Michael McMahon walked between two adjacent fields of tall, swaying corn in Homer, New York, to point out an invisible boundary running through his family farm.
Water to the north of that boundary, he explained, eventually flows into Skaneateles Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. But any rain or snow falling to the south ends up in Factory Brook, which flows into the Tioughnioga River, then the Chenango River, the Susquehanna River, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.
About 30 percent of McMahon’s E-Z Acres Farm, which Michael McMahon owns with his brother Peter McMahon, feeds into the water supply of the city of Syracuse. The larger southern section rests above the groundwater aquifer that is the only water supply for the village of Homer, which abuts the southern end of the farm and is home to 25,000 people. As their business has grown, the McMahons’ awareness of their farm’s potential impact on their neighbors has led them to be fervent stewards and engage their community—for the benefit of both local streams and faraway bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay.
“The end of our tillable land is only about 200 yards from the big municipal well (in Homer),” McMahon said. “It’s extremely productive ground, but at the same time you could be really doing some damage if you weren’t conscious of it.”
E-Z Acres began with McMahon’s father in 1957, a dairy operation with 160 acres and just eight heifers. Now, their 2,500 acres stretch across much of the valley above Homer in Cortland County.
“The 1400 head that are on the place today all come from those eight heifers,” McMahon said. “We never purchased any animals.”
McMahon says that early advice from his father made it easier to adopt nutrient management practices when the dairy consolidated four separate facilities into one large operation about 20 years ago.
“Even back, as far back as the 60s, we were taught from our dad that you get manure on all the fields, you don’t just concentrate on where it’s easiest and quickest,” McMahon said. “So it was easy for us to transition to a CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] where we have all those plans there in the blue notebooks that tell us exactly what field, what time of the year, how many gallons, all of that.”
In 1997, after the consolidation, the McMahons decided to start testing water for nitrates and phosphorus quarterly at five different sites in the valley.
“Nobody ever told us we had to do this,” McMahon said. “But, we just wanted to know if our agronomic practices were in line, that we weren’t going to see spikes in nitrates in well water.”
The tests are also useful for easing worried minds of residents in Homer, and where foul smells wafting from farm fields sometimes cause worries about water quality.
“You’ll get concerns and typically it’s odor-initiated, when we’re spreading manure,” McMahon said.
McMahon said E-Z Acres has grown by purchasing neighboring farms as they have come for sale over the past several decades, and their management practices have extended to these lands. For example, he observed that every farm they bought had its own dump—something his father never believed a farm should have. E-Z Acres subsequently cleared all those dumps.
About five miles of a stream called Factory Brook runs through E-Z Acres, and McMahon said that they have made a concentrated effort to protect what is nearest their cropland, which he estimated at about three and a half to four miles. They have let the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) establish riparian buffers on both sides of Factory Brook by bringing children from 4-H clubs to plant willow wattles, or shrubs. They have also granted public access through DEC for a section of Factory Brook.
“In many cases the farms that we purchased, you know people were cropping right up to the edge, you know, spreading their manure and stuff like that,” McMahon said. “Where we do farm near the stream, we keep that land in permanent grass as opposed to turning the soil over and putting in a row crop,” McMahon said.
McMahon credited his home state as becoming a leader in the Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts by first addressing local watershed issues, which meant that his farm already had many practices in place by the time the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) in 2010.
“And maybe I’m just biased because I’m in New York, but we got involved in the Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM) program in New York way back in the 80s when they first thought of it.” McMahon said. “We cleaned up dumps. We looked at chemical storage. We did a lot of things way back before it was ever thought to be mandated. And that was all part of New York State’s own program, and not just for the sake of the Chesapeake but for the sake of all watersheds. And we felt at the time I mean we knew that we sat over an aquifer and that we were kind of responsible for keeping the water clean for all these people who either have private or public water supplies derived from this.”
McMahon says they are motivated by trying to “stay ahead of that curve” and “be good neighbors.” For their efforts, the McMahons were awarded the 2015 Agricultural Environmental Management Award by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
E-Z Acres hosts open houses regularly, and every June they welcome all of the fifth grade students in the county—about 400 for each of two days.
“So, that’s a ball,” McMahon said. “In many cases it’s the one and only chance a lot of those kids will have to ever see where milk comes from. So we think it’s a good idea to embrace the community, engage the community and be part of it.”
Text, Photos and Video by Will Parson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
Four rural communities in the Chesapeake Bay region will receive more than $34 million in financial assistance to improve their water and wastewater infrastructure, thanks to loans and grants provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development Water & Environmental Programs.
Earlier this week, the USDA announced it will invest $331 million to support 85 infrastructure projects across 39 states and American Samoa. The agency’s Water & Environmental Programs provide financing to support drinking water and waste disposal systems in rural communities of 10,000 or fewer residents.
