Stories

Food and Drink

Bill Beam strode across Yoder Farm, workboots treading on the rolling, fertile fields of northeastern Pennsylvania’s farm country. After years of court battles during which this land had nearly become a nine-hole golf course, 26 houses and a commercial strip, OSI and its partners had made the farm finally, decidedly his.

Beam pointed to the edge of his property, where a strip of unruly cattails, shrubs and marsh grasses separated his fields from a little stream trickling past. “That’s one of the real stars of this show,” he says.

Though unassuming, Beam’s overgrown border—protected by the Natural Lands Trust with OSI’s support—represents a new paradigm for conserving farmland in the Delaware River Watershed region: merging farmland conservation with improving water quality. 

For many years, even as pioneering farmers worked with conservationists to slow the pace of development, these so-called “riparian buffers”—vegetated strips that run alongside waterways—have been excluded altogether from conservation easements, and even eventually razed. 

Today, OSI is spearheading protection of the buffers both within state agencies and on the ground—thereby helping protect water quality for the 15 million residents who draw drinking water from the Delaware River.

A natural filter

In 2011, the William Penn Foundation asked OSI to conserve land for wildlife, recreational access and clean water in Pennsylvania’s Highlands and New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore. Of the 6,100 acres of land since conserved with the help of OSI’s Bayshore Highlands Fund, a full 60 percent have been farms—targeted not only for productive soils but because they border streams, marshes and wetlands.

This emphasis on farmland for watershed protection reflects a simple fact. Research shows that wide buffers of natural vegetation filter out a significant percentage of silt and pollutants from farming.

Matt Beam, his father Bill Beam and Jack Stefferud of NLT at Yoder Farm
Matt Beam, his father Bill Beam and Jack Stefferud of NLT at Yoder Farm
Photo Credit: Anne Schwartz

Without permanent protection, however, the riparian buffers can be carved off and mowed over as farm ownership changes. And, many farm easements have actually required that the buffers be converted back into fields to maximize production.

Seeing a need for top-down change, OSI has facilitated negotiations with New Jersey’s State Agricultural Development Commission, helping draft contract language for permanent protection of riparian buffers while seeking pilot projects to carry out the new guidelines. Similar discussions are beginning in Pennsylvania.

“With limited state preservation funding available, it’s increasingly important that we seek out new funding partners and creative approaches to preservation wherever possible,” said Susan E. Payne, Executive Director of the New Jersey State Agriculture Development Committee.

“Our partnership with the Open Space Institute is instrumental to developing pilot projects—to demonstrate how we can work together in finding ways to effectively balance the economic needs of the working farm with the need to protect water quality.”

But for OSI

On the ground, OSI is an active grantmaker and strategist, helping to protect farm buffers along marshes and streams that empty into the Delaware River. Often, this support helps tip the scales and bring projects to close.

In the case of Yoder Farm, OSI’s partner Natural Lands Trust had worked to make the farm affordable for Beam by devising a novel, two-easement strategy: one on the 114-acre farm—which Beam would manage—and a second on the 18.5-acre buffer, with Natural Lands Trust as manager. Both the county and township had contributed funds, but they came up short until OSI granted $250,000.

“Without that grant, we wouldn’t have generated enough money for the preservation and protected the buffer adequately,” said Jack Stefferud, Natural Lands Trust’s Senior Director for Land Protection.

Across the Delaware in New Jersey’s Bayshore, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation has been at work conserving farms in the Dutch Neck region, a rich mosaic of farms, tidal marshes and woodlands along the north shore of Cumberland County’s winding Cohansey River, a Delaware River tributary.

In 2015, three farms bordering streams that the Foundation had been targeting for protection were successfully conserved after OSI matched funding from the local county.

“OSI’s funding absolutely made the difference in whether these farms were conserved,” said Matt Pisarski, head of Cumberland County’s Agricultural Preservation Program.

Leola Produce Market thrives with Amish farming products.
Leola Produce Market thrives with Amish farming products.
Photo Credit: Brett Cole

Partnering with Amish farmers

Nowhere in the Delaware River Watershed region is the problem of farm runoff more pressing than in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which contributes as much as 10 percent of all nitrogen found in the Chesapeake Bay.

Together, OSI and its partners are countering the problem with help of an unusual ally: the local Amish farming community.

Thanks in part to OSI’s support, Lancaster Farmland Trust has pioneered local farmland protection with the Amish while recording downstream economic benefits from protected riparian corridors—including decreased flooding and lowered treatment costs for drinking water.

Just ten miles away, the Brandywine Conservancy is also working with the Amish community farming high in the headwaters of the Brandywine River, which supplies water for Wilmington, Delaware. To protect 13 farms totaling almost 1,000 acres, the Brandywine Conservancy used a grant from OSI to leverage $1 million in county funds, which were at risk of being diverted to other uses.

“OSI has stretched our capabilities to protect the river valley at a much greater scale than previously,” said Brandywine Conservancy’s Associate Director David Shields.

Although OSI and its partners are making great progress in protecting riparian buffers in the Bayshore-Highlands, water quality protection does not stop with conserving land and creating the buffers.

So OSI and its partners are supporting farmers whose land management strategies minimize harm to waterways. Farmers who prevent runoff from livestock and chemicals and contain soil erosion can lead the way and achieve measurable results.

“Once you’ve got successes on the ground like this, it’s not just a theory,” said Bill Rawlyk, OSI’s Middle Atlantic Field Coordinator. “The idea is to get one farmer who sets the example, and then get the next ten farmers to join, then you get the whole stream protected.”

By forging new tools and changing the system to encourage the protection of farms together with stream corridors, OSI is making a sustained difference in protecting the landscape of the Delaware Watershed.

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