Don English strode along the mowed path through his streamside buffer on Happy Hollow Farm in southcentral Pennsylvania with the confidence of an experienced tour guide. The tiny headwater stream of Deer Creek gurgled by, hardly visible in the tangled sprays of goldenrod and deep purple bergamot growing tall in the sunny spaces between larger trees and shrubs.

Streamside buffer with multiple functions

Don English and his dog take a morning walk along a mowed path in the streamside buffer he and his wife Ann planted five years ago on family land in York County, PA. The buffer, which contains trees and plants to protect water quality, also grows nuts, berries, fruit and flowers that could be sold to consumers. 

It was August, and monarch butterflies and bees were still flitting about. The blueberries were gone, and the elderberries were not quite ripe.

Stopping, he leaned on stacked beehives, pointing out the native trees and shrubs — about 80 species in all — and announced that the bees had collected enough pollen from the explosion of flowers here to generate 70 pounds of honey so far this year.

The 4-acre streamside buffer designed by his landscape architect wife, Ann, filters pollutants from stormwater and provides wildlife habitat. It also generates nuts, berries, honey and syrup — a bounty that could also deliver a financial return. 

It truly is multitasking.

“When I designed [the buffer], I had never heard the term ‘forest farming’ before,” Ann said. “When I did, I said, ‘hey that’s what we’re doing.’ ”

Planting streamside buffers is an important strategy for improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay region. These strips of trees, shrubs and grasses secure the soil, filter toxins and absorb nitrogen and phosphorus that would otherwise be carried into streams by stormwater.

On farms, though, planting buffers often means taking land out of production. In recent years, farmers have become increasingly reluctant to do so.

Pennsylvania is far behind in its Bay cleanup goals, and its catch-up strategy relies in part on planting 95,000 new acres of buffers by 2025. The state hopes to boost those plantings by promoting a compromise: buffers that yield a cash crop.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has put money behind the concept by including funds for “multifunctional buffers” in a grant program launched in 2017. So far, the program has helped fund about 350 acres of new buffers — both multifunctional and conventional — in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Bay watershed at a cost of $1.6 million.

“Our program is sort of unique in the Bay region,” said Tracey Coulter, the DCNR agroforestry coordinator. “We are embracing this idea, and we are funding it.”

Swallowtail butterfly

Pollinators like this swallowtail butterfly have plenty to choose from in this Pennsylvania streamside buffer designed to feed wildlife and humans as well as protect water quality. The 5-year-old buffer on Happy Hollow Farm is often toured by agricultural groups and conservationists interested in taking on similar projects. 

The idea is gaining interest. Various tour groups have been funneled through the Englishes’ farm to see firsthand a mature and productive multifunctional buffer. DCNR staff and grant recipients account for some of the visitors, but Don said the largest groups have been members of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

The long-term goal is to entice more farmers to plant buffers, a critical step in reaching the state’s 2025 goal.

Most buffer plantings on farmland are funded by the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which provides annual payments for converting cropland to streamside buffers. But CREP participation has declined, in part because farmers are reluctant to retire cropland. CREP also prohibits generating income from buffers. With state support for multifunction buffers, which can still produce a harvest, advocates hope more farmers might plant buffers.

In the meantime, the multifunction concept is attracting a variety of landowners, and officials are tracking results.

“Right now we’re trying to get buffers in the ground and we’re documenting cost, growth and yields, if any,” said Kelly Rossiter, the DCNR Rivers Program Specialist.

She said buffers might become more valuable over time because they could produce some crops, such as blueberries and elderberries, within a few years, and others, such as chestnuts, walnuts and hazelnuts, as they mature.

Surprisingly, the grant program was able to launch despite the legislature’s consistent cuts to environmental programs. To do so, the DCNR partnered with the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, a pseudo-state organization known as PennVest, which manages revolving loans for water quality projects.

Multifunction stream buffers offer food for thought for PA farms

Don English takes a stroll and removes protective tree tubes from the multifunctional buffer he and wife Ann planted five years ago in York County, PA. 

Executive Director Brion Johnson said the funds contributed to the grant program are an investment to help PennVest learn if the buffers can eventually produce enough revenue to pay back a loan.

“I am optimistic that it will pay off, but there is no data to support a business plan at this time,” Johnson said.

Multifunction buffers may produce edible products and potential income, but their effectiveness at filtering pollution may be less than that of a conventional forest buffer.

