agriculture

Take Cover! (With Vegetation)

By Marguerite Huberbuffer

Take cover!

It’s a phrase you yell to protect against something headed your way. But did you ever think that phrase could be applied to pollutants? Well, it can – vegetative cover acts as a defense against non-point source (NPS) pollutants, protecting our lakes, streams, and water bodies.

Vegetative filter strips and riparian buffers  are conservation practices that help control the amount of sediment and chemicals that are transported from agricultural fields into water bodies. They slow down the speed of runoff and capture nutrients, keep more nutrient-rich topsoil on farmers’ fields, and reduces impacts on downstream ecosystems.

To improve water quality in large watersheds, conservation managers need to know what the problems are, where the pollutants originate, and what conservation practices work best.  However, investigating all of these factors at the watershed-wide level is a very difficult and complex task. This is why EPA is working with partners to supplement an existing watershed simulation model to estimate the efficiency of riparian buffers.

USDA’s watershed simulation model, Annualized Agricultural Non-Point Source Pollution (AnnAGNPS), is used to evaluate the effect of farming and conservation practices on pollutants and help decide where to put these practices.  AnnAGNPS also predicts the origin and tracks the movement of water, sediment, and chemicals to any location in the watershed.

To supplement this model, researchers from EPA, USDA, and Middle Tennessee State University developed a Geographic Information Systems–based technology that estimates the efficiency of buffers in reducing sediment loads at a watershed scale.

With the addition of this AGNPS Buffer Utility Feature  technology to the USDA model, researchers and watershed conservation managers can evaluate the placement of riparian buffers, track pollution loads to their source, and assess water quality and ecosystem services improvements across their watersheds.

Riparian buffers and other vegetative cover, such as filter strips, are considered an important, effective, and efficient conservation practice that has been shown to protect ecosystem services at a local level. However, their full impact on a watershed-scale is still subject to ongoing research.

 

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Dorothy, I Don’t Think We’re in D.C. Anymore

By Joseph Ziobro

When thinking about a typical work day at EPA, butter sculptures don’t generally come to mind. However, a visit to the 2014 Pennsylvania Farm Show forever changed my expectations.

Hosted annually in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Farm Show is the largest indoor farm show in the nation, boasting approximately 1,300 exhibits and 6,000 live animals.

Members of several EPA water programs—both from EPA headquarters in Washington and our regional office in Philadelphia—were invited to Harrisburg by PennAg Industries Association, which advocates for Pennsylvania agricultural producers. Our visit was part of EPA’s ongoing efforts to learn about agriculture and to work with rural communities and agricultural stakeholders.  We want to both help agricultural businesses and promote healthier waters.

Entering the complex, we made our way through the dense crowds. My senses were awakened immediately by the contrasting smells of cooked bacon and fresh manure. PennAg staff gave us a tour of their “Today’s Agriculture” exhibit.

A makeshift barn had been erected where cows, pigs, chickens and ducks were held in conditions that simulate livestock operation conditions. Outside of the barn, a stream, complete with live fish, had been built to demonstrate the connection between agriculture and water quality.

As we took in the exhibits, we were able to introduce ourselves to agriculture producers and business owners. Each took time to answer our questions, and ask us questions of their own. Producers discussed best practices for manure storage and application, and the importance of clean water. We asked farmers for insights into technologies or practices that would help their productivity while ensuring water quality. EPA hopes to engage and empower rural stakeholders by connecting directly with industry members to learn what producers need to thrive in an environmentally-beneficial manner.  To do that, we have to understand the conditions that producers face in the proverbial “trenches.”

Our visit left us with some important takeaways. First, our agricultural partners often go unnoticed. How many of us buy eggs without ever visiting an egg-laying operation? Second, agricultural stakeholders and EPA both want thriving businesses, healthy communities and clean water. Third, there are many more insights that EPA can glean from agribusiness, and much that we can share. Finally, every day at work without a butter sculpture is a minor letdown.

