A large event hall at Dutch’s Daughter restaurant in Frederick, MD, surrounded by plush carpeting, tapestries on the walls and a projector screen pulled down over ornately carved wood fireplace, is an odd space to host a workshop for farmers on the value of streamside forest buffers. But local University of Maryland Extension agents assured us that a delicious meal here is one of the best ways to attract Frederick County farmers to a workshop on an icy February day.

This workshop was the first of many for the Alliance as we launch a new program for both farmers and conservation professionals. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Stroud Water Research Center have joined forces to promote the Healthy Streams Farm Stewardship Program. This effort takes a whole-farm approach to conservation planning and funding support for farmers in Maryland, as well as parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The program places a high value on riparian forest buffers, the land that serves as a link between the land and our rivers and streams. These buffers are a priority conservation practice because of their ability to immediately improve water quality as well as provide many other ecosystem services such as sustaining fish habitat, reducing air pollution and creating contiguous habitat corridors for birds and other wildlife.

By offering both financial and technical assistance to farmers through this program, the Alliance and Stroud are trying to make riparian forest buffers an integral part of the farm by helping farmers meet their conservation goals, and achieve compliance with local laws.

The program offers farmers $3,000 in “conservation vouchers” for each acre of forest buffer installed on their property, with up to $20,000 in vouchers available per farm. Farmers may use these vouchers independently or in conjunction with other cost-share programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and the National Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to install other conservation practices they desire.

This summer, we will begin offering similar assistance to participants in Central Maryland and Pennsylvania through the EQIP program.

Why forest buffers? It has been long-recognized by Chesapeake conservation leaders that forested stream buffers are essential to healthy streams and a healthy Bay.

To explain why the buffers are so critical, David Wise from Stroud told farmers at the workshop:

“I was once asked to speak after two experts talked about how managing microbes in cow stomachs could lead to healthier and more productive farms. When it was my turn, I told the farmers I was also there to talk about managing microbes but how streamside trees use microbes to provide clean water.”

What Wise was referring to are the bacteria, fungi and diatoms that only live in healthy forested streams and serve like microscopic water treatment plants, processing nutrients and organic matter in the stream.

The microbes in the streams of the Chesapeake Bay watershed evolved under a forested canopy to feed on the dissolved organic carbon that comes from tree leaves. They survive best under shaded conditions that lead to cooler temperatures during the summer and warmer temperatures during the winter.

When we remove trees and replace them with grass, these microbes find themselves in very inhospitable conditions and often disappear altogether. Forested streams are also wider than grass-lined streams, so they offer more habitat area for these microbes to live.

Because of these differences, forested streams have three to five times more biological activity and remove two to eight times more nitrogen pollution than a grass-buffered stream.

Back at our workshop, many farmers in the room worry about complying with water quality laws and staying ahead of future regulations. New nutrient management laws that restrict manure application near streams and concerns for how clean water laws will be enforced have made many farmers uncomfortable.

This fear can create a common misconception of why programs like the Alliance’s Healthy Farms program are investing in farm conservation practices. But as one farmer at the workshop clarified, “you’re not after farmers because we’re the worst offenders. You’re after farmers because we’re your best opportunity.” This is true. There are great opportunities to restore streams and fisheries by working with farmers who have a strong commitment to conservation.

On the second day of our buffer training workshop, we drew a big crowd to the University of Maryland’s Frederick Extension office. We discussed a major challenge — effective communication — when we encourage farmers to adopt riparian forest buffers as a practice on their farms. Most do not fully understand the package of farm and financial benefits that this powerful practice can provide.

To Bobby Whitescarver, retired NRCS agent and now part-time consultant and cattle farmer, the key to success is simple. As he puts it, “conservation is not science, it’s sociology.”

In his experience, farmers sign up for buffers to gain a new livestock watering system. Strategically placed watering systems can greatly enhance grazing distribution that improves stream health and allows farmers to move livestock much more readily. Second, fencing cattle out of the stream improves the overall health of the animals. Many livestock illnesses are associated with polluted water.

Getting cattle out of the stream reduces this risk of illness. Fencing cattle out of the stream also eliminates some of the places that are high risk during the calving season. “About half of the farmers I spoke with had lost a calf in a stream,” Whitescarver said, “that’s about a $1,000 loss. And the other half were probably reluctant to admit it.” Although tough to convince at first, very few farmers have ever told Whitescarver that they regret signing up for a forest buffer. Most just say, “I wish I had done it sooner.”

As the Alliance continues to offer these workshops, we hope to continue to generate interest in riparian forest buffers for farmers. Of course, a delicious warm meal won’t hurt our cause either.

Those interested in learning more about the Healthy Streams Farm Stewardship Program, should contact Craig Highfield at chighfield@allianceforthebay.org.

Jenny McGarvey is the Chesapeake Forests Program manager for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.