Environmental Impact of Farming:
(Run-off, Manure & You)
Farms take up a good portion of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Farms are also responsible for half the polluted runoff that comes from Lancaster which then heads to the Chesapeake Bay where it contaminates the habitats of many creatures living in or near the water. This is the same water you and I drink when we turn on our faucets to get a glass of water. Surprisingly, it is not just the farms causing the polluted runoff water. We, the residents of Lancaster, are also responsible for this pollution.
Bill and Nannette Furina realized the problem and wanted to do something about it. Not only are they helping the Chesapeake Bay Foundation clean up the bay but they are also turning their chicken manure into electricity. In this section Project Green Lancaster will inform you on what you can do to help clean up the runoff going into the Chesapeake, how manure and other pollutants may actually benefit you and your family and also why it is so important to keep the runoff water clean besides just the environmental benefits. I hope you enjoy this section and the other sections of this webpage.
According to a (2004) census poll says Lancaster County Pennsylvania is 89 percent farmland, which is used for either agricultural purposes or to raise livestock. The other 11 percent of its acreage consists of urban/city areas, no different than those found in the more populated counties within Pennsylvania. Almost all of the farms here also have rivers that run somewhere on the property.
Some of the larger streams could run right through the middle of one of their fields, or maybe there is a babbling brook that runs along the side of the barn right where the animals situate themselves to graze in the summer and eat grass. Which brings up a good or, if you think about its ramifications, not so good topic called run-off.
Run-off: What is it?
Well, this is a pretty interesting question with technical implications. However, in my own words, run-off is the left over rain water that does not seep into the ground after a rainfall and by following Newton’s Law of Gravity will run downhill into a nearby stream, lake or river closest to where the rainwater has fallen. In case you did not know, water can be a pretty powerful force.
It has been know to carry away boulders and trees, not to mention cars, houses and anything else that stands it its way. In addition to these larger objects, water also can carry much smaller things, bad things that the human eye can not even see, really disgusting stuff like chemical particles or worse yet, bacteria. Yuck!
How important is run-off?
If you were to ask any one of the many Amish people that reside here in Lancaster County they would probably say that run-off is not important at all. They would probably go on to say that they actually try to block it as much as possible because it can wash away crops, fields and other agricultural material and supplies that are stored on the property. In addition, I bet that if you were to go into the city of Lancaster and ask almost any resident there how important they think Lancaster’s run-off is to the rest of the surrounding counties and states they would not only look at you weird but may also give you an array of off the wall answers.
Answers like run-off is not that important unless it causes flooding making everything wet and soggy or it makes people drive slower over the rain soaked roads. The reason for this general disregard on the subject of run-off is because most people have not been educated about the nature and sources of waterways here in Lancaster County. One of the main rivers that flow through Lancaster is called The Little Conestoga River.
The Conestoga Creek is the main drainage source for rainwater in Lancaster County. The water from this creek winds and turns working it way into the Susquehanna River and then eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. A river gets it water from many sources but when a river does not have enough water it ceases to exist as a river, instead it becomes a dried up riverbed.
Rain helps a river keep water running through it by this natural process we know as run-off. When it rains in the city, water runs down the streets and roads of downtown Lancaster into either storm drains, which eventually drain off into rivers and creeks, or it just keeps running down the road and across parking lots and sidewalks until it finds a waterway of its own. How about when it rains over farms, fields and animal yards?
Does it not do the same thing? You see, the point I am trying to get across here is that in all actuality run-off is very important to everyone but they either do not realize the importance or chose to ignore it and hope it goes away. Without the small time run-off there would be no rivers or creeks in every county, state and country instead the whole world would just be one big ocean.
Run-off is also important because as the water continues to flow down stream, from one source to another, it assists in some ways in keeping the water cleaner thereby helping animals and aquatic life who depend on this water to stay alive and healthier.
How does run-off get polluted?
Run-off is not really polluted by just one contaminate. There are plenty of ways for that run-off to get polluted. Farmland is a very popular place for contaminates to hang out and subject the run-off to pollutants, especially here in Lancaster County.
