USDA helping local farmers protect Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Titus Kurtz (right) drives staples into a erosion blanket that will protect the family farm from stormwater damage. Staff photo by J. Finneran

Dr. Kefeni Kejela, a Soil Conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Leesport, has been offering technical expertise to area farmers who are on board with keeping the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay free from soil erosion as part of the NRCS’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI).

Through the initiative, landowners have access to technical and financial help from the government to address issues involving soil erosion, sedimentation, and excess nutrients in streams and waterways, and other resource concerns such as air quality forestry, and wildlife habitat.

Kejela and NRCS Engineer Wayne Corvell have recently been on site at the Kurtz family farm located on Twin Valley Road in Elverson, where they are assisting famer Todd Kurtz with the implementation of a soil erosion prevention plan as part of the CBWI.

“The headwaters of the Chesapeake are here in Berks County,” said Kejela, “so we are treating this from the very top.”

According to Kejela, the current project ongoing at the Kurtz Farm involves diffusing a concentration of storm water runoff coming from the Twin Valley High School complex, which lies uphill adjacent to the farm. That runoff had created an 1800 foot long gully across the Kurtz’s crop fields.

“We had identified the rate of displacement of soil as a resource concern,” Kejela said. “There is a huge waterway coming through (and) tons of soil has been lost to erosion.”

While it is expected that some soil will be naturally lost to erosion, the amount which was being washed away from the Kurtz Farm, and subsequently draining to the Conestoga River and then onto the Chesapeake Bay, was well in excess of the allowable tolerance.

Kurtz said that the gully was not negatively affecting his day to day operations at the farm, but that it would require repetitive fixes to try and hold the expansion of the gully in check. Then, when heavy rain would occur, the runoff would wash out the “patching up” they would put into place.

“The gully was a couple of feet wide and deep, but it was only going to get worse,” stated Kurtz.

The loss of soil from erosion also equates to a loss of soil nutrients, which is a concern to Kurtz because his farm mostly grows mostly corn and alfalfa.

“We will do all we can to conserve our top soil and to not wash out our neighbors,” he stated.

To remedy the wash out, the area where the gully had formed is being transformed into a grassy waterway designed to allow the runoff to spread across into a wider area. This will diffuse the velocity of the water and thereby bring the bulk of erosion to a halt. Created the new waterway for the Kurtz Farm occurs in three phases – planning, construction, and maintenance.

According to Corvell, who had a major role in the plan design, DCNR first assesses the soil loss and water quality, and then develops the conservation plan for a landowner to sign off on.

“We discussed the plan in depth and made some small changes to it,” Kurtz said.

For the Kurtz Farm plan the second step – the labor – started the week of April 28. As a DCNR rule, construction is performed by a contracted of the landowner’s choosing. The construction involves excavation of topsoil (which will be reused), filling of the gully, leveling the ground and creating the necessary contours for the waterway to flow, seeding, and the overlay of biodegradable straw netting which is known as an ‘erosion blanket’.

Corvell said that grass is used is these instances because it creates a permanent root mass which helps fight heavy erosion much better than the root structure of planted rows of crops.

Kejela stated that landowners who qualify for a CBWI partnership share a portion of the cost of the work for a conservation plan. The amount is dependent on the time which a farmer has owned the land – beginning farmers (those with less than ten years of ownership) pay 10 percent of the cost and all other farmers pay 25 percent of costs. The estimated price of the Kurtz Farm project for DCNR is estimated at $7800 per acre (that number is a 2012 estimate), with the scope being approximately 1.5 acres.

“It takes a committed land owner and we have that in Todd Kurtz,” said Kejela. “Todd and his father, Titus, they are very impressive people. They are out here doing some of the work themselves. R. S. Brubacher & Sons, the contractor that they hired, they are doing a great job.”

Creating the new waterway is just the first of a number of pieces making up an overall CBWI plan for Kurtz Farm. Future work will include creating an animal waste cache to prevent the waste from finding its way into the waterways, as well as other practices. All in all it is a multi-step plan with the different components spread out across a period of five years, which Kejela said is “designed to systematically stop the run off and protect the water quality”.

Ten Twin Valley High School FFA students also paid a visit to the Kurtz Farm on May 6 as part of an ongoing service learning experience with Kejela, who has been visiting with Twin Valley students throughout the semester to offer talks tied to conservation and resource management. The students assisted with placement of sections of the erosion blanket and were able to apply lessons learned in the classroom.

“The kids visit, see what the problem is, and participate in remedying it as a hands-on learning experience,” Kejela said. “This is one of the fastest growing townships in the state, so there is a lot of crop land being converted from development. This is creating move paved ground which leads to more runoff.”

Contact Dr. Kefeni Kejela at the USDA/NRCS at 610-372-4655 ex. 121.

To find out more about CBWI go to http://www.pa.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/CBWI

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