Tioga County, New York, might be 250 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, but it is no less important to the estuary's health.
Ninety-nine percent of the county is within the Chesapeake watershed, which means that nearly all of its streams and rivers flow into the Susquehanna River and eventually the Bay. Over a third of that land mass is used for agriculture (over 500 farms total), and as with any farming community, keeping local water clean is never easy.
The nutrients used in crop fertilizers can runoff into waterways, causing bursts of algae growth that block sunlight from reaching other plants. This algae dies off just as quickly and sucks oxygen out of the water. Livestock from farms sometimes have access to streams which causes bank erosion and sediment runoff. At the same time, manure from the cows contributes to the same nutrient pollution caused by fertilizers.
While all of these impacts can be lessened by farming installing conservation practices such as planting trees or building a manure pit—actions we refer to as Best Management Practices, or BMPs—they can be costly and challenging to implement. For Tioga County, this is where the Tioga County Soil and Water Conservation District (Tioga SWCD) comes in. A member of the larger Upper Susquehanna Coalition (USC), the Tioga SWCD team works hand-in-hand with farmers to identify solutions that work best for them. When additional staff, funding or guidance is needed, Tioga SWCD receives support from USC, ensuring the best possible solutions for the farmers that need them.
In 2021 alone, Tioga SWCD worked with over 40 farms on various level of planning and execution, implementing 1,403 acres of cover crops on 12 farms, 31.6 acres of tree buffers on six farms, 7.7 acres of wetland creation and restoration at four farms—along with many other BMPs. The following are just three exciting projects from the past several years.
Farmers leading the way in BMP implementation
Before Marvin Moyer purchased an additional 90+ acres of farmland for Twin Brook Farm, he was already doing a lot to safeguard the streams on his property. Moyer runs a rotational grazing system where cows graze on sectioned-off parts of the property. Because the land is used for grazing, much of the property is covered with diverse perennial species, which absorbs nutrient runoff and enriches the soil.
Recently, Moyer increased his property to 160+ acres, but found that along one of the streams was a raised stretch of land known as a “berm.” The berm made it impossible for Mower to plant anything, which meant lost acres of production. It also acted as a wall between the stream and the land which increased the velocity of the water, creating erosion issues.
Working with Tioga SWCD, Moyer got the funds to remove the berm and plant trees in its place, which provide an abundance of water quality benefits. But even with the new trees, Mower still came away with more active farmland than before.
“This was a more proactive approach to allow the farmer to extend his good stewardship onto more ground while still addressing a stream corridor,” said Danielle Singer, Water Quality and Nutrient Management Specialist with Tioga County SWCD.
To keep cows out of the nearby stream, Tioga SWCD also installed 11,000 feet of fencing and two new watering systems to hydrate the herd.
“I want to help solve the problem and not be a part of it,” said Moyer. “I want to be the solution.”
Elsewhere in Tioga County, the SWCD worked with farmer Jim Simmons to install similar practices. Simmons bringing in dairy heifers to graze in the summer and these cows were also getting into the nearby stream, so he and Tioga SWCD decided to put in stream exclusion fencing and set up an alternative watering system. As a way for Simmons to provide matching grant funds, he built the fence and watering system himself with guidance from Tioga SWCD.
Simmons also agreed to give up some farmland near the stream and plant trees and shrubs there. As part of the grant contract agreement with Tioga SWCD and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Simmons agreed to maintain the tree buffer, as necessary, until the trees and shrubs become established.
“I like watching the buffer grow and know that it will have a great impact on the stream and wildlife near my home,” said Simmons.
Farther north, owners of Bottomland Farm contacted Tioga SWCD after purchasing a piece of property that was used mainly for corn and soybean production. They wanted to use the area for rotational grazing for chickens and goats, which would help improve the water quality of their stream, which runs into the sizable Owego Creek. With funding from the state’s Agriculture Environmental Management program, Tioga SWCD helped design the grazing system and install the necessary pasture, fencing and watering system.
Through the project, Tioga SWCD also worked with the USC to restore a wetland area near the stream. Wetlands, which include marsh, grass and other vegetative areas between land and water, absorb nutrient runoff, reduce flooding and provide wildlife habitat. Restoring wetlands on farms is a benefit to farmers but also a great way to meet the watershed’s broader wetlands goal.
On Bottomland Farm, Tioga SWCD also used a contractor to plant 4.3 acres of trees along the stream. While this buffer takes away potential grazing space, the farmers appreciate the long-term benefits of retaining natural habitat.
According to Bill Morse who owns the farm alongside Becca Rimmel there is some research out there to suggest that buffers and natural spaces help to decrease the likelihood of hawks targeting a farm's chickens. The biodiversity and habitat provided by the trees attracts songbirds, which hawks will prey on instead. The song birds eat elderberries and rodents, which the trees support. “It’s a self-perpetuating system that way,” said Morse.
Working toward a greater conservation goal in New York
Like all jurisdictions within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, New York made a commitment to reduce the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution flowing from their waters and into the Bay. Each of these jurisdictions has a Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) that outlines how they plan to meet nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reduction by 2025.
Farm management in areas such as Tioga County go a long way toward helping New York meet its WIP goals. But these broader Chesapeake Bay watershed objectives are also in line with local, state and county needs.
“The practices we are doing from a WIP standpoint are the same practices we’d be doing to address local needs,” said Wendy Walsh of the USC.
Each year, Chesapeake Bay Program funding is made available for this work through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund. This grant, administered by the National Fish & Wildlife Federation, has allocated money to the USC for various agricultural practices in the watershed, including Tioga County and elsewhere in New York.