Visitors on hay wagons rode through rolling hills of corn, cover crops, and contour strips under a blazing sun in Juniata County, to get a close look and learn about conservation efforts through farmers' eyes.
The collective power of partnerships was also front and center in the exchange of ideas among the 75 farmers and local, state, and federal folks who were present.
"It is all about partnerships," Kim Coble, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's (CBF) Vice President of Environmental Protection and Restoration said of the event. "The partnership between Jay, David, and Marie to properly manage the farm; the interest shown by Congressman Marino; EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the federal offices of NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), all the way down to the staff working at the local level, and partnerships between conservation and agricultural communities is what makes the difference.
"Cleaning up our waterways is not going to happen unless we continue to work together," Coble added. "And when we work together, 'WOW-wee.' "
David and Marie Graybill hosted the farm stewardship event at Red Sunset Farm, a 400-acre dairy operation in Mifflintown. They rent the land from conservation-minded owners Jay and Alice Olephant of Washington, D.C. Congressman Tom Marino (R-PA) was on hand for the activities.
"We were honored to have Rep. Marino attend the event," said CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director Harry Campbell. "The importance of federal programs like the Farm Bill and Chesapeake Bay Program in helping Pennsylvania farmers keep soils and nutrients on the land, instead of in the water, can't be understated."
Denise Coleman, state conservationist for the NRCS of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, echoed the importance of partnerships. "It's really important for the Foundation and conservation districts to meet and outreach to these farmers so NRCS can help CBF and districts write the conservation plans and put those practices on the landscape," she told the gathering.
"In the Bay region, since the last two Farm Bills of 2008 and 2014, NRCS has spent about $890 million in financial assistance," Coleman added. "We don't have that happen without the Graybills and other farmers who match that. That means the farm community is spending over $400 million of their own money to put these practices in."
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also appreciates the exchange of ideas. "Since 2012, we've put about $10 million into agricultural practices in Pennsylvania like these that are good for the farm and good for the animals and water quality," said Kelly Shenk, agricultural advisor for EPA Region III. "To work together we have to get to know each other, and to get to know each other we need to be out on the farm. This is really where we get to talk one on one about firsthand experience with the successes of having profitable farms, food production, and clean water, and where the real challenges are."
"We are looking to provide resources through grant funding to support efforts like this and partnerships," Jake Reilly added. He is the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) program director for the Chesapeake Bay. "How can we work together at the intersection of conservation, farm operations, economic sustainability, and rural character," Reilly said. "All toward our common goals around conservation of making sure we are doing everything we can to protect and restore local rivers and streams and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay through our programs here."
The final tour of the day was of a Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) riparian buffer project, funded by a NFWF grant.
NFWF also supports CBF's Farmer Advisory Council in Pennsylvania, which sponsored the day, emphasizing conservation practices from the farmers' perspective.
"Council members looked forward to sharing their experience making extensive conservation practice investments on their own farms," said Bill Chain, senior agriculture program manager for CBF in Pennsylvania. "Farmers sought to explain how conservation management and decision-making not only improve water quality downstream but has the capacity to enhance production, animal health, and farm economic viability."
Host David Graybill is a Council member and serving his second term on the state board of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, representing Juniata, Mifflin, Perry, and Huntingdon counties.
"When Marie and I began farming here in 2000, our goal wasn't to make a lot of money, but I had to keep everything in perspective in that it has to be economically viable," Graybill said of their efforts on Red Sunset Farm. "If this farm doesn't look better the day I leave it than the day I got here, I will be unhappy."
The Graybills' dairy operation has 60 registered Holsteins and 70 replacement heifers. They produce 100 acres of corn, 100 acres soybeans, 70 acres of hay and small grains, and 20 acres of sunflowers. The property straddles the Schweyer Run and Lost Creek watersheds.
Among conservation practices in place on Red Sunset Farm and viewed by guests were barnyard stormwater measures that direct rainwater away from animal exercise areas using downspouts and gutters. Manure management practices include a stacking pad with a concrete floor and three sides to control runoff.
A 700,000-gallon manure pit, receives manure from the gutters in the stanchion barn by using a transfer pump located at the end of the barn.
For pasture management, clover seeding provides key retention of soil and nutrients. Paddocks are in place to manage rotational grazing. The strategy for producing and protecting crops and soil includes contour strips, cover crops, grass waterways, diversions, no-till practices, and crop rotations.
Perry County dairy farmer and advisory council member Dave McLaughlin was stationed at one of three informational stops for hay wagon visitors. "We don't have a runoff problem." McLaughlin said, "We have an infiltration problem" and told visitors about the value of soil health and keeping it on the land.
"My livelihood depends on that eight or 10 inches of topsoil," McLaughlin said. "If I want to maintain my livelihood, let alone pass it on to the next generation, I have to keep that soil where it is. The Susquehanna River doesn't want it. The Chesapeake Bay doesn't want it. I do."
"You have to control the good things in your environment," David Graybill added, summing up the day. "It's about being good stewards of the land, within the economics of that stewardship."