We are a diversified permaculture farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We grow cider apples, and other fruit; berries, mushrooms, veggies and herbs; raise pork and ducks for meat and eggs. We have been in operation since 2016. Our goal is to create an ecological niche for our agricultural pursuits to thrive. Restoring the pond back to health was an important step.
Our goals are to restore a debilitated man-made pond using permaculture design principles, and reintegrate it as a central part of the whole farm water management system.
The pond, and connected drain tile, were originally installed with an outdated model for water management, which accelerates the flow of water downhill to the pond, into the near by ravine, and into the Cuyahoga River. Current status includes poor soil conditions, erosion, flood/drought cycle in the fields and in the pond, and loss of topsoil into the river. Our plan includes using biological and mechanical methods (in lieu of chemical treatment) to restore the oxygen level and ecological diversity in the pond, improve soil health around the edges of the pond and in the adjacent fields, and introduce these ideas to farmers and the community of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where our farm, and our watershed are. The results will include: enhanced agricultural activity around the pond, enhanced wildlife habitat, and an innovative model for the community to learn water management.
- Rehabilitate the pond to support a healthy fish population.
- Stabilize the water flow in riparian buffer surrounding pond.
- Share findings during field days with farmers, Park staff and volunteers, and community.
Common wisdom, and ODNR, prescribe chemical treatment of the pond for three years, to reduce weed pressure, followed by dredging, high impact practice, to increase depth of pond and reduce organic matter. We would like to propose a pond rehabilitation that minimizes inputs. Our planned activities include:
- Cut down 60-80% of vegetation around the edge of the pond, to allow more sunlight onto the water, and also to reduce the organic matter falling into water.
- Use 20’ arm excavator to pull out 80% organic matter, such as rotting logs and cattails from the edge of pond, leave sufficient wildlife habitat.
- Build up spillway of pond, which has slowly washed away, and build up height of pond by 3’, from 8’ to 11’.
- Increase oxygen level with a wind-powered aerator.
- Introduce 10 grass carp and 20 tilapia to the pond. They will consume much of the bottom and mid level water vegetation such as duckweed and leaf litter dropped by the trees on the edge of the water.
- Provide shelter for 50 ducks on the pond, to help manage the vegetation such as invasive cattails around the edges of the pond, to manage the insect and other small fauna population, and provide an agricultural product without relying on inputs for water and food.
- Restore wide riparian buffer. Plant annual cover crops uphill from pond, to help build soil, absorb water in place, and slow the rate of rainwater flowing into the pond. Plant cover crops around the disturbed edge (~20ft wide) of the pond, and downhill from restored spillway, to regenerate soil and introduce productive plants and wildlife habitat.
Cover crops will be planted at least twice, with a diverse mix that is suitable for improving water absorption, building organic biomass, feeding ducks, attracting pollinators, and maybe even providing forage.
In year 1 we achieved:
- Used 24′ excavator to pull out all the cattails, deadwood, etc, removed 80% of vegetation around edge of pond. Laid the materials strategically on contour for wildlife habitat.
- Built up spillway, and low spot on opposite side. Installed overflow pipe.
- Seeded/shallow tilled in cover crop mix around the riparian buffer.
- Installed 16′ windmill aerator.
- Maintained a flock of 50 ducks on/near the pond. Worked on a portable design.
- We were not able to start excavation work until early June due to scheduling conflicts with contractor, and also due to wet conditions.
- To install the overflow pipe, and also to make the clearing of edge more effective, the contractor sliced through the large dam, and partially dredged the pond. the summer and fall did not provide enough rainfall until December for the pond to fill back up. Thus, we did not measure the depth or oxygen levels in 2019.
- The cover crops had poor germination, but in areas did well, especially radish and sunflowers. This was expected, because of the heavily excavated/compacted clay soils.
- The windmill worked as expected, with near-constant oxygen bubbles on the surface of the pond. If after further monitoring we wanted to increase/accelerate the affect of windmill on oxygen levels, we could consider adding extra diaphragm.
- There was not sufficient soil in place to build up spillway sufficiently, in our estimation. Now that the pond is filled, that is becoming more visible, where the water level has plenty of room to increase on the one side with the dam, but is already at capacity on the other side where the spillway is. We will either cut the overflow pipe shorter, to lower the total water level, or will have to find more fill dirt, to build up bank even more.
