Farmer Bob Brandmier has a deep connection to his fields.
His family has farmed about 30 acres in Foster Township for a century, and acquaintances in his community near White Haven rely on him to work another 70 acres or so because they don’t want their fields carved out by farming ancestors to grow wild.
“You can tell what fields need by how things are growing,” said Brandmier, who sticks primarily to crops of corn, oats and hay to feed his herd of 15 to 20 beef cattle.
That’s why he now finds it somewhat unsettling that the state is stepping up to critique his practices.
The state has started inspecting farms and enforcing a decades-old mandate requiring farmers to generate certain reports as part of an effort to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment in waterways, officials said.
Brandmier and 20 fellow Luzerne County farmers awkwardly faced computer screens during a recent workshop at the Nescopeck Township municipal building to start preparing one of these reports — an erosion and sedimentation control plan, or E&S.
Required by farmers plowing and tilling more than 5,000 square feet, this plan attempts to quantify the amount of soil expected to wash away and identify steps that can be taken to reduce that loss.
Most farmers, particularly smaller local ones, were unaware this report was required or ignored it, according to representatives of several government entities assisting farmers at the workshop.
Brandmier said he’s cooperating but worries expectations will be unrealistic.
For example, he said government communications about the plans encourages no tilling to reduce erosion and soil loss.
He uses a chisel technique that rips a groove in the ground to prepare it for planting, which does not disturb the soil as much as traditional plowing. Without it, the seeds in the local dirt he describes as “red shale soil” would not be buried deep enough unless there is significant rain to saturate the ground, he maintains.
“The birds would clean me out,” he said.
Most area farmers have pride in their fields and already do what’s feasible to retain soil and keep manure away from streams, he said, predicting some will call it quits if there are too many additional demands. Brandmier said some farmers at the workshop jokingly said, “Anybody want to buy a cow?”
“Farming is not a big-paying business,” said Brandmier.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has been conducting farm inspections and E&S plans for a year and a half, visiting 16 farms in the Northeast region to date, said agency spokeswoman Colleen Connolly.
At this stage, inspectors are focusing on education and making sure farmers are aware of the requirements, Connolly said. If any farmers flat out refuse to comply, the agency would weigh enforcement options, she said.
“We’ve seen a good level of cooperation so far,” Connolly said. “We’re trying to work with them.”
Carl J. DeLuca, also with the state environmental protection department, said many farmers already have sound plans to minimize soil loss and discharge, but the state needs them to formalize their plans in writing.
Reducing soil loss benefits both farmers and waterways, said DeLuca, who is optimistic the plans may allow some farmers to visualize options they didn’t consider, such as planting cover crops or plowing rows a different way on slopes to help the soil stay in place.
The state is encouraging five-year plans that may include rotating crops. Taking a break from corn, for instance, will allow the soil to retain more nutrients, reducing the amount of fertilizer, he said.
“Farmers’ commodity is soil, and they don’t want to lose it,” DeLuca said.
Soil is “gold” to farmers, said Amy Salansky, of the Luzerne Conservation District that hosted the recent workshop and another planned later this month in the Back Mountain. Her agency is helping farmers because many did not know about the E&S requirement, which was on the books since 1972, she said.
The workshop attracted tree, crop and dairy farmers.
Participant Elaine Broyan said the plans are an added burden, though she understands the state’s rationale. She owns a 1,500-acre dairy and crop farm that includes land in Salem, Nescopeck and Sugarloaf townships.
“We don’t need more work to do, but I guess we need to make sure that nobody does let their soil go down the stream,” Broyan said.
Her operation — Faihopity Farm — has embraced measures to “keep the soil on our farm” for more than a decade, including extensive multi-species cover cropping, Broyan said.
Manure is spread on the plants while they’re growing, allowing them to “soak it up so it doesn’t go into the river,” she said.
Her farm has been no-till about 15 years, which allows the roots to retain more soil and minerals and increases worms that distribute nutrients from the surface to the dirt below, she said.
“The more fishworms, the better our soil grows,” said Broyan, who grows soybean, hay and corn to feed the farm’s 450 milking cows.
Rick Day, of the Penn State Cooperative Extension, spearheaded the development of free online tools called “PAOneStop” aimed at helping farmers prepare E&S plans so they don’t have to pay consultants to do the work.
Another module to help farmers complete government-mandated manure management plans is expected in a few months, he said.
The software requires farmers preparing E&S plans to map their fields, specify what they are growing on each, detail information about their crop rotation and indicate whether they are till or no-till.
Extensive data on topography, climate history and soil type is then automatically loaded in to calculate the amount of soil loss per acre per year, Day said.
The federal government sets a benchmark for tolerable loss based on the location and soil type, and the software allows farmers to simulate how their numbers would change if they made adjustments, such as switching from corn to another crop one year, he said.
“Changes can make a difference. They might not see the effect of soil loss now, but they will face the effects down the road,” Day said. “If you lose natural top soil, you can fertilize, but it takes many years to create top soil.”
The crackdown on farm plan compliance stems largely from the state’s efforts to document progress meeting pollution reduction goals in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, including the Susquehanna River, the largest tributary to the bay.
Most Luzerne County municipalities are in watersheds that drain into the Susquehanna, which flows over 400 miles from its origin near Cooperstown, New York, and empties into the northern part of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Although farming plan compliance is mandated statewide, Brandmier noted his fields fall in a watershed that drains into the Lehigh River and eventually the Delaware River Basin, not the Chesapeake.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay plan requires states to reduce the amount of nutrients and sediment in waterways that feed into the bay by 2025. Pennsylvania comprises 35 percent of the entire Chesapeake Bay Watershed, according to the state.
Pennsylvania farmers have made “great and valuable strides” lowering sediment and nutrient discharge, but these efforts “aren’t yet enough,” according to the state Department of Agriculture.