Bernard Sweeney, a senior research scientist and former director of the Stroud Water Research Center in Chester County, PA, said that buffers lose some of the pollution-fighting power when they are partially planted with forbs or shrubs. He cited a 2014 study that looked at how well various buffers reduced the amount of toxins reaching waterways. Results showed that wider buffers generally removed more pollutants, and shrubs removed up to two times the amount of pollutants as grass. But trees removed up to three times as much as grass and shrubs.

“I personally would love to see at least 35 feet of canopy trees next to the stream with the crop trees providing additional width outside of that core buffer,” Sweeney said. “However, life is a compromise and, if a narrower core of canopy trees is all that a given landowner can provide, then it is a good starting point that we can later build upon to get where we need to be.”

The DCNR grant program provides more flexibility on buffer width and plant types than other state and federal programs to make it more appealing to more landowners. But the grant terms stipulate that buffers must be a minimum of 35 feet wide, with the first 15 feet planted with large tree species. The landowner must also commit to keeping the buffer intact for 25 years.

The research community is getting involved, too. In November, the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee of the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program partnership brought together scientists, farmers and nonprofit organizations to discuss multifunctional buffers. Lara Fowler, a Penn State Law School professor and STAC member said about 50 people came to the two-day forum.

Bee hive in a streamside buffer

Don and Ann English harvested 70 pounds of honey from happy bees foraging among the various blooming plants in their streamside buffer. 

“We recognize that Pennsylvania has such a heavy lift [in the Bay cleanup],” Fowler said. “Our goal is to put together a diverse group of people — farmers, scientists and nonprofits — to explore how we can accelerate planting more multifunctional buffers toward Pennsylvania’s goal of 95,000 more acres.”

Only about half of the projects funded to date are on farms. Most of the interested landowners tend to own smaller parcels or have an educational mission — like one municipality planting a food forest in Lancaster County. Others include Amish farmers who may be looking for a modest financial return from the planting, and families like the Englishes, who have full-time jobs elsewhere and consider the buffer a labor of love.

Fifty-six acres to be planted along tributaries of the West Branch and central Susquehanna River will mostly be in or near wilderness and span four northcentral counties.

A Lancaster County project will supplement a 17-acre restored floodplain with a buffer-to-table project: Officials from Warwick Township are talking with two local restaurants about using what the buffer produces in their dishes.

David Wise, restoration manager at the Stroud Center, has been promoting buffers to farmers for about 20 years and has been on the creative end of several successful strategies. He prefers what he calls the “tried and true” method: simply offering farmers a payment for taking streamside cropland out of production through federal programs, sweetened with additional funds and perks from nonprofit organizations like Stroud and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“We would love to see this succeed,” he said of the DCNR program. “We’re just not as optimistic as we’d like to be.”

The concept isn’t going to appeal to every farmer, said Eric Burkhart, an ethnobotanist who teaches at PennState University and studies nontimber forest products.

“Not every landowner who has streamfront property that we want to vegetate is going to say, ‘sure I can make money on this,’ ” he said. “Landowners who this appeals to tend to be driven more by philosophy and passion than your average growers.”

Burkhart doesn’t think that marketing the products is an issue. Sellers who specialize in medicinal crops, herbs, berries, ginseng, mushrooms and leeks can’t keep up with the demand. It’s a growing market, he said.

On the other hand, planting and harvesting woodland food is very labor intensive compared to crops like corn and soybeans, which can be harvested mechanically, and therefore is expensive.

“We don’t have anyone who is successfully modeling this,” Burkhart said. “We need more of the DCNR-type program to get things on the landscape for proof of concept.”

To the south, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, researchers surveyed landowners in three watersheds to see if there were any trends in the types of people interested in growing food in streamside buffers. The findings agreed with Burkhart’s statement: Small farm owners who are philosophically oriented showed the greatest interest.

There is no reason that researchers, funders and proponents of agroforestry should discount these landowners, said John Munsell, a Virginia Tech professor of agroforestry. In some areas, those landowners make up a significant portion of a watershed.

Small farm and nonfarm landowners often have goals for their land that fit well with multifunctional buffers. Don and Ann English exemplify that point.

The couple designed and planted their buffer on weekends. Their weekdays are spent at jobs in the environmental field.

“Our goal was not production,” Ann said. “It is a long-term commitment, and we’re doing it for the experience. Don grew up with that piece of land. It was his family farm, and I’ve known it for a long time. It is important to us.”

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