For more information about EPA’s work on animal feeding operations, visit

About the Author: Joseph Ziobro is an ORISE participant in the Rural Branch of the Water Permits Division at EPA. Joseph supports the National Permit Discharge Elimination System permit program for concentrated animal feeding operations.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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America’s Farmers and Ranchers: Our Original Conservationists

Earlier today, I was in Fresno, California in the San Joaquin Valley meeting with farmers—and even got to drive around a clean fuel burning tractor. One of my first trips as Administrator was to the Iowa State Fair, where the pork chop came in second only to the Iowan farmers I met. Since then, I’ve also traveled to Missouri and Indiana, attending agriculture roundtables to hear directly from local growers. In the meantime, my Deputy, Bob Perciasepe traveled to Louisiana to visit with farmers there. And when I can’t get to them on their farms, I make sure farmers can get to me. So when organizations like the National Farmers Union visit Washington, D.C., I make a point to try to visit with them, just like I did earlier this fall.

Administrator Gina McCarthy on a farm tour at Melkonian Brothers Ranch in Fresno, California

Administrator Gina McCarthy driving a cleaner fuel burning tractor in the San Joaquin Valley, California

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Celebrating Mushrooms, Farmers, and Watersheds in Kennett Square

By Christina Catanese

“What’s that smell?” I asked, as we got out of the car in front of my friend’s house in Kennett Square, PA.

“Oh, the mushroom compost?” Jaclyn said. “I don’t even smell that anymore.”

It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, but an earthy aroma that permeated the air the same way the culture of mushroom farming pervades this small Pennsylvania town.

Mushrooms are a way of life in Kennett Square.  Often called the Mushroom Capital of the World, mushroom farms in this area of Southeastern Pennsylvania produce the vast majority of mushrooms produced in the United States, outdone only by China in mushroom farming worldwide.  I heard some figures that mushroom farms in Chester County produce over a million pounds of mushrooms a week!

Enjoying a beautiful day in the Kennett Square community

Enjoying a beautiful day in the Kennett Square community

Every year, this proud tradition of mushroom farming is celebrated at the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival.  I attended this year’s festival a few weeks ago, where I expected to and did eat many types and forms of mushrooms (including but not limited to the classic deep fried mushroom balls, the higher brow mushroom gorgonzola hummus, and even cream of mushroom ice cream).

What I didn’t expect was to learn so much about mushroom farming itself, and its role in the health of the watershed of the Delaware River, Red and White Clay Creek, and other local streams.  Part of the festival was an exhibition that walked through the process of growing mushrooms.  It really gave me an appreciation of the amount of work these farmers have to do to grow their crops.

A mushroom farmer harvests white button mushrooms from his exhibition at the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival

A mushroom farmer harvests white button mushrooms from his exhibition at the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival

It all starts with the substrate (the material the mushrooms are grown in), which generally consists of the waste products from other agriculture industries.  This mix of manure, hay, straw, wood chips, cottonseed meal, cocoa shells, and gypsum has to be kept at just the right temperature, pH, and light conditions in indoor mushroom farms, so the right fungi thrive and the wrong ones that could spoil the crop do not.  Once the mushrooms sprouted, I couldn’t believe how fast they grew, sometimes doubling in size in a single day!

After mushrooms are harvested, the substrate material can’t be used for mushroom farming anymore.  As at any farm, this compost can be a source of runoff and enter streams if not managed properly.  Source water protection efforts in the Delaware River Basin identified mushroom farms in the watershed as a partnership opportunity to help reduce nutrient pollution and potential sources of Cryptosporidium, a pathogen often found in manure that may cause disease.  These efforts work with farmers and conservation districts to set up ways to manage this runoff and protect sources of drinking water.

Phase 2 Compost: what the spent mushroom substrate looks like after mushrooms have been harvested and before it comes to your lawn or garden

Phase 2 Compost: what the spent mushroom substrate looks like after mushrooms have been harvested and before it comes to your lawn or garden

With its high capacity to hold water and nutrients, mushroom compost can be used as compost in many applications, like crop and garden fertilization, erosion control, and stormwater management.  Fall is the best time to seed new lawns and fertilize, so if you’re embarking on this process, consider mushroom or other organic soil amendments for your plants.  Like any fertilizer, mushroom compost must be applied appropriately to avoid nutrient pollution.

 

By the end of the day at the festival, I didn’t notice the smell of the mushroom compost much anymore, either.  When I did catch a whiff, it reminded me that this compost (like the mushroom ice cream I ate) was just one stage of a much larger process of mushroom farming.  It wasn’t the beginning or end, but part of a continuing cycle of growing, harvesting, consuming, and composting…all while boosting local economies and protecting local waters along the way.

