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Turkey Hill looks downstream to clean the Bay

The Turkey Hill Dairy processing plant has long been within eyeshot of the Susquehanna River in Conestoga Township, sitting atop an overlook near the bank of Clarke Lake.

For John Cox, the company’s former CEO and current chairman, the proximity of the primary tributary of the Chesapeake Bay stood as a stark reminder of Turkey Hill’s role in helping to clean the two impaired bodies of water. Since the dairy works so closely with Lancaster County farmers, a community that has been blamed for a large portion of the Bay’s pollution, coming up with innovative ways to promote sustainability, conservation and the environment in the company’s business model has played a role in Cox’s decisions.

In what has been described as a first-of-its kind partnership, Turkey Hill joined with the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to form the Turkey Hill Clean Water Partnership (THCWP), a public/private collaboration aimed at working with farmers to implement best-practices and environmental plans into their operations. Still in its infancy, the organization acquired millions in grants to fund environmental projects and has been viewed as a model for other partnerships around the country.

Environmental regulations designed to reduce nutrients and other pollutants, such as animal waste, flowing into the Chesapeake Bay have put pressure on municipalities, businesses and other entities to do more to contain cut down on water pollution. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, much of it from agricultural activities in the  Susquehanna watershed, fuel algae growth, which blocks sunlight and kills underwater grasses that provide food and shelter for aquatic life. When the algae die, the decomposition process consumes oxygen in the water, further damaging aquatic life, according to the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“I think we’re at a moment in time where the increased focus of bringing resources to Lancaster County for cleaning up the water is going to open the opportunity for businesses to do something that five years ago wouldn’t have been possible,” Cox said. “And I think there will be many businesses who take advantage of it and become part of the change that is necessary.”

The genesis

Turkey Hill’s move to create the THCWP came in two phases, Cox said. The first was when he was asked to participate with Lancaster Clean Waters Partners, a nonprofit that works to improve local stream quality throughout the county.

As part of his membership, Cox got an invitation from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to attend a meeting titled “Businesses for the Bay” held at Climbers Run Nature Preserve in Martic Township, Lancaster County, in the fall of 2016. Cox went to the meeting to learn about stream impairment, but he still wasn’t sure what role business could or should play in the Bay cleanup.

“I came away from that day challenging myself to think about and look for opportunities to engage other businesses with the clean water effort,” Cox said.

He started thinking of ways to get the farmers who work with Turkey Hill to take seriously the issues of conservation and water quality. Environmental regulations designed to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay have put pressure on municipalities, businesses and other entities to do more to cut down on water pollution, with the laws effecting the farming community most directly and most dramatically.

About a year later, Cox and his team were reviewing bids for their milk supply contracts when he said a “light bulb went off in my head.” He turned to the team and asked them the wisdom of including a stipulation in the contract that required each farm to have an environmental plan in place.

As part of the 2018 contract with Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association (MDVA), a trade group focused on the dairy industry in parts of Pennsylvania, Turkey Hill asked that all producers devise a conservation plan and reach environmental compliance through conservation practices. In return, Turkey Hill would pay its MDVA milk suppliers who are in compliance, a premium for their milk.

The company then approached officials from organizations such as the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the MDVA about creating a public/private partnership to focus on farms in Lancaster County and help implement the environmental plans. The THCWP was created through the partnership.

The THCWP has received funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to provide farmers with resources to meet Turkey Hill’s calls for sustainability, providing 75% cost-share assistance to farmers who implement conservation practices.

For years, Cox heard that farmers were resistant to change and they don’t care about helping the Chesapeake Bay, but he didn’t believe that to be the case. He said some of the biggest issues for farmers are that environmental plans and projects cost money with no short-term payback and the implementation can be overwhelming.

But building a group like the THCWP provided a place farmers could go to for help, Cox said.

“I’ve never known a single farmer who wants to have their soil run down a creek,” he said. “I’ve never met a farmer who says, ‘Oh, I’m polluting the streams. I’m so happy.’ My sense is most of the farming community in Lancaster County has shifted, and there’s an understanding that they need to be more proactive in their storm water and best management practices. And they are looking for solutions at this time.”

On the farm

One of the first local farms to take advantage of the THCWP grants and professional expertise sits on 75 acres of picturesque land in Fulton Township in southern Lancaster County.

The dairy farm, operated the last six years by an Amish family who did not want to be identified, has 50 milk-producing cows. The property includes a small unnamed tributary of Conowingo Creek, which flows into the Susquehanna River just over the Maryland border.

Followed by his two small children and Janae Klingler, the manager of animal care and sustainability for the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative, the Amish farmer led the group through the pasture where his cows will graze when the warm weather returns, to see environmental improvements made along the small waterway.

