Mixing It Up: Riparian Buffers That Clean up Waterways and Produce Profitable Crops

768 507 Stroud Water Research Center

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A new multifunctional riparian buffer planting at Village Acres Farm in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania.
A new multifunctional riparian buffer planting at Village Acres Farm in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania. They planted a combination of silvopasture-supporting trees, high-shade trees near the water, and underplantings that can be used by florists or harvested for profitable crops. Image courtesy of Angela Brubaker.

By Sarah Derouin

  • Scientists and regulators in Pennsylvania are working with farmers to plant trees along streams in the state, in an effort to reduce the level of pollutants entering the water.
  • To meet their target of planting 34,800 hectares (86,000 acres) of riparian buffers by 2025, they’re taking a bottom-up approach, starting at the local level.
  • For farmers, this can be a profitable endeavor, allowing them to cultivate fruit trees and flowers for additional income.
  • The riparian buffers represent another example of an agroforestry system that’s a win-win for ecological outcomes and community well-being and livelihoods.

From her porch on Village Acres Farm in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, Angela Brubaker can see the curved rows of trees in the new riparian buffer along Lost Creek. The tree tubes and stakes that support the young saplings stand like little monuments within freshly mowed, lush grasses. While Brubaker and her siblings — they are equal partners of the farm — wait for the trees to grow and fill in, this year gave them an additional challenge: brood X cicadas.

“Brood X is a type of cicada that comes out every 17 years — we did not have that on our radar when we decided to put this planting in,” she explains, adding that the emerging bugs like to use new twigs for egg laying.

Despite that challenge, Brubaker and her siblings are “all in” on the plantings ever since they first heard about grants for riparian buffers on Facebook. The post called for farmers interested in planting trees near streams and rivers to apply for grants. Village Acres Farm was one of the recipients.

Through a combination of state grants and trees provided by Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Brubakers have planted a slew of trees and bushes along Lost Creek. Their plantings are multi-use, reflecting the needs of their farm and the interests of all the siblings. They chose locust trees and aspens to provide dappled shade to support pasture grass growth, and mixed in fruit and nut trees, including chestnut, hazelnut, persimmon and plum, which will become a perfect spot for livestock grazing. Nearer the creek, they planted oaks, maples and sycamores that provide heavier shade.

A tulip poplaremerges from its tree tube in a riparian forest buffer planted along a streamside in Pennsylvania.
A tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) emerges from its tree tube in a riparian forest buffer planted along a streamside in Pennsylvania. Tree tubes protect riparian trees from deer browse, and from maintenance activities like herbicide spraying to control invasive species, and weed-whacking/mowing. Image courtesy of DCNR.

“For the understory, lots of elderberry, different species of dogwood, willows … viburnum, hawthorn, and red bud,” Brubaker says of their choices. “Much of these were planted with the floral industry in mind — my sister was a florist in Indiana before she moved home to start growing flowers here at the farm.”

Farmers like the Brubakers are key adopters for the state’s efforts in agroforestry, the intentional planting of perennial plants on farmland to create environmental, economic, and social benefits. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) is looking to expand the number of farmers who grow perennial crops on river-adjacent land. These buffers will help clean and restore not only the waters of Pennsylvania, but those downstream, including Chesapeake Bay, while sequestering carbon, increasing biodiversity and pollinator habitat, and even producing a profitable crop for farmers.

The Chesapeake may seem a distant locale to farmers in central Pennsylvania, but in the world of watersheds, they are very much connected. Chesapeake Bay is replenished by rivers draining six different states (plus the District of Columbia). Of these, Pennsylvania is a standout: approximately half of the land in the state drains into rivers that eventually make their way into the bay. In fact, the Susquehanna River, which meanders through much of the state, provides half of the freshwater flow into the Chesapeake, the waters of which are in trouble.

High levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment, predominantly from runoff from fields and lawns, are polluting the Chesapeake. Algal blooms are one result of this, and sediment is also clouding the water. Seagrasses, fish, and shellfish are all suffering, and dead zones are cropping up when the algae die en masse and use up the bay’s available oxygen.

In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defined maximum daily levels for pollution entering the bay and put the region on a “pollution diet” to clean the waters. To do this, states have implemented watershed implementation plans (WIP) to gradually meet these standards by 2025.

After a program review in 2017, the EPA found Pennsylvania was not on track to meeting its targets, and so as the biggest water contributor, the state had to set robust targets, including planting about 86,000 acres (34,800 hectares) of riparian buffers, which slow water flow to trap sediment and pollutants.

A riparian forest buffer grows along a small creek in Pennsylvania.
A riparian forest buffer grows along a small creek in Pennsylvania, where it has been planted to help stabilized streambanks, stop upland nutrient pollution from entering the stream, and to shade and cool the water. Image courtesy of DCNR.

Lessons on Making the Best Buffer

To achieve this, scientists and policymakers agreed to revamp their efforts and change tactics: focus on local, county-level approaches to make strides in pollution reduction. Each site gets personalized solutions, including multifunctional plantings that suit the desires and needs of a specific farm.

The majority of the target for planting riparian buffers, or 83,000 acres (33,600 hectares), is for agricultural land, while the remaining plantings are geared toward developed areas.

Agroforestry efforts like riparian buffers are not a new idea, and Pennsylvania has been down this restoration road before. In the early 2000s, stream buffers got a lot of attention and were funded by federal programs like CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program), says Teddi Stark, watershed forestry program manager with the DCNR. However, these early efforts weren’t entirely successful.

“At the time, trees were not planted in rows, they were planted in a more natural layout,” Stark says, adding that the approach prevented mowing or spraying. Upkeep of the plantings was too difficult, and a lot of early plantings failed.

