In fall of 2020, TeamAg, a private technical service provider (TSP) in Pennsylvania, introduced us to a small Amish dairy farm in the Octoraro watershed. The farm is located at the intersection of two important roads in a fairly populated area, and many could see what was happening at the farm while driving by. The farm was in urgent need of manure storage and a barnyard stabilization. Although these best management practices (BMP) are most demanded by small dairies, this farm had serious runoff issues, as the headquarters (the barn and other buildings central to the property) were directly draining to a slope that had some springs nearby. In addition, since the farm was right off of the roads, there was significant stormwater draining to the farm due to the nature of the topography.

The farmer was manually loading the manure, and then spreading it, which would take a couple hours every day. This young Amish farmer was very interested in changing his set up as he understood that this situation was not sustainable if he wanted to keep the cows and be in compliance with regulations. However, his father, the landowner, a very conservative farmer, was not sure about using financial assistance from conservation programs to complete the project.

This is a prevalent issue among Plain Sect communities that refuse to accept grant funding due to their religious beliefs. Because of that, these farming communities are behind on implementing best management practices in comparison to their non-Plain Sect peers. However, these communities, especially this very conservative one, have been more receptive of funding from nonprofit organizations, like the Alliance. Furthermore, when partnering with the corporations and dairy coops to target farmers in their supply chain, these producers are willing to move forward with a conservation project and accept funding.

In this case, this farmer was shipping his milk to Maryland Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association (MDVA), one of our best and closest partners. The MDVA sustainability team also connected with the farmer and encouraged him to complete the project. After having a deep conversation with the farmers’ father, he finally gave his approval to move forward with the project.

A large concrete container used for manure storage

New manure storage and stabilized barnyard

Planning and engineering were developed by TeamAg, a process that took approximately a year. Then, we had funding secured from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to implement the first part of the project – the manure storage. This was completed in fall of 2021, and was incredibly helpful, as the farmer no longer needed to load and spread manure almost every day. This allowed him to focus on other areas of the farm, such as crops and animal health. However, the second part of the project (barnyard stabilization) was needed, but funding was not secured at the time.

Since we already helped implement the manure storage as we were searching for more funds for the second half of the project, we saw the opportunity to implement a riparian forest buffer that would start just a few feet from the future barnyard, and would be the perfect complement, as it will capture any remaining runoff that may come from these two BMPs. Although buffers are the most effective practice to keep and improve water quality, they are sometimes not popular among farmers. Some believe that they reduce productive land, require more maintenance, or are just disliked for landscaping reasons. Therefore, to assure that the buffer is planted, we required it as a condition to secure more funding for the agriculture BMPs.

Many farmers agree to this buffer requirement since our Buffer Program offers 100% cost-share, including the fence, crossings and animal waters, maintenance, and a financial incentive that can be used towards the construction of other BMPs. In this case, the farmer was 100% on board with the buffer, and in spring of 2022, we planted a 2.7 acre buffer. This buffer will protect the springs and help to filter the stormwater that is coming from the roads. We planted this buffer with volunteers from MDVA and the farmer. Along the buffer there were some older willow trees that the farmer’s father planted years ago. They have a sentimental value to the family, in addition to helping control stormwater and protect the springs.

A field with recently planted trees and an exclusion fence

New 2.7 acre buffer with exclusion fencing

Thankfully, we were able to secure more funds from the NFWF, and in the fall of 2022, the barnyard stabilization was completed. Over $250,000 from grants were invested in these two agriculture BMPs and the buffer. The farmer also paid out of pocket approximately $25,000. These projects are very expensive and, unfortunately, farmers can not afford them. That is why having support from many organizations and funders is so important to help these communities. This project took over two years to be completed, and although it sounds like a long time, this project moved quickly, since we were able to use NFWF funds that are less restrictive than other federal or state funding programs.

Since this project is so transformative and is very visual due to its location, the neighboring farmers are already wondering how this small farm was able to do it. In this conservative community, it is very difficult to create momentum, however, by working together with multiple local partners, we are now changing the minds of conservative farms that were not willing to work with conservation organizations in the past.