Turkey Hill Dairy leads way on Lancaster County, PA, farms

These Holstein heifers belong to an Amish dairy farm that supplies milk to the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association. As part of its contract with Turkey Hill Dairy, the cooperative must ensure that its providers not only have conservation plans but implement the practices contained in plans. (Jenna Mackley / Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay)

Lancaster County, PA, is an astonishing county. Of the 650,000 acres that make up the county, 425,000 acres are used agriculturally. The county is home to almost 6,000 farms, of which 99 percent are owned locally.

Lancaster is ranked No. 1 in the United States for productivity on non-irrigated soil and the value of market products sold annually is $1.5 billion. Farms in Lancaster County provide pork, poultry, eggs and milk for millions of consumers.

These great numbers do not come without a cost, though. More than half of Lancaster County’s 1,400 miles of streams are impaired.

Take a look at any pollutant-loading map and Lancaster is easy to find. Clearly outlined, without any political boundaries, the county shows up bright red for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. Lancaster County, alone, is responsible for 21 percent of the nitrogen load in Pennsylvania’s Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan.

While it has been a state requirement for all farms to have an Agricultural Erosion and Sedimentation or Conservation plan since 1972, it is estimated that only about half of the county’s 6,000 farms have a plan.

Increased pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has resulted in a greater focus on compliance efforts from conservation districts in the state. Lancaster County has the largest conservation district staff in the state. But at current capacity, it is estimated that it would take 30 years to support every farmer in the county in obtaining a conservation plan. Resources for implementation continue to be a challenge, but new leadership rising in the private sector could be the game changer that is needed.

John Cox, the president of Turkey Hill Dairy, an ice cream distributor founded and headquartered in Lancaster County, is stepping up. Cox has been passionate about Lancaster’s waterways for quite some time, and serves as the chair of the Lancaster Clean Water Partners, an organization that coordinates water quality restoration work along with many other partners in the county.

After attending an Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay Businesses for the Bay Forum that urged companies to consider how they could change their operations to improve water quality, Cox was inspired to think about Turkey Hill’s direct impact.

Knowing that Turkey Hill is Lancaster’s largest dairy distributor, and that dairy has one of the largest footprints in Lancaster, it became clear that their focus needed to be on their farmers. Turkey Hill does not work directly with its farmers, though, and receives its milk from a dairy cooperative. A dairy cooperative or co-op, is a business comprised of a collective of farmers that market their milk together.

Timing was on Cox’s side, because Turkey Hill’s reconsideration of its environmental footprint coincided with the rebidding of its contract with dairy cooperatives.

During their contract negotiations, Cox and his team added requirements that all farmers providing milk to Turkey Hill would not only have a conservation plan, but would be implementing the practices written into the plan. Once all farmers achieved this, Turkey Hill would pay a premium for the higher quality product. The Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association, Inc., which has members in Lancaster, PA, responded positively to the idea, and was selected as Turkey Hill’s dairy co-op.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and Turkey Hill had partnered to receive a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service to support the farmers who could not afford the cost of a plan and subsequent implementation. Turkey Hill has prioritized helping and supporting their farmers in achieving this goal together.

This leadership led to the Turkey Hill Clean Water Partnership, which includes the Turkey Hill team working alongside the Maryland & Virginia co-op and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and has as its goal providing their farmers with the best support possible. This partnership hit the ground running in the winter 2017–18, and started with strategizing how to best inform and support Turkey Hill’s farmers. Both Maryland Virginia field staff and the Pennsylvania office of the Alliance have met with all of Turkey Hill’s 130 farmers to explain the new goal and discuss options for assistance. The goal is for all of the farmers supported by the NRCS grant to have the required conservation plans in place by winter 2019. The Alliance is in the process of seeking additional funding and resources to support the farmers’ implementation of conservation practices on these 130 farms.

The Alliance believes that the most impactful results come from diverse and collaborative partnerships. We know that by working alongside our partners, we can accomplish much more than we could alone. Providing farmers with the technical assistance and resources to establish and implement conservation plans supports them in improving their farm’s functionality while also improving the health of Lancaster County’s streams, rivers and ecosystems. The Alliance is thrilled to be involved in this project, which is a holistic partnership between the public and private sector.

Turkey Hill is leading by example and impacting a systems-level change in how the dairy industry operates in Lancaster. Their leadership is going to catapult the county forward in achieving their conservation goals. When the public and private sectors work together in partnership, our ability to scale up implementation is tremendously enhanced. Leadership from within the private sector, like Turkey Hill’s, is the catalyst that Lancaster County, the State of Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay have been waiting for.

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

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