 

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Program Support. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Environmental Studies, Political Science, and Hydrogeology. When not in the office, Christina enjoys performing, choreographing and teaching modern dance.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Here in the Heartland

130815-Iowa State Fair-2 1

Here in the Heartland, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cares about fairs. All kinds of fairs:  local, county, and the “big ones” for our four states. In a region that provides a huge share of the nation’s and the world’s food, forage, fiber, and fuel, these annual gatherings in late summer and early fall give ag producers and their families a great chance to show off their work and to educate their city cousins about the realities of growing food.

Since I became the Regional Administrator for EPA’s Region 7 office, I have attended the Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri State Fairs. I spent a great day in Des Moines last month at “the fair with which none can compare,” the Iowa State Fair. Hope the attached pictures show how much fun I had, and also how much new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy valued her day at the Fair.
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Strong Farms, Clean Waters. Can Do

By Kelly Shenk

The back of my car sports two bumper stickers. One says “Save the Bay,” the other “No Farms No Food.”  When mentioning this to people, I often encounter a certain skepticism.  While I think most folks want to believe these objectives are compatible, they aren’t convinced it’s possible to have both profitable agriculture and clean waters at the same time.

A recent tour I took with the Schuylkill Action Network, or SAN, in Berks County, Pennsylvania, highlighted the SAN’s decade of work helping to keep farmers farming and the creeks that flow into Schuylkill River running clean.

Berks County farm

Berks County farm

We met two local dairy farmers who proudly showed us the extensive improvements they’ve made on their farms thanks to technical and financial assistance from the SAN and its partners like Berks Conservancy, the Berks County Conservation District, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, EPA, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the water suppliers.

The farmers put in manure storage tanks, erected fencing, created vegetative buffers, and used no-till cropping.  They raved about how these practices help them run their farms more efficiently and economically.

For example, with a manure storage tank, they don’t have to haul the manure onto the fields daily, and they can make sure they only apply the fertilizer when the crops need it.  The fencing prevents trampled stream banks and cow manure in the creek.  No-till farming means they don’t have the labor and fuel costs associated with tilling a field. During the tour, the SAN representatives emphasized to farmers that implementing these practices helps them stay competitive for the long-haul.

The SAN firmly believes thriving agriculture provides an important part of a thriving watershed, and is achieving success by involving all stakeholders in the process. Through best management practices, farms are achieving profitable, competitive agricultural operations, and clean water.

Thanks in large part to the SAN’s efforts, Berks County residents have clean water to drink and clean streams to fish, great local food to eat, a thriving agricultural economy, and even a good local beer that relies on Schuylkill River water for brewing.

I think I’ll stop talking about my bumper stickers and start pointing out the great work groups like the SAN are doing to show people what’s possible.

About the Author: Kelly Shenk is EPA Region III’s Agricultural Advisor

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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It’s All in the Mindset

By Kelly Shenk

At a recent farm tour I was on, a dairy farmer in Augusta County, Virginia said:  “Pollution isn’t related to size, it’s related to mindset.”  And the mindset of many farmers is one of innovation, creativity, and a thirst to find better ways to keep their farms profitable and local waters clean for generations to come.

Farmers compare notes at the Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Networking Forum

Farmers compare notes at the Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Networking Forum

The farm tour was part of the recent Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Networking Forum sponsored by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  It’s my favorite meeting of the year.  It’s a chance for all the grantees who receive funding from the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund to share their successes and lessons learned from their projects to restore polluted waters.  The room was filled with over 100 of the most creative thinkers from State agricultural agencies, conservation districts, non-governmental organizations, farming groups, USDA and EPA — all with a common interest in preserving our agricultural heritage, keeping farmers farming, and having clean local and Bay waters.  We all came to the meeting with the mindset that we can have it all through creativity, innovation, and strong partnerships that help us leverage funding to get the job done.

From all the energized discussions with the grantees and farmers, it was very clear to me that farmers are true innovators and problem solvers.  They have a can-do mindset in figuring out how they can run their business efficiently in a way that is good for clean water and for long-term profitability.  As this grant program has matured, so has our approach.  We are finding that there is no better way to sell farmers on ways to reduce pollution than to have fellow farmers and trusted field experts showing how innovative solutions such as manure injectors, poultry litter-to-energy technologies, and even the tried-and-true practices such as keeping cows out of the streams can keep them viable for generations to come.  I’m confident that this mindset will catch on and that we can achieve our common goals of thriving agriculture and clean waters.