- The disbursed grant funds did not allow us to complete the final design for the duck shelter. We will afford to invest further in 2020. As well, we found that having the shelter on land worked well enough, for the predators that we have had so far. The Muscovy ducks fly, which also helps against predation. We were also more easily able to collect daily eggs. Based on evaluation, we will reconsider the best design for our ducks, to help with pond, but also to remain economically productive on the farm.
Goals for 2020:
- Work with CVNP staff to create a better monitoring schedule for pond. In April, measure the depth and oxygen levels. Gage when to introduce Tilapia.
- Monitor tilapia through the summer, and implement the recommended monitoring schedule for pond health. Create a longer term strategy for introducing fish, and improving the overall health of the pond.
- In spring, as early as possible, till in annual cover crop mix around riparian buffer. Repeat this throughout the year, with additional annual mix, or with perennial mix, depending on evaluation of initial spring seeding.
- Introduce ducks back to the pond in intentional ‘mob grazing’ style, to balance their usefulness for weed suppression and their tendency to ‘muck up’ the edges too much. Finalize the ducks’ rotation around the farm, and what shelter is best suited.
Educational & Outreach Activities
In May 2019, right before the excavator work began, 14 staff members with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Conservation Department came for a field day. This meeting was organized via internal communications, because the department scheduled their quarterly field day with advance interest to visit the project site. The conversation with these staff members and the department as a whole is ongoing. For example, post field day, two park botanists spent 3 hours over the course of two days, monitoring the various frog populations around the edges of the pond, to help us better understand the ecological niches our farm provides. The park provided feedback about the limitations of using triploid carp for weed control.
In September 2019 we hosted 20 CVNP volunteers for their annual field day. This event was promoted by the Conservancy for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, with advance interest to hold their event at the project site and learn more about our water conservation efforts. The promotion was via email to all the park’s volunteers. The volunteers are considered CVNP ambassadors, and will continue to include information about our farm’s conservation methods in their conversations with park visitors.
We hosted an additional 3 tours, in June, August, and November 2019. These were advertised via Facebook, and our email list, simply as Open Houses and Tour. The language that related to the pond read: we will lead a tour around the orchard, and the pond, and discuss the permaculture approach to water conservation on the farm. They were open to the public, and had variable attendance of 45 total.
We made several social media posts regarding the progress of the project, and included the information in our seasonal email newsletter. Our farm’s supporters appreciate learning and knowing that we focus on the health of the whole farm system. the newsletter reaches 160 individuals, social media posts reach approximately 300 individuals.
Our learnings so far in the project are:
- The pond restoration will take more than 24 months, but this grant provides an invaluable jump start.
- We learned more about the context and history of such ponds. They were commonly built in the 1960s for fire insurance purposes. The design was not considered beyond the shallow goals. For example, an overflow pipe was never installed, and the edges were never well managed.
- This project has affected our overall farm operation, because we are beginning to develop a longer term strategy for incorporating the pond’s value throughout the farm. For example, a simple solar pump can be installed to pump water to livestock, or to pump water uphill for the purpose of creating an ongoing downhill flow back into the pond. Flowing water on the farm has the potential to expand ecological niches and agricultural opportunity.
- The unexpected challenge came in working with our landlord, National Park Service. In our proposal we depended heavily on triploid amurs (grass carp) for controlling weeds at the bottom of the pond. Unfortunately, these fish are forbidden in federal ponds, and we did not learn this until project implementation. We will evaluate the usefulness of tilapia alone. And will strategize alternate means of managing pond health.
- Working with partners and stakeholders slows down the process, but we are hopeful in the end the project will be improved with more expert input. For example, monitoring for the project will improve in 2020 with input from NPS, even though they are also responsible for limiting us on the fish of choice. On the other hand, OSU professor who initially dedicated time to participate in the pond monitoring, was able to provide only very minimal input because of other responsibilities.
Advice to farmers considering to restore/manage a pond: if more funds were available, and we knew that the grass carp weren’t allowed, we would have decided to go with the full dredging of the pond. The initial earthworks, and soil disturbance, if needed to some extent, might as well be used to their full extent.
On the other hand, we are seeing enough transformation with our current methods to keep us hopeful. On a final note, we are only 9 months into the project, and will report back.
This project provided an opportunity for our farm to work more closely with National Park Service staff.
Evaluating the use of Tilapia for weed management has value. But, it would also be great to compare against other fish, specifically triploid carp.
Finally, what is the compatibility of the two fish together for managing a pond?