Turkey Hill conservation

Looking over a conservation practice on the Graywood Farms dairy operation in Fulton Township are, from left: Bob Cooksey, Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers; John Cox, president of Turkey Hill Dairy; Jenna Mitchell, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay; Lisa Graybeal, Graywood Farms co-owner; Chris Thompson, Lancaster County Conservation District; and Byron Graybeal, Graywood Farms co-owner.

Turkey Hill Dairy’s milk products are known around the world. Now, the Lancaster-based company is taking an unprecedented step to make sure its milk and ice cream aren’t made at the expense of the environment.

As part of new contracts with its dairy producers, about 100 farmers located within 50 miles of the plant will be required, for the first time, to have conservation plans in place to make sure they are not sending soil and manure into local streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

The Turkey Hill Clean Water Partnership is just one of four new initiatives in which national corporations are reaching out to Lancaster County farmers as part of Pennsylvania’s struggling efforts to drastically reduce pollutants hindering the decades-long cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

A $500,000 startup grant for the Turkey Hill project will help farmers prepare the plans. Additional grants are likely to help farmers pay for needed on-the-farm practices.

The Turkey Hill Clean Water Partnership is a joint venture  between Turkey Hill, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers cooperative. The Natural Resource Conservation Service provided funding.

If the dairy farmers follow through, including getting on-the-farm work done, Turkey Hill will pay them higher prices for their milk.

Of 59 farms visited so far, 12 did not have the state-required conservation plan. Others have the plans but need help with barnyard work.

“The common thinking is that farmers are resistant to having conservation plans in place,” said Turkey Hill president John Cox. “I’ve never met a farmer who says, ‘I prefer that my soil go down the stream.’ It is all about the cost of doing it.

“When it comes time to implement the plans, it can be a minimum of $50,000 on up,” Cox said. “There’s not very many farmers around who can spend that kind of money with zero return on investment.

“If you just demand it, you may or may not get it and if you do get it, it won’t be sustainable. What we’re creating is a model that can be used in and outside of the dairy industry.”

Other corporate initiatives

The Turkey Hill corporate step-up is just one of four new initiatives in which large national companies have linked with environmental groups and other public and private organizations to spearhead better environmental practices among Lancaster County’s concentrated farm base.

— Altria Group, owner of the Philip Morris International cigarette company, along with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, financed the building of a prototype special horse-drawn no-till tobacco planter for Plain Sect farmers to get them to plant their product without disturbing the soil.

The program has been so successful that 10 of the devices have since been built and purchased by Amish and Mennonite tobacco growers, who rent them to fellow farmers. There is a waiting list to use the planters.

no till tobacco planter

A horse-drawn no-till tobacco planter developed for Plain Sect tobacco farmers in Lancaster County.

— The Campbell Soup Co., the owner of Pepperidge Farms near Denver, is working with wheat farmers in Lancaster and York counties to insure that what goes into its Goldfish crackers is environmentally friendly.

Partnering with Land O’Lakes, one of the the nation’s largest milk cooperatives, and the Environmental Defense Fund environmental group, Campbell Soup seeks to make sure local wheat farmers don’t over-apply fertilizer and prevent soil runoff.

— Minnesota-based Land O’Lakes realizes it is far from the source of its products. So it has also developed its own initiative to train its local ag retailers — people who farmers trust and deal with often.

The liaisons then encourage and offer non-polluting practices such as no-till planting and the use of cover crops to their client farm families in Lancaster County.

All eyes on Lancaster

It’s no coincidence that so many of the corporate trickle-down projects are taking root here in Lancaster County. The county has become ground zero in Pennsylvania’s behind-schedule commitment to significantly reduce the volume of nutrients and soil it sends down the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay.

Lancaster County alone is responsible for 21 percent of the reduction in nitrogen — found in manure and fertilizer — that Pennsylvania hopes to achieve by 2025.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has opened an office in Lancaster County because of the focus here.

New approach

What’s with the new wave of corporate activism?

“Food companies are realizing that there’s potential market advantages to marketing their products as sustainable,” says Corey Grove of Ephrata-based TeamAg, which has begun working as a liaison between farmers and the food and tobacco companies.

“Companies are willing to provide resources to the farmer to try something new.”

Adds Suzy Friedman, senior director of agricultural sustainability with the Environmental Defense Fund, “We’ve been doing quite a bit with the supply chain and looking at driving economic activity that can come to farms for sustainable farming. Engaging with the food system is one of them.”

And consumers are turning a more watchful eye to dairy products, notes Lindsay Reames of Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers.

“Historically, customers were focused on price and quality. Now, customers such as Turkey Hill are asking for more than price and quality, including requests for more information on environmental and animal-care practices on farms.”

One key to all of the approaches succeeding will be a demonstrated economic advantage to the farmer, program managers say.

One reason the no-till planting of tobacco has been a runaway success is because local tobacco farmers are saving money because the method requires less labor tending to weeds during the growing season.

And a cover crop means less splattering of mud on leaves at harvest time, notes Jeff Graybill, a Penn State Extension agronomy educator in Lancaster who helped design the tobacco planter.

Lancaster County has about 8,000 acres planted in tobacco, grown mainly for cigar wrappers, cigarettes and chewing tobacco — much of it used in Europe.

State and environmental group officials are energized at the new approaches popping up in Lancaster County.

“The leadership and innovation that is coming out of Lancaster County is going to have ripple effects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Jenna Mitchell, Pennsylvania state director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, says of the Turkey Hill initiative.

“This is just such a perfect example of a public-private partnership. It’s not a stick — it’s a carrot approach. The pace of this project is like nothing else we have ever been involved with.”

Meanwhile, Cox, Turkey Hill’s leader, dreams of the possibilities closer to home if the momentum continues.

“I actually think we’re at the place where we can see Lancaster’s streams cleaned up within a generation. That seemed hopeless for decades.”