Preserving a Way of Life
The Brandywine Creek begins in Honey Brook Township in the northwest corner of Chester County. Hundreds of springs seep groundwater out of the Welsh Hills to form rivulets that turn into streams that ultimately become the east and west branches of the Brandywine. These headwaters and streams flow through miles of rich, gently rolling land that is predominantly owned and farmed by a Plain Sect (Amish) community tied to the land as few others are. Farms and traditional methods are passed down through generations. Fields are plowed and planted with teams of draft horses. Chickens peck through the yards. Cows graze the fields. Farming is a way of life.
The Brandywine Conservancy staff has been working in Honey Brook Township for over 15 years, initially helping the township with zoning and planning. But over time, we helped the landowners preserve their farms through the county’s Agricultural Land Preservation Program. As more farmers embraced the program, we joined with the county and township to accelerate the pace of preservation by raising private funds to stretch the limited public dollars to buy more easements to conserve more farms. In 2015, a major milestone was passed – over 25% of Honey Brook Township (4,165 acres) is now permanently protected. A unique way of life is more secure.
But the Conservancy’s goals are not just to preserve the land and a way of life. We want to protect and improve the water quality in those hundreds of streams that become the Brandywine that provides drinking water to over 500,000 downstream residents. That is why the Conservancy staff is working closely with the farmers to prepare farm conservation plans that specify a host of Best Management Practices (BMPs) designed to retain the valuable soil and minimize polluting run-off. Our staff is also securing grants to help pay for these practices. The Amish farmers with whom we are dealing recognize the benefits we espouse and understand that to lose their soil is to lose the land that sustains them. They also understand being a good neighbor and the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like them to treat you. They are accepting some new ways for an old purpose.Today we know that an important water protection measures any farmer can undertake is to fence off his streams to keep out livestock. More and more Amish farmers are doing this, though progress is slow. Even better would be for them to plant that fenced-in area with trees and shrubs, to create a forested riparian buffer that filters out pollutants, stabilizes the stream banks, and shades the water. Not too many years ago, state and county farm extension services were telling farmers to cut down trees, to plant as much land as they could, but now we understand the impact that has on water quality. One farmer, when he heard we wanted him to reforest his stream corridor, said “My grandfather began clearing that bank of trees and my father finished the job. And now you want me to put them back!”
Yes, we want the trees back.
Photos by John P. Goodall, Western Area Manager