The Amishman said he wanted to put a new dairy barn on his farm last year, and advisers from TeamAg Inc. in Ephrata told him to consider making stream improvements as part of the project. He was put in contact with officials from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and the THWCP was brought in for help.

Work began in the fall as construction crews ripped out the existing concrete pad barnyard and a small barn where the cows were housed. The old pad directed manure into the adjacent stream.

In its place was installed a state-of-the-art dairy barn that gives more protection to the cows from the elements, along with high-capacity manure holding tanks to store the waste until it could be spread on his fields.

“It was high-time to upgrade,” the Amishman said.

But even before the barn and barnyard took shape, efforts were made to stabilize the tributary. A team of volunteers from Turkey Hill, the MDVA and other groups came to the farm in November to plant more than 400 trees and shrubs along the creek bed. The vegetation, known as a riparian buffer, keeps the soil from washing into the creek, and the cows from the stream bank.

A line of electric fencing was installed the length of the pasture and walkway to keep the cows out of the stream. Cow-crossing paths of the stream were reduced to two, and concrete walkways were installed for stabilization.

“I’m really starting to get excited now,” the Amishman said. “It’s really looking new and improved.”

For a community that has traditionally shied away from outside help, the Amishman said he has seen some of his neighbors come around to the idea of working with environmental groups for stream restoration projects. But, he acknowledged, “they’re not hooked on it yet” and not completely comfortable with accepting grants.

Once his project is completed, the Amishman said it should serve as an example to the surrounding community of what can be done with nonprofit groups.

“As far as soil conservation goes, I see the community going for that,” the man said. “I think we have a good thing going here. I think for the benefit of the creeks and the Bay, it’s something we can sure do to help out a little bit.”

Klingler, who works with many Lancaster County farmers in her role with the MDVA, said it’s gratifying to see a farmer take on a large project like the Fulton Township watershed improvement. The best part of her job is helping the producers become more efficient and productive while also helping the environment.

“It’s really fun to be able to offer them assistance, because the last few years they haven’t been able to make these improvements because of the economy,” Klingler said. “It’s something that makes their day exciting and our day exciting to see these things get done and to have the help to do it.”

The nonprofit partnership

Helping spearhead the work on the ground comes from groups like the MDVA, which was founded in 1920 by farmers looking to provide fresh milk to Washington, D.C. Today, the Reston, Va.-based cooperative has about 1,000 member farms, including 700 in Pennsylvania, and stretches south to Georgia.

Lindsay Reames, director of sustainability and external relations for MDVA, said the organization has an interest in the long-term sustainability of the dairy industry from the farm to the consumer.

As part of its sustainability efforts, its officials decided to form the partnership with Turkey Hill and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay through the THWCP.

“It’s allowed us to put money on the ground to support the farmers and really make a difference,” Reames said. “The conversations are much easier at the farm level when you come with resources. It’s easy to take the first step when you know you have the commitment and resources in hand to develop a plan for your operation.”

As much as 70% of the milk the coop markets is produced within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Reames said, and they’ve seen that number as an opportunity to do more environmental work within the watershed.

The THWCP agreed to pay 100% of the cost of the conservation and nutrient management plans for the farms. Those plans can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 to develop, and the implementation takes even more money.

THWCP started out with a $460,000 Conservation Innovation Grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Reames said. With the success and momentum of the program, the group has received just over $2 million in funding.

Bringing in the private sector partnership with Turkey Hill has allowed the group to fill in the gaps for funding, she said, and the program wouldn’t be where it is without the dairy’s help. She said they have now expanded the idea of working with private partners to all of the MDVA members, putting sustainability and conservation as top priorities.

“Having a partner like Turkey Hill really raises the bar of the program and shows a level of commitment that we’ve never experienced with a customer,” Reames said. “I think people are paying attention and looking at the model and taking a look at how they can make it work within their supply chains.”

A personal mission

Back at Turkey Hill, Cox said his concerns for the environment and water quality come from both a practical and personal nature.

On the practical side, he’s overseen dozens of storm water management projects with the state Department of Environmental Protection. Through conversations with DEP officials and professionals he’s learned the importance of changes to landscapes and their impact on the environment.

On the personal side, Cox said he spends great deal of time outdoors, including swimming and boating. He always assumed streams and waterways were naturally dirty because of what he saw in Lancaster County.  But when he started traveling in other parts of the country, such as Maine and Colorado, he realized not all streams are polluted.

Cox said he hopes other companies look at the THCWP program as a model of public/private partnerships to make communities better. He said he already knows of two other major food companies that are pursuing similar efforts, and that number could grow.

“I don’t know that I would see us necessarily saying that our role is to spearhead social change,” Cox said. “What I think that we try to do is to understand what the right thing to do is ethically and morally and legally, as well as what consumers want of us.”

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