The Alliance has prioritized addressing environmental concerns through the agriculture supply chain within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. When Perdue’s Organic Coleman division expressed interest in partnering with the Alliance, it provided an opportunity to pilot and fund innovative best management practices (BMPs) throughout Pennsylvania. From animal waste management systems to vegetative environmental buffers (VEBs), the Alliance and Perdue have been able to mitigate environmental resource concerns, while creating a more natural environment for the poultry flocks.

Coleman Organic, Brian Eckman, Coleman Family Farmer since 2015

Animal waste management systems are a key component to a poultry operation, and are a functional way for farmers to adequately manage waste products. Numerous poultry farmers throughout PA need the addition of animal waste management systems on their farms, however, financial limitations often keep them from being able to implement them effectively. The addition of waste management facilities benefit the farmer and the environment, allowing the farmer to manage their manure and waste effectively, while keeping it out of the elements. The reduced runoff associated with these animal waste management systems directly improves water quality locally, and throughout the watershed. However, the addition of less common BMPs, such as VEBs is less common in Pennsylvania, but the Alliance and Coleman are in the process of changing that paradigm.

A wide shot of a newly-planted buffer

The newly-planted buffer, planted during a 2024 Earth Day event with Perdue Farms

Despite the numerous environmental benefits VEBs provide, it is not an established practice in PA. Along the Delmarva peninsula, VEBs are a staple BMP among poultry farmers. Delmarva poultry producers recognize the importance of conservation practices, but also understand the need for positive relationships with surrounding communities. A key function of VEBs is trapping and filtering air pollutants associated with the poultry house. By establishing a VEB, the industrial look of a poultry house can be “softened” while also mitigating the odor often associated with poultry.

The Alliance also recognizes the importance of being “neighborly” to native pollinator species and prioritizes planting native species in all Alliance VEBs. This encourages biodiversity on farms that often have little biodiversity due to agriculture production. Planting native vegetation around poultry houses is an easy way to provide the necessary habitat and food sources for pollinators. Overall, VEBs are an effective way to reduce the impact of agriculture while simultaneously improving the habitat of other wildlife species.

However, piloting innovative BMPs in new geographical areas requires various people with different expertises to work collaboratively. To aid with the initial design of the VEBs, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay partnered with Dr. Paul Patterson from Penn State. Dr. Patterson has spent over 30 years in research, development, and education of poultry science and environmental poultry management. His research has been key in documenting the environmental merits of vegetative buffers.

A person stooped over, planting a sapling in a field

Dr. Paul Patterson lends a hand during the Earth Day planting.

In 2022, with the assistance of Dr. Patterson, the Alliance piloted two VEBs on separate farms. These initial buffers have been a great success with PA farmers welcoming the addition of the VEBs. These first two buffers have opened the door for many more, with the end goal of having them be an industry standard in the near future. With continued interest from other Coleman farmers, the Alliance has planted seven VEBs so far in 2024, with over 1,500 trees and grasses being planted!

A person digs a hole in preparation to plant a tree in a field

Mike Bollinger, the farm owner where the Perdue Earth Day VEB was planted

Vegetative buffers provided measurable environmental benefits, but the aesthetic value does not go unnoticed either. Coleman farmers are excited about a chance to beautify their farms, business, or workplaces with flowering trees and shrubs. From large aromatic flowers, like those from a tulip tree, to the more delicate flower produced by the redbud tree, farmers are happy to improve the aesthetics of their farm, while also participating in conservation efforts.

Along with aesthetic value, planted buffers also provide the opportunity for “dual-use” trees and shrubs to be planted, which are often sought after by farmers. The pawpaw tree, for instance, is often a welcome addition to any VEB due to its wonderful tasting fruit. Vegetative buffers offer a unique opportunity to improve the aesthetic (and maybe taste) value of the poultry house, lower operating costs, and provide better pasture for the birds.

A person carries a bucket, shovel and saplings through a field

Paul Eberly, one of the flock managers for Perdue

Vegetative Environmental Buffers are a highly versatile practice that addresses environmental concerns, improve farmer-neighbor relations, and increase biodiversity for native pollinators and wildlife. Perdue and the Alliance have more VEB plantings planned for the future, and are excited to keep implementing them on farms throughout Pennsylvania!

Are you interested in helping these buffer planting efforts? Keep on eye out for a planting opportunity near you!