“We learned a lot since then,” Stark tells Mongabay. She explains that many buffers, planted through CREP and other new buffer programs, are now designed to be planted in easy-to-mow rows. “[We] will ask the landowner ‘what kind of mowers are you planning on using here’ and design that buffer so they can easily get through the rows [to] take care of it a few times a year.”

To meet the pollution reduction numbers, state scientists tried a bottom-up approach: start locally with more outreach efforts in communities around Pennsylvania. “One of the things accomplished last year during the pandemic is we rolled out our first state-level outreach campaign,” Stark says.

See related: Nuts about agroforestry in the Midwest: Can hazelnuts transform farming?

Pennsylvania DCNR staff work together to plant a shrub within a riparian forest buffer.
Pennsylvania DCNR staff work together to plant a shrub within a riparian forest buffer, and install a shelter and stake to protect the young shrub as it begins to grow. Image courtesy of DCNR.

Using grant money from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, they distributed outreach materials to around 8,000 landowners in South Central Pennsylvania, a region that is of particular interest for pollution reduction. “We have been working with landowners who have responded,” Stark says, “and there were a lot of other landowners around the state that reached out based on those efforts and said, ‘Hey, I’m interested to know, I didn’t get a mailer, but I want to sign up.’”

Stark also notes that it’s not just mailers that are effective; county conservation districts and local nonprofits are also talking directly to farmers to get them on board.

Profitable Plantings?

One of the ways to increase agroforestry planting is to show farmers how installing a riparian buffer can be a profitable endeavor. There’s no doubt that riparian buffers can bring pollinators, biodiversity, and backyard food production to a farm, notes Lamonte Garber, watershed restoration coordinator at Stroud Water Research Center, but he says he wants to be able to tell adopters how a buffer could be profitable economically.

It’s a targeted and specific approach to riparian buffers. “Let’s be really smart about this area of agroforestry and production buffers; let’s figure out what kinds of farms and enterprises truly are going to be profitable, and find those farmers who are interested in that,” Garber says.

A riparian buffer planted on Dickinson College in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania.
A buffer planted on Dickinson College in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. The buffer is located on former horse pasture on the Yellow Breeches Creek, a stocked trout stream. Image courtesy of Tracey Coulter.

To do that, Garber and Stroud Center researchers have teamed up with Propagate Ventures to design and implement for-profit, lower-risk buffers that can provide a source of income for farmers. Audrey Epp Schmidt, director of business development at Propagate, says that means considering not only the crop, but the needs of the farmer.

“A really important piece of the way that we work is understanding what the long-term vision is that the farmer has for their system [and] coupling that with most profitable opportunities,” she says. “If you pick a crop that doesn’t match the lifestyle or the operation that a farmer has, forget about it — it’s not going to work operationally or financially.”

Getting farmers to commit to the installation and care of a riparian buffer can be a bottleneck for these efforts, and while appealing to farmers’ bottom line is one option, it wasn’t clear how much profit was possible in a planned buffer. To solve that, the Stroud Center and Propagate teamed up to identify three pilot farms to be test cases for riparian buffers and profitability.

Three farms have gone through a detailed analysis and more are in the works. Epp Schmidt says farmers were given a blueprint with detailed planting plans along with cash flow graphs showing capital and operating expenses, plus labor requirements. This level of detail should allow farmers to get the most bang for their riparian buffer buck.

“A fellow farmer is the best salesman you can ask for [with] any system,” Epp Schmidt says. “A farmer wants to hear from another farmer, ‘What are the good, the bad and the ugly of this cropping system?’” She says that once the pilot farms are established, neighboring farmers can come over and “kick the tires” to really see what these agroforestry practices look like. “That’s going to ultimately be our best tool to really accelerate adoption.”

See related: Agroforestry takes root in the Midwest corn and soybean belt:

Boosting buffer benefits

“The buffer goal in Pennsylvania’s WIP is substantial for very good reasons,” Garber says. “The reality is, we need [trees] at a very massive scale all over the landscape.” He notes that filtering is just one benefit; buffers also stabilize land, restore soils, cool water, and add woody debris and leaf litter to stream ecosystems.

Despite such benefits, Pennsylvania is currently behind on its acreage goal. “We’re doing somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 acres [400-800 hectares] a year right now, which is obviously not fast enough,” Stark says, noting that the average cost to implement a buffer is $5,000 per acre ( about $12,400 per hectare) — not an insignificant amount of money. “We’re trying to find innovative ways to fund riparian forest buffer plantings, just because there’s so much work to be done.”

At the moment, funding for buffers comes from a combination of government grants, nonprofits and foundations, and potentially low-interest loans in the near future. “We rely heavily on all of our partner organizations to make this work happen at the local level,” Stark says. “Without that community in that partnership, things wouldn’t be happening.

“We know [installing riparian buffers] is the right thing to do as far as conservation, and environmentally,” Stark adds. “But we also know the farmers that have the property where these buffers are most critical are struggling — we want to make sure that we’re doing things that help them and not make their lives harder at an already very difficult time.”

Outreach efforts and new approaches to increase plantings are set to continue toward adding to the buffer acreage. “It’s the win-win of adding trees to the landscape, plus profitability for farmers,” Epp Schmidt says. “That coupling of economic development with ecological outcomes is something that agroforestry is uniquely positioned to really help Pennsylvania with their WIP.”

Sarah Derouin is a freelance science writer who lives in Michigan. Follow her on Twitter at @Sarah_Derouin.

This report is part of Mongabay’s ongoing coverage of trends in global agroforestry, view the full series here

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Agroforestry is an ancient climate change solution that boosts food production and biodiversity, listen here: