Shovel ready: Stimulus funds at work on watershed farms

A tour group gets a close-up look at a manure storage barn, on a Watershed Agricultural Council bus tour of farms in the New York City watershed.

On June 3, a few dozen curious people boarded a chartered bus in Delhi, donned plastic booties, and set out to see how much water conservation $1 million in stimulus funds can buy around the farm.

Most of the bus tour attendees were federal, state and New York City environmental workers. The host for this jaunt was the Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC), a nonprofit agency that plans and carries out conservation projects on local farms. The WAC's main goal is to keep hundreds of thousands of pounds of manure from doing what it does naturally: Flowing downhill, and straight into New York City's unfiltered drinking water system.

The WAC has been carrying out farm water quality projects since 1992, mostly with funds from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Last year, the WAC got an extra shot in the arm from the federal government, in the form of $1 million in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to be spent in collaboration with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The bus tour visited three local farms that installed large water quality projects last year, with the help of stimulus funds -- although, as the WAC's Tara Collins explained, the stimulus money didn't actually buy bricks and mortar.

"[Stimulus] money was not used to put projects in the ground, in terms of concrete, gravel, fencing," she said. Instead, the funds paid the salaries of NRCS engineers who worked with WAC planners and farmers to design the projects on the farms, freeing more of the WAC's existing $4 million budget for the year to be spent on construction.

Every farm is unique. The three farms on the tour showed off a broad array of human ingenuity, from high-tech manure pumps to projects as simple as planting trees.

Rocky Crest Holsteins, Bloomville, Delaware County

The WAC's agricultural program manager, Larry Hulle, calls Rocky Crest a "poster child" for the entire WAC program. It was of the program's original pilot farms in 1993 under dairy farmers Jim and Barb Robertson, partially because it sits at an important spot, high on the ridge dividing the Susquehanna and Delaware watersheds. The farm is now owned by Kyle and Bonnie Rockefeller, a couple of young farmers who bought the property in 2007.

Pump it up: The machine behind Rocky Crest's high-tech manure-storage system.Pump it up: The machine behind Rocky Crest's high-tech manure-storage system.Rocky Crest has more conservation plans, tools and gadgets (that's "BMPs," or "Best Management Practices," in governmentspeak) than just about any other farm in the watershed. Most of them involve manure. A $72,000 hydraulic manure pump lurks below the milking barn. Instead of drinking from the creek, the cows have their water piped to hydrants across the farm's 400 acres, a high-tech system that both keeps poop out of the creek and allows the Rockefellers to run a complex rotational grazing system.

"If that water system has any glitch in it, the grazing system is 'pffft,'" Kyle said. "There's a lot to learn about. It was originally developed to fit the Robertson's management styles. I'm trying to adapt to them."

Since the WAC pays the full cost of developing and building BMPs on watershed farms, it's tempting to think of them as a handout for farmers. But they can cost the farmer in time and effort, and sometimes a steep learning curve, said NRCS farm planner Lenny Prezorski. "It seems easy for us to pay 100 percent to fund those management practices. But the farmers have to live with them," he said.

Brookside Farm, Prattsville, Greene County

The 78-year-old Brookside Farm, a small dairy and beef operation, has some challenging geography for farm planners intent on separating manure from water. From aerial photos, WAC planners said, you could once see a bright green streak running through the fields where the nutrient-rich manure runoff flowed from the farm.

"This farm is a funnel. There's water everywhere," said Prezorski.

The WAC's most obvious recent contribution to the farm is the manure storage facility, a large bunker with a sloping concrete floor. It functions like a giant manure bank, and allows farmers Ray and Karl Gockel to stockpile manure throughout the year instead of having to spread it in the fields daily. To help the farmers ferry manure in and out of it, the WAC also bought them a tractor.

A few hundred feet from the manure storage barn, along the banks of a small creek, a much more ancient clean technology was visibly at work: Photosynthesis. Seed investment: A tiny maple seedling on Brookside Farm will pay big environmental dividends when it grows up.Seed investment: A tiny maple seedling on Brookside Farm will pay big environmental dividends when it grows up.

Along the creek bank, barely visible in the welter of weeds, a few long white plastic tubes poked through the vegetation. A peek inside revealed young saplings, just planted this spring. Elsewhere along the bank, low shrubs were planted in mats that help keep down competition from their weedy neighbors. In a few years, the trees will graduate from their protective tubes and begin casting some shade on the small creek, lowering the temperature and helping to keep soil and nutrients from washing into the water. In the meantime, a delicate-looking but powerful electric fence keeps cattle from nibbling on the vegetation or wading in the stream.

The official term for creek-reforestation projects like the one at Brookside Farm, in the state's alphabet soup of acronyms, is CREP -- it stands for Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

"There's more CREP in Delaware County than anywhere else in the state," said NRCS conservationist Leon Brooks.

Manhattan Country School, Roxbury, Delaware County

There's at least one of just about everything on the private Manhattan Country School's tiny farm -- a couple of dairy cows, some calves being raised for beef, a small flock of sheep, a few pigs and chickens. The farm is even home to the smallest licensed milk pasteurization facility in New York State, a small steel vat and a few gauges that could fit in a bedroom closet.

But while the farm is much smaller than even the smallest commercial dairy farm, the manure leaching from their uncovered manure pile into the creek nearby was still a problem. Just one cow can produce over 100 pounds of manure a day.

The house Uncle Sam built: MCS's low-tech manure composting shed.The house Uncle Sam built: MCS's manure composting shed is built to work on an elementary level.While most farms seek to keep their labor costs down, the school's main problem is how to usefully occupy a small army of sixth graders with shovels. So rather than use high-tech pumps or equipment to keep manure out of the creek, WAC farm planner Dan Flaherty helped MCS build a manure barn that's basically a three-bin backyard compost shed on steroids. Students move manure by hand from one bin to the next as it matures.

The farm, a sister campus of MCS's school on the Upper East Side, hosts groups of students from elementary school through junior high for several weeks at a time. The children grow food for both the Manhattan and Roxbury campuses, and spin and weave wool from their own sheep.

The Green Bottom Line

It's a cruel irony of modern economics that the government is spending millions of dollars keeping cow poop out of the water on farms that can't make a living selling their milk.

But though dairy farming has probably never been tougher in the Catskills than it is today, our remaining farms have a new role to play: They're Petri dishes in a clean water experiment the whole world is watching. Water, water everywhere: A group of water and forestry policy administrators from the Mekong River Watershed in Laos and Cambodia get a tour of the Ashokan reservoir from local conservationists.Water, water everywhere: A group of water and forestry policy administrators from the Mekong River Watershed in Laos and Cambodia get a tour of the Ashokan reservoir from local conservationists. Photo courtesy of Catskill Watershed Corporation.

The idea of payment for ecosystem services is being tested on the ground in the New York City watershed. The WAC is betting that paying to help farmers conserve water is cheaper and more effective than punishing them for polluting it. That gamble is becoming an international model, and representatives of foreign governments are now regular fixtures on the WAC's farms tours. Who knew Delaware County's cow poop was so important?

"Clean, potable water is going to be the new oil. They call it blue gold now," said WAC chair Fred Huneke, a retired dairy farmer himself. "Basically, farmers are environmentalists, whether they want to admit it or not."