As it rains, the water that runs across the crops and fields picks up and collects not only the dangerous agricultural chemicals and pesticides that are used to keep bugs and other harmful creatures away but also numerous versions of fertilizer used on the crops to help them grow bigger and stronger. Almost all of the farms here in Lancaster, Amish or otherwise, use their own animals’ feces as a fertilizer to spread on the fields year after year. The numerous creeks and streams that run through these farmyards where animals graze is another source in which the County’s run-off and rivers can get polluted.
Nannette Furina of Egg Basket Farms expressed a different idea of her own. She said in an interview that the television portrayal of the issue plays a big role in how much the area farms get blamed for their pollution when in reality it is not the farms as much as people would like to think. Farms actually have strict guidelines that they follow in regard to how close they can spread manure in relation to a stream.
She goes on to say how most of the farm animals have confined feeding spaces which are located no where near the water that runs through these barnyards. So let us think about it for a minute, if farms are not the main source for the area’s pollution then what else could it be coming from? If we step away from the farms for a minute and take a look at the city, I would have to say that another major reason for the polluted run-off is the habits of the human population.
When you walk down the streets of downtown Lancaster, if you look down along the curbs or into the storm drains you will see things that you would typically find in most cities across this country and around the world that being just a whole lot of trash. People, in general, have a bad habit of throwing trash from their car window when they are done drinking a soda or eating a candy bar or maybe when they are walking the family dog and it decides that it needs to go to the bathroom, what do you think happens to that? If it is not picked up when it happens, and most people do not, then the next time the rain falls it will carry that little something into some nearby body of water.
It could eventually affect the water that you drink. Another way to get polluted run-off is through the use of our automobiles. Now I bet you are asking yourself, how in the world would my car affects the area’s run-off.
Well, currently most cars run on gas and have oil inside the engine and when your car leaks that little bit of gas or oil on to a driveway, parking lot or road the chemicals lay there and do not go away until they are rinsed off by water of some sort, which typically comes in the form of local rainfall. Here is a list of some other ways in which sources of water can become contaminated:
- Improper use of fertilizers, animal manure, herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides
- Improperly built or poorly located and/ or maintained septic systems for household wastewater
- Leaking or abandoned underground storage tanks and piping
- Storm-water drains that discharge chemicals to ground water
- Improper disposal or storage of wastes
- Chemical spills at local industrial sites
In the average urban and surrounding suburban area, buildings and pavement cover much of the land surface, which does not allow for the rain and snowmelt to readily soak into the ground. Instead, most developed areas rely on their storm drains to carry away large amounts of the regions run-off from roofs and paved areas to nearby creeks, streams and rivers. Unfortunately, this storm water run-off carries along with it pollutants such as oil, dirt, chemicals, and lawn fertilizers from the urban streets and pavement directly to the local streams and rivers, where they seriously can harm water quality (2006).
According to David A. Fahrenthold, a staff writer who wrote an article for the Washington Post, you can not just point to a pipe and say there is the problem for all the pollution and there’s the guy who owns the pipe (Fahrenthold, 2004). Although some of the activists in Lancaster County feel that they can point a finger to just one and say there is the problem. They feel that Lancaster County contains the watershed for the Conestoga River, which is one of the most polluted in the Chesapeake watershed.
There is an excess of manure because the county’s concentrated dairy and beef cattle operations are producing more waste than its crops can absorb as fertilizer. But there is nowhere else to put the waste (Fahrenthold, 2004). When housing subdivisions and shopping malls replace acres of open farmland, environmentalists have said, the problem might understandably get worse.
The ever-increasing acres of concrete prevent rainwater from soaking into the shrinking areas of soil. Instead, large quantities of water blast through storm drains into streams, sending gluts of the areas polluted mud downstream.
Damage dirty run-off can do:
I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the owner of the Egg Basket Farm, Nannette Furina, who is no longer allowed by the local authorities to spread manure anywhere on her property because of the number of potentially dangerous chemicals that are in the soil. So they devised a plan, instead of spreading the manure she needs to store the animal waste near the bottom of the chicken coops and then ship it off to other area farmers who use this type of fertilizer for enhancing the current season’s corn crops. Now just picture how many chemicals get washed down into the local stream every time it rains here on the Egg Basket Farm when the rain water runs around, through or under this pile of manure.
