John Fischer would seem an unlikely candidate for one of Lancaster County’s most cutting-edge agricultural innovators. In his dark suit, dark hat and beard, Fischer is part of a large extended family in upper Leacock Township, a predominantly Plain-Sect community northeast of the city of Lancaster. Most of his neighbors, like Fischer, are old-order Amish farmers who run small dairy operations on modest-size farms on creeks that ultimately flow into the Susquehanna River and on to the Chesapeake Bay. First– and second-order streams in Lancaster County are among the most impaired waters in Pennsylvania.
Fischer, who is already unusual in his community for being an organic dairy farmer, has agreed to donate his streambank for a partnership project being conducted by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Lancaster County Conservation District. The project, funded by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is testing the hypothesis that planting commercially valuable species — such as willows and viburnum — in a fenced streambank corridor will not only provide Fischer with a supplemental annual income, but will also help to improve water quality and wildlife habitat along the stretch of Mill Creek that runs through his pasture.
“I like to think about the benefits. I like to see birds use this creek,” Fischer said.
He is also eager to involve his entire family in the harvesting of cut twigs, fresh and dried flowers, vines, nuts and berries this winter. Fischer and six of his eight children attended a workshop, along with Fischer and some neighbors, to learn how to weave grapevines, hazelnut twigs, viburnum berries and other native woody and herbaceous materials into wreaths, swags and flower arrangements. Working by lantern light, Annie Fischer, 14, vowed to return to the shed the next day to begin creating arrangements after her chores were finished.
In addition, Fischer, who makes “tinctures” or home medicinal remedies, on the side, will use the scented leaves and berries from the project in this endeavor.
The Alliance, together with staff from the Pequea-Mill Creek Project of the NRCS and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s State College Office, planted more than 250 trees, shrubs and perennials along 1,000 feet of creek frontage on Fischer’s property this fall.
The species planted along the streambank property include pussy willow, corkscrew willow, fantail willow, red osier dogwood, silky dogwood, mock orange, crab apples, viburnum dentatum, viburnum trilobum, river birch, bayberry, swamp rose, sweet shrub, winterberry, inkberry, butterfly bush and beautyberry (Callicarpa). Perennials planted include lamb’s ears, yarrow, purple coneflower, lavender, silver king and bee balm (Monarda).
Plantings also took place on the farm of neighbor Joe Oberholzer, about half a mile away along a first-order tributary to Mill Creek. Live stake cuttings of various willows and dogwoods were planted to control streambank erosion and provide a source of income on the farm of John Stoltzfus.The NRCS had fenced cattle out of the stream and created a 12-foot buffer on either side about eight months earlier by building a charged fence of high-tensile wire and wooden posts. Because the Amish do not use electricity, a solar charger powers the fences.
A series of wildlife counts, including small mammal trapping this December, will test whether the planted buffer provides improved habitat for birds, small mammals, amphibians, macroinvertebrates and fish.
Water quality tests, including pH, temperature, dissolved solids, nitrates and other parameters will test whether planted species trap more sediments and farm runoff than unplanted stream buffers. There is a control site on an unplanted, fenced streambank site on Mill Creek that has grown up in pasture grasses and weeds.
The Alliance will be working with each family to develop harvesting, maintenance and marketing plans for the products. While most plants won’t be ready to harvest commercially for a few years, the partners plan to cut some shrubs and trees to test different uses and markets for them.
All shrubs, trees and perennials planted under this project will be cut sustainably so that the plant remains rooted in the streambank, providing continuous benefits.
A handbook compiled by the Alliance for each participant lists each step in the project and is available to farmers who want to replicate the design of the project on their streambanks.
“Many of these farmers have been working to be better conservationists for years,” said Frank Lucas of the NRCS. “It’s nice to give the farmer something back.”