About the Author: Kelly Shenk is the Agricultural Advisor for EPA Region 3.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Arsenic Arresters

By: Hudson, Brett and George

“Water is the one substance from which the earth can conceal nothing; it sucks out its innermost secrets and brings them to our very lips” (Jean Giraudoux, 1946). Water is essential for all dimensions of life. The quality of water in rivers and underground has deteriorated, due to pollution by waste and contaminants from cities, industry and agriculture.  Over one billion people lack safe water. Since water is so essential to our health, then we should strive to make our drinking water as safe as we can from contaminants.

We are a sixth grade team of three students from Whiteface, Texas. We read an article in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal concerning the high levels of arsenic in a family’s drinking water, which comes from their private well. It led to serious health problems for the entire family. Our team began researching the topic and learned that arsenic is a semi-metallic element and originates in many geological formations.  It is found in soil, river sediments, and the water supply in some regions. The groundwater of the Ogallala Aquifer supplies all our water at the tap, and for irrigating cotton, peanuts, and wheat crops of Texas. Arsenic-contaminated groundwater constitutes a health problem.  The EPA acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb).  Inorganic arsenic is a human carcinogen that is linked to liver, lung, kidney, bladder and skin cancers as well as Type 2 diabetes. Arsenic, according to the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, is considered the number one environmental chemical of concern for human health in the U. S. and worldwide.

In the agricultural region where we live, the drinking water has arsenic values from 11-30 parts per billion. Our team is researching and testing different methods to reduce the amount of arsenic in our drinking water and our soil. We are working with environmental scientists from Texas Tech University and West Texas A & M University to find solutions.

Is there anyone else concerned about this problem? Is any research being done in your area?  Are you an expert in this field who would share information with us? We are called the Arsenic Arresters and we are interested in educating others and decreasing the risk of arsenic contamination.

Hudson, Brett, and George enjoy working outside, being with family, playing basketball, and playing Minecraft when they’re not saving the world from arsenic contamination!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Up Close and Personal with Where Breakfast Comes From

By Kelly Shenk and Matt Johnston

Kelly:

PennAg Industries Association contacted me as soon as I became EPA Region 3’s Agricultural Advisor and offered me the chance to get out in the field to visit three farms.  I assembled a team predominantly comprised of Chesapeake Bay Watershed Modelers to learn first-hand from farmers about their success and challenges of growing food in a safe, humane, and environmentally sound manner.  PennAg provided an experience that I know we’ll all take with us in our careers and personal lives, as demonstrated by Matt Johnston in this blog.

Learning from farmers on the PennAg farm tour

Matt:
It is all too easy to forget where our food comes from.  Every Saturday as a young boy I awoke to the smells of bacon and eggs coming from the kitchen.  By the time I got to the table, my mother had already set my place with two eggs sunny side up, two pieces of extra crispy bacon, a piece of toast and a glass of milk.  It’s a menu familiar to many of us and served weekend after weekend in homes across America.

Never once did I stop to think about how my breakfast got there.  Never once did I consider the animal production side of the equation – the side that includes thousands of workers, millions of animals, and tons of feed and manure.  Last week while on a tour of farms with colleagues, I was reminded of the other side of that equation in very personal ways.

The first stop on our tour was an egg layer facility. Conveyer belts criss-crossed a three-story tall warehouse seamlessly transporting eggs to an adjacent packing facility from the millions of hens that were stacked in cages and spread out over an area larger than a football field.  All the while, another set of belts sent the byproduct of our food production in the opposite direction, depositing the poultry litter in two-to-three story high piles.  When confronted with mounds of litter taller than your house, you begin to realize the inevitable byproducts of our Saturday morning meals.

This lesson was repeated at a nursery pig raising facility, where I jumped at the opportunity to hold an adorable young pig when the tour leader offered.  Unfortunately, the pig did not share my excitement and promptly announced its disgust by soiling my clothing with manure.  All the while, under my feet was a concrete holding tank full of the same viscous substance ready to be pumped out and transported to a nearby field.

Visiting the pigs on the PennAg farm tour

Our last stop was a small dairy.  There were no large holding tanks or conveyor belts constructing piles.  Instead, there was a single farmer with a few small pieces of equipment, a small barnyard, and a few adjacent fields.  Without the resources to stack or store manure, the farmer can only do one thing with it – spread it.  This is the way farmers have farmed for hundreds of years.

Whether the manure is stacked, buried, or spread, it is real.  What is now clear to me is that it is not the devil.  It’s a necessary byproduct of our society’s growing consumption of animal products.  However, like all byproducts of production, it can be harmful in high doses.

Yet we have the tools to lessen its impact.  We can spread manure according to nutrient management plan recommendations.  We can plant grasses and trees along waterways to intercept nutrients.  And we can work with farmers to make proper storage and handling equipment available.

After all, the manure is not going away, and I’m not going to stop eating eggs and bacon with my glass of milk on Saturday morning.

Learning from Farmers on the PennAg farm tour

About the Authors: Kelly Shenk is EPA Region 3’s Agricultural Advisor.  Matt Johnston is a Nonpoint Source Data Analyst with the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Embarking into the Christina River Basin

By Andrea Bennett

Flowing through rolling hills, forests and farms, small and big towns, the Brandywine, White Clay and Red Clay Creeks, and the Christina River constitute the watershed of the Christina River Basin, which then empties into the Delaware River. This beautiful watershed is historically significant as a site where Revolutionary battles were fought, as well as the area where one of America’s most famous painters, Andrew Wyeth, flourished.  This watershed also provides over 100 million gallons of drinking water per day for over 500,000 people in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Barclay Hoopes Dairy Farm Before and After Restoration

Barclay Hoopes Dairy Farm Before and After Restoration

Many nonprofit and governmental organizations are implementing projects and programs to protect the watershed and its sources of drinking water.  Several years ago, these groups received an EPA Targeted Watershed Grant of $1 million to support the health of the watershed by restoring streams and installing agricultural and stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs) to reduce runoff flowing into streams and groundwater.

I had the opportunity to see some of these BMPs in action recently on the annual Christina River Basin Bus Tour, sponsored by the Chester County Conservation District (CCCD), the Brandywine Valley Association, the Water  Resources Agency at the University of Delaware, and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. As we traveled through the watershed, Bob Struble, executive director of the Brandywine Valley Association, pointed out stream restoration and watershed protection projects.

At the Barclay Hoopes dairy farm, Mr. Hoopes showed us 1,500 feet of stream bank fencing installed to reduce manure loading to White Clay Creek. United Water Delaware and the City of Newark worked with the CCCD to install these fences to help prevent Cryptosporidium (a protozoan that can cause gastrointestinal illness) from entering the water.

We also stopped at the Stroud Water Research Center where we saw a brand new LEED-certified education building – the Moorhead Environmental Complex. The Center manages stormwater run-off through natural landscaping with porous surfaces, a green roof, and rain gardens with native vegetation.  The new building has a plethora of energy efficient technologies, including radiant heating, natural ventilation, solar power, and high efficiency windows.  Wherever possible, the center uses materials that were found locally, sustainably harvested, reclaimed, or recycled, and have low emissions of pollutants.

Kennett Square Golf Course Before and After Restoration

Kennett Square Golf Course Before and After Restoration

We visited the Kennett Square Golf Course and Country Club where Paul Stead,  the Superintendent, gave us a tour of the stream bank and flood plain restoration of the section of Red Clay Creek, which flows through the golf course. Because Mr. Stead educated the club membership about the importance of protecting the watershed, this project was funded not only by a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Growing Greener Grant, but also by members of the golf club itself. The result is improved flood control, less impact to Red Clay Creek during storm events, and a more scenic golf course.

These are just some of the projects going on right now in the beautiful Christina River Basin.  Not only do they help to protect sources of drinking water, they also ensure that the basin remains a wonderful place to visit. The basin is one of my favorite places to go kayaking, hiking, and birding, and it’s easy to see how the White Clay Creek was designated as a National Wild and Scenic River in 2000.

As I left Myrick Conservation Center that day, it was fitting that I saw a Bald Eagle, a national symbol of America’s environmental treasures.  It’s one more reason to protect the waters of the Christina River Basin, so that eagles, as well as humans, have a clean and safe water resource today and in the future.

About the Author: Andrea Bennett has been with EPA for over twenty years as an Environmental Scientist in the region’s Water Protection Division.  Prior to joining EPA, she conducted ornithological research and produced films. When outside of the office Andrea enjoys birding and playing the mandolin.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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