the stream’s shape and flow, but CREP would argue that the water will go where it will go. He’s trying to prevent flood damage and lost pasture. And even with the mob grazing that he’s begun, his cows always have access to the creek, another CREP no-no.

To make the stream corridor “useful,” Stoltzfus says he would consider intentional planting of trees like sugar maples for maple syrup production, or even a long-term investment in holly trees or winterberry for seasonal cuttings to sell to florists. Other possible choices are pawpaws for their edible fruit, elderberries for jellies and jams, or even swamp oaks, because they were MacLeod’s favorite tree.

CREP has a list of native species, and some produce edibles, Garber says, but the program forbids harvesting for commercial purposes. Based on geography, CREP also dictates a certain number of trees and shrubs per acre – 125 per acre in Lancaster County, 80 percent of which must be trees that are planted 20 feet apart, according to CREP specialist Ashley Spotts. Tubes are required.

“I’m not condemning CREP, but we would like to see production,” Stoltzfus says. “I would think a program like that would sell itself – plantings that are productive on that land, not plantings on land that’s set aside.”

MacLeod also argued the benefit of closely planting trees in clustered rows in mulched beds, then over time culling some for replanting elsewhere, or growing trees out to maturity and using them for firewood sales. Fenced off on either side with strands of high-tensile wire, Stoltzfus can envision livestock poking under to feed and weed those beds. Even if the plantings are apple trees, the good apples would go to market, the bad for apple cider, and those beyond bad to hogs feeding beneath.

“David had really smart ideas,” says Dale Hendricks, who co-founded North Creek Nurseries, a major propagation nursery in Landenberg, Pa., and now runs Green Light Plants, a smaller wholesale organic nursery in Landenberg that focuses on edibles. “Many of these ideas seem like new tricks, but they’re really old tricks that are being rediscovered.”

The long-converted

At Natural Landscapes Nursery, a 25-year endeavor in nearby West Grove, Pa., Jim Plyler’s use of shrub and tree line plantings on 44 acres provides an example of what MacLeod preached. Plyler’s plantings include pure American chestnut trees and the rare Franklinia. Discovered by botanists John and William Bartram and named for their father’s friend Benjamin Franklin, the tree is extinct in the wild.

Stoltzfus’ recent visits have been to discuss what natives to plant streamside, with the dual goal of planting for conservation and to make money. Along the walking tour, Plyler asks, “How do you grow a healthy stream?” Stoltzfus’ response indicates that he’s a willing convert: “We plant trees along it.”

Whether Plyler is using tree lines as windbreaks and shade or as a future woodlot, he says having a stream without trees is like “putting cattle out without a pasture.”

“You have to have woods by the streams,” says Plyler. “It’s the way it was for hundreds of years before the forests were cut down.”

It was far easier to remove the forest than it will ever be to restore it, especially with the invasives and blights that have crept into native landscapes. Plyler says he’s helped a few CREP clients and acknowledges that “it’s a way to do it, and that’s a good thing,” but for someone making a living in agriculture, there should be other solutions. “We can do better,” he says.

Jim MacKenzie of Octoraro Native Plant Nursery in Kirkwood, Pa., sells a lot of trees for buffers, and admits that while the state has already enrolled a large amount of its CREP acres, he’s seen a pretty substantial decrease in demand for CREP plants lately. However, he’s seen a slight increase in demand for CREP projects this fall as CBF and others are making inroads into the Amish community and getting them signed up. “This is a significant feat,” he says.

Stoltzfus remains optimistic that he’ll find the right fit for his family’s farms. “I don’t have all the answers,” he says. “I’m just interested in practicing.”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.