The specific objectives of this study are to:
- Develop a strategic plan for planting perennial crops in riparian buffers on unprofitable and risk-prone cropland for farms in Pennsylvania.
- Determine the water quality benefits of converting conventional annual cropland to multifunctional buffers planted with native perennial grass mixtures.
- Evaluate the potential economic benefit of planting multifunctional buffers with native grass mixtures.
- Disseminate findings outside academia—this study anticipates having relevance across and beyond the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Therefore, the results will be disseminated not only through academic journals, but through extension publications, workshops, field days, and other mechanisms that reach farmers and other stakeholders within and outside of the Bay.
The purpose of this project is to accelerate buffer plantings across the Chesapeake Bay watershed and beyond by demonstrating, documenting and disseminating perennial agricultural practices that can achieve environmental goals in synergy with farm profitability. The Chesapeake Bay has been listed on the United States Department of Environmental Protection (USEPA) Section 303(d) list of impaired waters since 1998 (USEPA 2017a). To remove the Bay’s impaired listing, federal (USEPA) and state governments (New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington D.C.) enacted the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint in 2010 establishing Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) or pollutant limits for Bay states, and Watershed Implementation Plans (WIP) for reducing pollutants including nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended sediment. As part of the plan, the Chesapeake Bay aimed to plant 900 miles of buffers annually but Bay states like Pennsylvania have consistently missed this goal. In fact, Pennsylvania has only established less than 20% of its 100,000+ acre goal with only 18,602 acres of new buffers planted since 2010 (Devereux 2018). Yet establishing buffer acres in Pennsylvania is imperative as the state supplies more than 35% of the freshwater to the Bay via the Susquehanna River and contains 19,000 miles of impaired streams (PADEP, 2016). Current estimates are that the state’s intensive agricultural systems are responsible for more than 30% of the nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution loading to the Bay, primarily by fertilizers on annual crops. The state is unlikely to get back on-track without heavy incentives for farmer buy-in like government subsidies well beyond what legislature and taxpayers have been willing to do, or new market opportunities that provide for long-term buffer profitability. State funding for subsidizing buffers has been cut annually, and new profit-generating buffer concepts like the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (DCNR) multifunctional buffer concept (DCNR, 2015) are still limited in scope and fail to link farmers to existing and growing markets. This predicament comes at a time when the northeast agricultural community is in need of the kind of economic diversification and resilience that multifunctional buffers may be able to provide. Research suggests diversifying agriculture and encouraging multifunctional agriculture could provide synergistic environmental, economic, and social benefits (Boody et al., 2005; Brown, Goetz and Fleming, 2012). The practical approach we are piloting to accelerate buffers is to target risk-prone cropland for planting multifunctional buffers with native grasses, and finance these buffers primarily through the sale of the biomass crops, with minimal government subsidies.
Two 1-acre demonstration sites were established on two farms in Central Pennsylvania in July 2018; one on Penn State land and one on a collaborating farm. These sites are planted with 4 treatments, a control (business-as-usual corn), a switchgrass mix with three cultivars, a switchgrass and Big Bluestem mix selected for strong biomass production, and a switchgrass and six pollinator-attractors mix. Both demonstration sites are equipped with tipping buckets and lysimeters to measure surface flow and collect surface and subsurface water samples. Starting in January 2019, samples were collected and analyzed for nitrate-nitrogen, total and orthophosphate, and sediment load reductions across the plots. Yield data was collected for the corn plots in 2019 and yield data will be collected for the grass plots in 2020. Water quality and yield data will be disseminated in an environmental-economic metric at the conclusion of this project. Preliminary results indicate an improvement in water quality when buffers are planted with perennial grasses compared to cropped conventionally with an annual crop like corn.
Field days and tours at the demonstration sites were held in 2019 to engage farmers, extension agents, academics, government, and conservation groups. A workshop was also held with the Chesapeake Bay Program Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee on November 14-15, 2018 to discuss perennial grasses and understand how they might help accelerate riparian buffers plantings in the Bay. The workshop included approximately 50 participants including farmers and stakeholders from academia, industry, and government. A webinar was held before the workshop to share stakeholders’ (including farmers) experiences regarding perennial grasses and buffers. A survey is planned for 2020 to assess whether farmers and stakeholders that attended field days and workshops during this project altered their practices including if they planted new acres of perennials.
This project also recently established a collaboration with Diamond Sock, a regional company producing erosion control socks from switchgrass. At present only weed-free switchgrass is approved as an alternative material in erosion control or compost socks which are traditionally filled with wood chips. The grass mixtures planted at our demonstration sites will be harvested in 2020 and tested in the company’s erosion control socks. Data will be submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). If the material is approved by DEP, this would grow the market opportunity for farmers beyond just switchgrass to more diverse native perennial grass mixtures with pollinator attractors which currently have limited to no market opportunity but provide environmental benefits to farmers and increase pollinator habitat.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
- Chesapeake Bay Program Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee Multifunctional Buffer Workshop (November 2018); 2 farmers participated
- Penn State Warm Season Grasses Field Day and Tour (September 2019); 12 farmers participated; https://extension.psu.edu/warm-season-grasses-field-day-and-tour
- Halfmoon Township buffer tour with Clearwater Conservancy (July 2019)
- Ag Progress Days buffer tour (August 2019)
- Penn State Rockview Farm Native Grasses for Water Quality Tour – PSU Nutrient Management in Agricultural Systems course (Fall 2019)
- Chesapeake Bay Program Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee pre-workshop webinar (October 2018); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqBH1dSuZBg&feature=youtu.be
- Herbstritt, S., V. Vazhnik, L. Fowler, T.L. Richard, A. Harvey, D. Nardone, P. Kleinman, S. Fanok, C. Ernst, J. Duncan, C. Hinrichs, F. Circle, S. Nicholas, T. Coulter, and, T Stark. 2019 Establishment of Multifunctional Riparian Buffers. STAC Publication Number 19-008, Edgewater, MD. 48 pp. https://www.chesapeake.org/stac/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/FINAL_STAC-Report_Multifunctional-Buffers_12.20.2019.pdf
- Penn State Rockview Farm in State College, PA
- Collaborating Farmer in State College, PA
Photos from stakeholder engagement days
Grants received that built upon this project
- Steph Herbstritt, The Energy and Environmental Sustainability Laboratories (EESL) Green Seed Student Grant. $1,840.52. Funding period: 2/13/2019 – 6/31/2019.
- Lara Fowler, Tom Richard, Steph Herbstritt, Veronika Vazhnik. Establishment of multifunctional riparian buffers: How do we accelerate the path to 95,000+ acres with the greatest economic, social and environmental impact, Chesapeake Bay Program Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (CBP STAC), $10,000. Funding period: 6/1/2018 – 2/13/2019.
- ClearWater Conservancy (Deb Nardone, Suzy Yetter, Colleen DeLong), Steph Herbstritt, Tom Richard. Using perennial biomass crops in multifunctional riparian forest buffers for improving water quality and farm profitability, Pennvest/DCNR, Grant No. BRC-RFB-24-184, $88,000. Grant period: 1/1/2019 – 12/31/2022.
New working collaborations
- Clearwater Conservancy and Penn State are now working to plant 33 acres of multifunctional buffers with native perennial grasses in Central Pennsylvania. Three sites are in the planning stages for 2020.