It was a cold snowy day in December when almost 400 farmers gathered at a smorgasbord in eastern Lancaster County for the ELANCO Region Source Water Collaborative Workshop. For those of us who face the challenge of getting the message out about watershed protection and restoration it was clearly a sight to behold.

Most of the farmers who gathered were from the Plain Sect, meaning, among other things, that they do not drive automobiles. Thus they arrived by buggy, bicycle or perhaps hired driver. This was a group of hardy people, or as keynote speaker Ray Archuleta of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said, these people are “non-fragile.” They know how to survive and they don’t expect things to be easy.

As we embark on the next generation of the Bay cleanup effort, perhaps these farmers have something to teach us. We all need to become a little more non-fragile. The work we’re doing is getting harder. The easy stuff has, for the most part, been done and for the public and for policy makers, there is some “Bay restoration fatigue” that makes communicating the urgency and importance of these issues even more of a challenge.

So, how, you might ask, did the organizers succeed in getting such a great turnout to a source water protection event called “Protecting Your Water Begins with Your Land?” The cynics among us might say it was the food and that may be true for a few. Shady Maple’s Smorgasbord is legendary after all! Perhaps it was the cover crop seed raffle, although few knew ahead of time that was going to happen. So what was it?

Some ventured a guess that it was fear of the almighty regulator but this was a local workshop organized by local government officials and staff and community leaders, many of whom are the farmers’ friends and neighbors.

This neighbor-to-neighbor connection, it turns out, is the real reason so many people showed up. That spirit of fellowship is what left many of the farmers beaming with delight at the end of the day. This workshop was not the brainchild of a federal or state agency. This workshop dealt with a local issue, drinking water protection, in a way the community could relate to, namely farm sustainability and economic vitality.

And what about the Bay you may ask? Well, that was the interesting thing. Sure, the Chesapeake Bay will benefit and the need for just the kind of action discussed is what the Bay cleanup is all about.

But the Bay only came up at the end of the day, as a passing reference from an Amish farmer who had been involved in the EPA’s compliance audits in the Watson Run watershed several years ago. He talked about how the things that farmers are being asked to do will help them be more viable and they might even help the Bay in the process.

Nothing more was said but the most important message got through. Many went home believing they could do more to help themselves and in the process they’ll help protect the community’s water supply and they might even help the Bay.

The success of this event underscores an issue taken up at a recent joint meeting of the Citizen’s and Local Government Advisory committees to the Chesapeake Executive Council, namely that communications about the protection and restoration of the Bay must be done in the context of local issues and concerns. Employing a tool called Conversation Mapping, members of the two advisory committees generated ideas, questions and concerns about local communications.

Several themes emerged from the exercise, which may help advance the efforts of communities working throughout the watershed.

Perhaps the most significant idea that came out of the exercise is that those of us working on solving Bay issues must find a way to talk about the Bay in the context of what is important to the community.

We may need to set aside our priority to ensure that we recognize first what is on the local agenda. Equally important is building trust to have your message heard.

In eastern Lancaster County, the issue was the sustainability of farming. That is how local government officials were able to get almost 400 farmers to sit in a banquet hall for the better part of a day last December.

This is something that community organizers have known for some time — local engagement begins first with listening to and discussing what is important to people who live and work in the community.

Howard County, MD, was worried about stormwater, but it was a lack of jobs for young people that concerned People Acting Together in Howard (PATH), a coalition of faith-based organizations. Working together, the result was a youth employment program called Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth or READY. Funded by Howard County and administered by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, READY trains and puts youth to work installing rain gardens. The result is nearly 50 young adults so far with marketable job skills and an understanding of the importance of watershed protection in addition to the stormwater runoff that is not reaching the Bay.

As the Citizen’s and Local Government Advisory committees discussed and as the Lancaster ELANCO meeting and READY program clearly demonstrate, understanding the specific needs, concerns and culture of local communities is the key to moving from apathy or resistance, to action and civic engagement on the environment.

Perhaps the lesson for all of us is that to be successful in engaging local communities throughout the watershed — from the headwaters of the Susquehanna in New York to the headwaters of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers in West Virginia and all of the places in between — we need to take more time to listen and learn.

Do you know what’s keeping your community up at night?