More than $34 million of these investments will go to communities in the Bay watershed, supporting a biosolids treatment facility in Talbot County, Maryland; water and sewer system improvements in Wayne County, Pennsylvania; sewer repair and replacement in Caroline County, Virginia; and a sewer system improvement project in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
Of the 85 projects, 21 of them—including the project in Caroline County, Virginia—are located in StrikeForce areas. Launched in 2010, StrikeForce is the USDA’s initiative to address persistent poverty in rural areas across the United States.
Canada geese fly along the Mattaponi River in Walkerton, Virginia. The characteristic honking and “V”-shaped flying pattern of Canada geese are distinctive sounds and sights of autumn in the Chesapeake region.
As part of the Atlantic Flyway—one of the major bird migration routes in the United States—the Chesapeake Bay is an important stopover for migrating geese. But these migratory birds are not the only type of Canada geese found in the area. While many flocks leave the area in early spring to return to their northern breeding grounds, countless others remain year-round. “Resident” geese, as they’re known, may appear nearly identical to their migratory relatives, but they actually make up a distinct population.
Most resident geese originated from flocks that were brought to the Chesapeake region in the early 1900s, through government stocking programs and for use as live decoys. These non-migratory geese are typically larger, begin breeding at a younger age and produce more eggs than their migratory counterparts. And because they tend to live in urban and suburban areas—like lawns, parks and golf courses—resident geese are less likely to be exposed to hunting, meaning they live longer as well.
In the Bay region and beyond, populations of resident Canada geese have grown exponentially since the mid-20th century, bringing with them a variety of environmental problems: from threatening the health of waterways and humans with their droppings to overgrazing on aquatic vegetation that might otherwise sustain migratory birds on their long journeys. Both resident and migratory Canada geese are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but experts have worked to identify ways to reduce the damage caused by resident geese. The National Park Service, for example, sought public comments last year on its plan to use border collies to chase away Canada geese on the National Mall.
Image by Will Parson
Chesapeake Bay Program partners are welcoming the review of new high-resolution land use data for all 206 counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The data will inform the partnership’s next generation of models used to estimate nutrient and sediment loads and to credit efforts to reduce those pollutants from draining into the nation’s largest estuary.
The high-resolution mapping of land use—such as residential areas, agricultural lands, streamside forests, parking lots and roads—is a critical component of the Bay Program’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model, used to inform restoration activities and support local, state and regional decision making across the region. The latest version of this model, Phase 6, is currently under development and review. To continually improve our understanding of the landscape, Bay Program partners have been working to incorporate the most accurate land use information available into this updated version.
Over the past two years, the Bay Program worked with local government partners in all the Chesapeake Bay watershed counties and major municipalities to ask for access to local land cover, land use, parcel and zoning data. Thanks to the commitment from our local partners, local land data were collected from over 80 percent of local jurisdictions. In parallel, Bay Program partners funded the development of new high-resolution data on land cover—such as impervious surfaces, tree cover and water—for the entire watershed. This unprecedented work, carried out by the Chesapeake Conservancy, the University of Vermont and World View Solutions, mapped out land cover across more than 80,000 square miles at a one-square-meter resolution. This land cover data was then combined with the information provided by numerous local governments to produce a detailed land use dataset for each county.
To ensure that local land use and parcel data has been correctly interpreted, Bay Program partners are seeking input on these final land use datasets. While open to all interested parties, this review process is especially intended for local governments to participate.
As datasets for each county become ready for review during the last week of October and the first week of November, they are being made available on the U.S. Geological Survey’s Phase 6 Land Use Review Application website. Reviewers will have four weeks to review once a dataset has been posted, but fatal flaw comments are due two weeks after data are made available. Once the data have been reviewed and finalized, the high resolution land cover and land use datasets will be made available free-of-charge to local governments and the public. In addition, Bay Program partners will be making available extensive data on past land cover and land use (from 1984 to 2013), as well as comprehensive geographic coverages of federal lands, sewer service areas, regulated stormwater areas and combined sewer overflow areas, all mapped at similar local scales within each county.
The current review is part of the Bay Program’s larger and long-term commitment to regular updated mapping of Chesapeake Bay watershed counties’ high resolution land cover and land use data to be repeated on a periodic basis. Local government representatives are encouraged to stay engaged in future efforts to continually improve data accuracy. All these future high resolution land cover and land use data sets will continue to be made available to local governments and the public free-of-charge.
Local governments will be able to use the full suite of high resolution land cover and land use data for their own purposes in making better, more well-informed decisions on where to carry out stream restoration projects, plant stream side forests, place easements and permanently conserve lands, as well as to inform comprehensive plans and future zoning and development decisions.
For additional information on the land use data and how to provide feedback, a pre-recorded webinar is available online. Questions and requests for further information can be directed to Lindsey Gordon at Gordon.Lindsey@epa.gov and (410) 295-1380.