Rich soil and a mild climate have made the lands of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a haven for agriculture. Thousands of farms—more than any other county in the state—dot the landscape of gently rolling countryside. Traveling through the region, the fields and fences, barns and silos can begin to blur together. But venture onto the land itself, and each tract of farmland tells a unique story. For Oregon Dairy Farm in the heart of Lancaster County, the story is one of family, conservation and community.
A family-run operation, Oregon Dairy Farm is managed by George Hurst, his son Chad and his daughter and son-in-law Maria and Tim Forry. Hurst also co-owns the nearby market, restaurant and ice cream parlor with his brothers. He is the second-generation owner of the land, after his father bought the farm in the early 1950s. “I grew up here and bought the farm, bought the house where I grew up,” said Hurst. “Now my daughter, Maria, is living in that same house.”
Pennsylvania is second in the nation for number of dairy farms, outranking every state except Wisconsin. And that number continues to grow: in 2014, Pennsylvania was the only state in which the number of dairy farms increased. Though this may be good news for ice cream lovers, it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile agricultural growth with the health of the Chesapeake Bay, as agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the estuary. But for the Hurst family, protecting the Bay is an important part of the way they run their farm.
Two decades ago, the Hurst family took a visit to the Chesapeake Bay. What they saw—polluted waters and their damaging effects on local fishermen—troubled them. “When I took that tour, I knew we had to do what we can here [at Oregon Dairy Farm] to make sure we’re not polluting the Bay,” Hurst recalled. “That’s when we became even more intentional with the practices we have in place here.”
Those practices include a variety of “best management practices,” or BMPs—conservation methods that can help curb nutrients and sediment from running off agricultural land and into rivers, streams and the Bay. To protect the health of waters running through their land, the Hurst family practices no-till farming, uses cover crops, plants trees and shrubs to prevent streambank erosion and has installed fencing to keep livestock out of waterways.
As home to 500 cows, one of the farm’s biggest challenges was figuring out how to manage all the animal waste. “Because we’re a dairy, there’s lots of manure,” Hurst explained. According to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), livestock waste accounts for 19 percent of the nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorous entering the Bay. These excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and, during decomposition, rob the water of oxygen that plants and animals need to survive.
To avoid nutrient runoff, Hurst puts as much of this waste to use as possible. A methane digester collects and heats the manure, and the resulting methane gas powers a generator that produces more than enough electricity to run the farm.
After traveling through the digester, solid and liquid wastes are separated. Solid waste can be dried and used as livestock bedding or transported to the on-site composting facility. Three large hoop buildings house the compost piles, which will eventually be sold wholesale to landscapers or in Oregon Dairy’s retail lawn and garden store. Liquid waste flows to the lagoon, which holds about an eight month supply, allowing it to be applied to the land when the fields need it and will absorb it. “We make sure we aren’t putting more manure on than what will stay in place, and no more than what the soil needs or what will be taken up by the crops,” said Hurst. These innovative waste practices helped the farm win a U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award in 2015.
Since the 1980s, outside dairy farmers, school field trips and other community members have been welcome to tour—and learn from—the farm. School tours bring nearly 2,000 student visitors each year, and Family Farm Days events can draw upwards of 15,000 people a year to the farm. More than just a way of life, Hurst and his family see their farm as a way to teach others about how they care for their land.
“Our passion and vision is to help people understand where their food comes from,” said Hurst. “That’s where [the farm tours] originated and that’s really why we do what we do.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith
Warm weather is upon us, and that means people will be taking to the water to escape from the heat. Soon enough, the Chesapeake Bay will be dotted with bobbing watercrafts of all shapes and sizes. For those recreating on the Bay, the bright yellow Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) markers may be a familiar sight, but they serve as much more than eye-catching aquatic beacons: they provide key insights into the health and safety conditions of the Bay.
The first buoys were deployed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office in 2007—marking 10 locations along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Trail—and have been collecting and transmitting real-time water quality and atmospheric data ever since. “It’s [the buoy system] interpretive because we work with the National Park Service as a partner to interpret John Smith’s trail, so there is a bit of a historical aspect to it,” said Katie Kirk, Senior Buoy Specialist at Earth Resources Technology, a contractor that supplies support staff and assistance to NOAA and other government agencies.
“Our main mission is to keep the 10 buoys that we have up and alive and transmitting as often as we can and deliver the data to as many users as we can,” said Kirk in reference to her and the field team’s work. Routine maintenance and repairs on the buoy fleet presents a swath of challenges that keeps the small team of CBIBS buoy technicians busy year-round.
The life of a CBIBS buoy technician differs from day-to-day and can be a physically demanding profession. Some days are spent in their Annapolis, Md., warehouse—affectionately referred to as the ‘buoy spa’—calibrating instruments, cleaning buoys, swapping out parts and working with computer systems. Other times, the team braves the wind, waves and elements to do onsite repairs and buoy maintenance.
As the summer and fall wind down and cold weather approaches, the team removes the three northernmost buoys from the Patapsco, Susquehanna and Upper Potomac rivers before freezing conditions set in to prevent ice damage. But this winter, the southern buoys succumbed to the frigid conditions: wind gusts exceeding 50 miles-per-hour and below-freezing water temperatures caused ice from sea spray to accumulate on and topple over the buoys, something the CBIBS team had never seen before. “The buoys that were off location tipped over, cracked and no longer had power, so we couldn’t track them on the GPS to figure out where they were. That was a pretty intense time trying to figure out where the buoys had moved to and how we could get to them,” explained Kirk.