Not only can it have a devastating effect on the water that we drink everyday from our faucets and water fountains but it also may kill the aquatic life living in the streams that the water flows into. Polluted water hurts any and all of the wildlife that live and feed in creeks, streams, rivers and lakes. Dirt from all this erosion, also known as sediment, covers up fish habitats and the fertilizers it contains can cause too much algae to grow, which in the end also hurts wildlife by using up the oxygen they need to survive.
Soaps and its by-products hurt the gills and scales of fish and other chemicals damage other aquatic plants and animals when they enter the water (Fahrenthold, 2004). According to the Wastewater Bureau (2006) the overall effects in the environment are numerous:
- Increase volume and velocity of run-off
- Increase frequency and severity of flooding
- Peak storm flows many times greater than in natural basins
- Loss of natural run-off storage capacity in vegetation, wetlands and soil
- Reduced groundwater recharge
- Decreased base flow, which can result in streams becoming intermittent or dry, and also affect water temperature
Like was mentioned above, run-off and the trash and pollution associated with it does not have a negative influence on the habitat of the streams and rivers alone, it can also hurt the plants and animals that reside in the surrounding areas, ones that live in the forests and along the riverbanks where the water flows. What would happen if plastic soda holders were to get stuck around a ducks neck? Or how about, a bird that was to eat an aluminum soda tab?
What would happen? In either situation, most likely the chance of the animal surviving would be slim to none. And to think how many times over, if that one person would have used some common sense and had not thrown that plastic soda holder or aluminum tab in the street just how many animals lives they would have saved.
According to Todd Trout (2006) who works for the Little Conestoga webpage, high nutrient levels, severe bank erosion, siltation, urban storm water run-off and industrial point source pollution have put the Little Conestoga Creek on the List of Impaired Waters by section 303(d) of the Federal Clean Water Act. A study of the Little Conestoga Creek by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay found the waters to be contaminated with nitrate ion levels exceeding those allowable for drinking water. This situation has obviously had a direct effect on the areas water quality and also the aquatic life in the Little Conestoga Creek.
The study tested for not only nitrate ion and phosphate ion levels but also the amount and diversity of insect populations as well. Water quality in the lower part of the basin, on the West Branch of the Little Conestoga Creek, was found to be the poorest (Trout, 2006).
Excessive levels of nitrate in drinking water can cause serious illness and sometimes death in the human population. A potentially serious illness in infants, often called “blue baby syndrome,” is due to the conversion of nitrate to nitrite by the body, which can interfere with the oxygen-carrying capacity of a child's blood (EPA, 2001). The list below shows the vastness of the problem:
- miles of stream impaired by siltation: 3,257
- miles of stream impaired by agricultural activities: 2,904
- miles of stream impaired by acid mine drainage (AMD): 2,116
- miles of stream impaired by nutrients: 1,262
- miles of stream impaired by urban runoff: 544
- miles of stream impaired by habitat modification: 80
The Chesapeake Bay is home to 16 million people and generates $1 trillion per year for the national economy. But this natural treasure is in jeopardy:
- crab and oyster catches on the Bay are at historic lows and
- local streams and rivers connected to the Bay are degraded.
One of the Chesapeake’s biggest problems is the mix of nutrients and soil from nearby land that washes into rivers, and then downstream into the Bay (Environmental Defense Fund, 2007).
Benefits to clean run-off
This section is pretty much self-explanatory. If we can help the effort and only just decrease the polluting of the water here in Lancaster County then the Chesapeake Bay will be a lot better off. To be more specific, species of fish that were once native to the bay area will start to come back, which means the fishing industry will improve and that alone would be amazing.
The more types of fish in the Bay waters means all those fishing boats that now aimlessly circle the waters looking for schools of fish could see an increase in their business and as a result produce more jobs for the local people. This is not really a “green” effect but in the end can help the faltering United States economy. In addition to the fish, numerous plants and other vegetation may again grow and thrive along the 64,000 square mile watershed.
Improved wastewater treatment also provides another important barrier for protection to downstream public water system users. It is proven that the better the quality of source water, the less likely the breakthrough of contaminants into the drinking water treatment system (EPA, 2001). If you think about the whole issue, it is not just the water and surrounding plants and other vegetation that are being affected but everyone and everything located downstream.