After winter, the team’s short-term goals were to get all of the buoys repaired, online and transmitting data. With that completed, Kirk is now striving to see the data being analyzed and produced in scientific papers. “It’s been done before, but I want to get back to that and try to reach out to more teachers and researchers and see if they want more buoys or buoys in different locations,” Kirk said. “Then we can take the time and think about how our system reaches out to those users, what they need from us and what they would prefer.”
While many people accessing the data are local sailors and kayakers looking for information on the wind speed, currents, wave heights and local conditions before venturing out on the water, educators also integrate the data into their curriculum. Utilizing the data for educational purposes is of utmost importance to NOAA, so much so that they have an entire education team dedicated to reaching out to local schools to demonstrate how the CBIBS data can be used in the classroom.
In addition to live reporting of local water and weather conditions, the buoy data provides a snapshot into what is happening around the Bay, demonstrating in a quantitative way how each part of the ecosystem is interrelated. Information on water temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen can help researchers uncover important linkages between water quality and blue crab stocks, fish populations, bay grass abundance and more.
Despite the many challenges that the buoy technicians face, Kirk and her team exude an air of passion and commitment to maintaining the instruments that provide the most up-to-date information about the state of the Bay, all in the name of presenting the best science. For those working to restore the estuary and those interested in learning about the issues the Bay faces, the data can serve as a useful tool.
“I think we have an amazing opportunity to protect this watershed and this bay,” said Kirk. “It goes back to resources and taking pride in where you live. This is your home, why wouldn’t you protect it?”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Video and images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente
A federal appeals court has held that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can set pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay, upholding the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) issued by the agency in 2010.
The TMDL, also known as the Bay “pollution diet,” set limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment allowed to run into the Bay each year. Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) describe the steps each of the seven Bay jurisdictions—Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia—will take to meet these goals, and are included as commitments in the recent Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
In 2011, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the National Association of Home Builders and a number of agricultural trade associations filed suit against the EPA, claiming the federal agency lacked authority to issue the TMDL. Numerous local and national partners intervened in support of the EPA, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation and others. In 2013, Pennsylvania Federal Judge Sylvia Rambo upheld the pollution limits, leading plaintiffs to appeal. On Monday, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia again upheld the TMDL as legal under the Clean Water Act.
“Water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is a complex problem currently affecting at least 17,000,000 people (with more to come),” wrote Judge Thomas L. Ambro, part of the three-judge panel that heard the appeal, in a 60-page ruling. “Congress made a judgment in the Clean Water Act that the states and the EPA could, working together, best allocate the benefits and burdens of lowering pollution.”
Learn more about the plan to reduce pollution in the Bay on the EPA’s TMDL website.
Unique among the exciting goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement is the commitment to establish 300 new public access sites in the region by 2025—the only goal specifically aimed at physically connecting people with the Bay and its tributaries. This goal is important for two reasons.
First, people care for the places they love and enjoy. As they interact with the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, they develop an appreciation for this wonderful natural resource. This leads them to become stewards and caretakers who have a vested interest in the decisions affecting local waters.
Second, there is an increasingly high demand for additional public access to the waters of the Bay and its rivers. The six watershed states—Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia—and the District of Columbia all noted a high need for additional public access in their State-wide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plans, public access plans and boating infrastructure plans. Throughout the region, water-based activities—including fishing, boating, swimming and beach use—rank among the top twelve recreational activities. Wildlife observation and views from the water’s edge are also highly desirable.
The demand for water access is also affected by the region’s growing population—now nearly 18 million—and the increasing popularity of relatively new forms of water recreation, such as kayaking, paddle boarding, kite boarding and sail boarding. Unlike larger power craft, these paddle craft are relatively inexpensive, can be easily stored and transported by one person, and may not require much more than a good path to the water’s edge to launch. When you combine these with the more traditional activities of boating, fishing, sunbathing, swimming and enjoying views from the water’s edge, it is not surprising that regional residents and visitors increasingly seek opportunities to connect with the waters of the region.
To help track and implement the goal of 300 new public access sites, sites are lumped into four major categories: boating access, which includes access for all types of water craft; fishing access, which includes fishing piers or bank fishing locations; swimming access, which includes areas specifically designated for swimming; and view access, which includes sites developed at the water’s edge to provide views out over the water or of natural areas and waterfowl. In addition to sites that transition from the land to the water, there is also a need to provide access from the water to the land. This includes points of interest along water trails, campsites, restroom facilities and places where people can explore interesting environments or just stop to picnic.
Meeting this demand and reaching the 300 site goal requires collaboration among multiple partners. While the National Park Service has been assigned the lead role in coordinating the effort, partnerships between local, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations have been essential in developing new access. One major project recently completed on the James River in Virginia involved a partnership between the local government, Dominion Power, the Chesapeake Conservancy and a state agency. On the Susquehanna River, a boat dock, wildlife viewing platform and fishing access were established at the Zimmerman Center for Heritage with support from Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Department of Transportation, with additional funding from the National Park Service and local donors. National Park Service funding for public access projects serving local communities comes through the congressionally authorized Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. This partnership approach has been a continuing pattern throughout the watershed, and it will take this approach to continue to enhance public access opportunities.
State, federal and local governments are generally the guardians of these opportunities, providing public sites where everyone can enjoy the natural and cultural bounty of the Chesapeake Bay watershed—relaxing, learning and reflecting in direct interaction with the region’s treasured waters. Some sites provide direct access to the Bay and its rivers for boating, sunbathing and swimming. Others provide spots where visitors without watercraft can fish, observe wildlife, walk trails and camp along the water’s edge. The Watershed Agreement’s public access goal reaffirms both the need for and benefits of providing citizens access to these resources.
Written by John Davy, National Park Service - Chesapeake Bay Office. John Davy is chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Public Access Planning Team.