So if everyone would start now by participate in efforts to clean up our own run-off, we would in effect be helping to clean up the Bay and by cleaning up the Bay we would be helping people as well as the animal and aquatic life and vegetation all along the way.
How we can help:
The list below shows several ways in which everyone can help:
- Plant buffers along streamside property to slow erosion and to capture flow of polluted run-off. Tree roots absorb and slow the flow of nutrient run-off and prevent eroding soil from flowing downstream.
- Pump out septic tanks every 3-5 years.
- Use integrated pest management techniques and non-toxic alternatives for pest control.
- Use phosphate free products. Check labels on household products before you buy. Try non-toxic alternative products.
- Dispose of used engine oil at recycling stations and clean up spills promptly. Even small amounts of oil from driveway spills and improper homeowner disposal can wash into and contaminate local waterways during rainstorms.
- Sweep and collect material from driveways and sidewalks instead of washing it away with a hose.
- Do no dump or throw anything into storm water inlets.
- Use porous pavement materials whenever possible to reduce run-off
- Cover grease storage and dumpsters and keep them clean to avoid leaks.
- Apply lawn and garden chemicals sparingly and according to directions
- Encourage local government officials to develop construction erosion/sediment control ordinances in your community.
- Control soil erosion on your property by planting ground cover and stabilizing erosion-prone areas.
- Use of barnyard management practices
- Collecting manure in manure pits
- Limiting the number of cattle allowed to graze on a parcel of land.
- Control manure spraying
- Prevent livestock from entering creeks, streams and brooks
By preventing livestock from entering streams, the health of the whole herd is improved for a variety of reasons. When cows are permitted to stand in an unhealthy stream, they are more likely to develop hoof diseases. Cows may also become sick if they are allowed to drink the unsanitary water from a stream.
If they are fenced in, away from the stream, they are forced to come back to the barn to obtain sanitary water provided for them. Many of the local farmers in the Little Conestoga Watershed have successfully fenced off their livestock from the tributaries in order to improve the health of their herd. One way this can be accomplished is by installing electrical fencing along the stream corridor and developing cattle crossings at pre-determined intervals.
These crossings are often made of hog slats that allow the stream to flow through or under them. By fencing off the stream, a riparian buffer is allowed to grow in order to catch eroded material and runoff from the pasture.
For those living near or along the Little Conestoga, it is important to remember that stream side habitat is important for maintaining good water quality in the stream. Unfortunately, many residents along the Little Conestoga have the misconception that they will violate weed ordinances if they do not mow right up to the stream edge. However, everyone need to be aware that it is important to leave a buffer zone adjacent to the stream bank in order to prevent soil runoff and erosion.
In addition, planting native grasses next to the river will not only provide an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere for your lawn, but will also maintain the habitat necessary for a healthy, thriving river environment.
Manure: what is it?
If you live in Lancaster County, or any rural area, manure is one subject that you should know a lot about. Manure is that horrendous smell that fills your nostrils every time you breathe during the spring and summer months. It is all over Lancaster County and there is no escaping it.
But, to put it bluntly and in laymen terms, manure is what comes out of the back end of every stinking farm animal in the County. By now you are probably asking yourself, well, why is manure such a factor in runoff and/ or why should I even care? Most of the 4,700 farms in the county use manure as a fertilizer for their cornfields and other crops.
Nannette Furina, of the Egg Basket Farms, said that the only reason manure is used for fertilizer purposes is that it can not really be used for any thing else. The reason that the Amish and other farmers all over Lancaster County like to use manure as a soil fertilizer is because of the high nitrate levels that come from its use. Even though a lot of the nitrates in the manure are not really good for the most of the fields that they are sprayed on, they are great for the corn that grows there.
According to Nannette, here is Lancaster County manure only has one use and that is for the farming benefits that it offers. Besides using manure on the corn crops, horse manure is a good fertilizer for a few other vegetable plants and flower gardens. Other than that there really is no other good use for the numerous tons of manure produced here in Lancaster County yearly.
If you research other commercial fertilizers, however, none of them can produce the same high quality of vegetation that fresh manure from the farms can.
Believe it or not you can actually store manure in large tanks and use recycled manure in two ways. The first way is a big step for helping the world go a little greener and also would help us not depend so much on foreign oil. I am talking about the process of breaking manure down into gases to use as electricity.
According to Nicolette Hahn Niman (2006) who did an article in the New York Times says, the idea sounds appealing, but power from manure turns out to be a poor source of energy. Unlike solar or wind, it can create more environmental problems than it solves. And it ends up subsidizing large agribusiness.
That's why energy from manure should really be considered a form of "brown power” (Hahn Niman, 2006). Manure is used mainly in methane digesters, incinerators and certain biodiesel plants. Digesters, often at dairy farms, liquefy manure, then put it in large tanks with anaerobic bacteria.
As the liquid decays, the bacteria produce methane, which is purified and used like natural gas. Incinerators generate power by burning animal waste, usually from poultry. Biodiesel involves creating a gas from manure, then combining it with oil from animal fat or plants often soybeans or corn (Hahn Niman, 2006).
One farm in particular I know that was trying to go greener by turning their manure into energy was Egg Basket Farms in Mount Joy Lancaster County. They store their manure underneath their chicken coops where they also use the manure as compost mixed with dead birds and some other ingredients. They store it under there for a year before they actually would touch it.
They were working side by side with a company called EnergyWorks who comes out of Annapolis Maryland. EnergyWorks (2005) who is a cooperation that provides technical support, project management and business process outsourcing services to developers, lenders and owner-operators of energy and infrastructure facilities. Since its formation in 1995, the EnergyWorks team has owned and operated or assisted others in the development, construction and operation of energy and infrastructure assets in eight countries, including over 800 megawatts in electric generating capacity and $1 billion in capital investments.
But after I sat down and talked with Nannette Furina of Egg Basket Farms, she was saddened to inform me that their plans to go greener and use manure as energy was put on the back burner for the time being. You see we use so much energy in Lancaster alone that the Furina’s were told that they produce no where near enough manure to supply energy to Lancaster County. Now they are trying to work on ways to just use the energy around the farm in Mount Joy.
Another way to recycle manure on the farm is by pelletizing manure and selling it. Manure pellets can be used for many things such as bedding for horses and other animals or you can sell it to golf courses that will in return use it as fertilizer for their plants and vegetation. Now I know that I told you to use manure sparingly and to not use it around streams and ponds.
But don’t worry the manure pellets are pathogen-free byproduct. You are also probably thinking that this process could be expensive or is a long time consuming process. The machine that pelletizes the manure may be a little pricey but in the end it will not only help the farm go greener but also put some more cash in your pocket if you sell it else where.
As far as the process goes it is not a long backbreaking process. It can be done in these five steps:
Step One: The Pin Mixer receives manure from the storage bin and feeder, mixes it with binder, pelletizes and sends the pellets to the Disc Pelletizer.
Step Two: The Dryer then dries and cools the pellets, discharging them onto a conveyor belt that carries them to the Screen. The Dryer can be powered by natural gas, propane or fuel oil.
Step Three: The Screen removes and recycles oversized and undersized pellets, sending the “good” ones to the pellet storage bin, which is located outside the building.
Step Four: The Bagger takes the pellets from the pellet storage bin and automatically fills and seals 40 lb. Bags.
Step Five: The Palletizer and Stretch Wrapper arrange the filled bags on pallets and stack them for shipment. The bags are then stretch-wrapped to the pallet for stability in transport.
The advantages of manure pelletizing are:
- Reduces harmful nitrate runoff into waterways
- Provides a totally safe growing medium that is friendly to people, pets and the environment
- Decreases the need for expensive, water-soluble, chemical-based fertilizers that create harmful runoff into waterways and groundwater supplies
In closing I would like to personally thank everyone that I had interviewed and talked with to be able to put this webpage up. I covered a lot of information on how to grow green through out Lancaster County and hope that I helped inform you with some information about what you can do to help and why we should want to go greener. Some of my information may seem a little bias but in no way did I mean to talk down about farmers who go out everyday and do backbreaking work to provide us with fresh local produce and other foods.
I hope that you find this webpage to be very informative and educational. Please feel free to email me with any questions, comments or concerns and I will try to answer them as quickly as possible.