Monday, October 19, 2020

Westmoreland Conservation District Announces 2020 Conservation Award Winners

On October 19, the
Westmoreland County Conservation District announced the winners of its 2020 Conservation Awards.

The Ralph Frye family and their operation, Pleasant Lane Farms of Unity Township, has been named the 2020 Conservation Farmer of the Year, and the Municipality of Murrysville has been named the 2020 J. Roy Houston Conservation Partner by the Westmoreland Conservation District.

The Frye Family; Pleasant Lane Farms

The Fryes have been a conservation district partner since 1978, and this is the second time they have received this same award. 

The first time was in 1983.  Then, Ralph and his wife, Ann, had been working their dairy farm in Pleasant Unity for only seven years, but had already installed contour strips, pasture management, crop residue management, and spring developments. 

In the 37 years since, Ralph and Ann, along with their family of three sons, Jason, Todd, and Chad, have installed many more significant conservation measures on the 224-acre farm, and expanded the operation to include value-added honey and cheese from their own beehives and on-site creamery.

“When we first came here in 1976, we were always fighting water,” explained Ralph, who can trace his agricultural roots back to 1795 and the farm of John Frye on Boggs Hollow Road in Salem Township.

“Water equals mud, and mud and cows equals diseases and other troubles for a dairy farm,” explained Dan Griffith, nutrient management specialist with the Westmoreland Conservation District.  “Excess water from a dairy farm also carries things like animal waste into any streams that are nearby, and then that pollution is carried downstream.”

Two unnamed tributaries to Sewickley Creek run through the Fryes’ property, and water quality in both streams is being protected, thanks the family’s ongoing commitment to conservation, which has led them to install underground drains, gutters, fencing, trees, shrubs, and other measures.   

In the late 1970s, the Fryes’ first move to manage the water was to install a system of drains underneath the 30 acres of crop fields that lie above their house. 

“Even with these subsurface drains, the area at the base of that hillside could have so much water that my son Jason and his friends once used it as a natural “slip and slide” at his high school graduation party,” Ralph said.   

Subsequently, the family augmented the underground drain system with a surface diversion ditch that is a nearly one-quarter-mile long and 20 feet wide. 

“That ditch has really finished the job on that hilly portion of the farm,” Ralph said, “and kept the water away from our family home.”

Of course, since this is western Pennsylvania, there is more than one hillside on the Frye farm.  

Another is almost directly outside the original barn, where most of the family’s 50 Holstein cows are kept.  The hoofs of these 1,500-pound mature animals easily tore up the ground outside their entrance to the barn and, when it rained, made a lot of mud at the top of this rise that slopes down to one of the streams.

To stop the dirt, mud, and animal waste from washing down the hill and into the stream, the Fryes created a heavy-use area here.  They poured a 1,800-square-foot concrete pad, put a curb around it and a roof with gutters and downspouts over it. 

“Now hardly any barnyard pollution gets into the stream,” Griffith said.

At the end of the heavy use pad, the Fryes created another conservation measure -- an animal walkway.  This 200-foot-long fenced lane keeps the cows (and so their impact on the soil) limited as they travel from the barn to pasture. 

On the Frye’s property, the cows also have to cross a stream to get to the high pasture and so the family built a stabilized stream crossing that also is fenced to keep the cows out of the water.

This same stream, as well as the one on the opposite side of the farm, has been further protected by the Fryes with fencing and trees and shrubs along both sides. The now-mature trees and shrubs reduce erosion along the streambanks and act like a living strainer to catch pollution before it gets into the water. 

The fencing is another safeguard to keep the Holsteins away from these bottom land areas, where softer soils and cow hoofs would be a recipe for serious erosion.

The Fryes have plans for even more conservation improvements, including a new manure storage pit.  Once the pit is in place, waste from the creamery, milking area, and cows will be collected here and spread on the farm fields at the most opportune time.

In 2018, the Westmoreland Conservation District sponsored its first “Next Generation Farm Summit,” which featured information on ways to keep farming viable, such as creating products that increase the value of primary agricultural commodities.  Raspberries become raspberry jelly, for instance.

Last year, Jason Frye, the seventh generation of this family to farm, started steering the family operation in one of those new, value-added directions:  cheesemaking.  With a grant from the Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program, the Fryes built a 5,000-square-foot production facility that houses a creamery, a laboratory, three aging rooms and a drying room. 

In April, they started making cheese, and have the distinction of being the only cows-milk creamery in Westmoreland County.

As of early September, more than half of the milk produced by the farm’s 50 cows was being made into gouda, aged cheddar, Colby, pizza cheese, feta, curds, and a spreadable cheese called quark that comes in a variety of flavors, including honey from the farm’s apiary. 

Eventually, more varieties may be added to the product line, along with cheesecakes made by family matriarch, Ann.

A new robotic milking parlor, which they hope will be operational in 2021, will allow the Fryes to increase the size of the herd and yet be relieved of the twice-daily manual milking. 

Another grant is helping with marketing and construction of a classroom that they hope will introduce 100 pre-school children a year to dairy farming and cheesemaking.

The majority of the Frye farm is permanently preserved as farmland through the Westmoreland County Agricultural Land Preservation Program.  The operation is guided by a manure management plan, a conservation plan, and a business plan.

The Municipality of Murrysville

Murrysville is the first municipality to ever receive the J. Roy Houston Conservation Partner Award, which was established by Peoples Natural Gas in 2011 to recognize outstanding community service, leadership in natural resource conservation, and solid economic sustainability.  

It is named for J. Roy Houston, a former manager for Peoples Gas and the longest-serving volunteer chairman of the Westmoreland Conservation District board (40 years).

“Roy would be especially pleased that Murrysville is the first municipality to receive this award,” said Greg Phillips, conservation district manager and CEO.  “He had a great love for this community, which was his hometown, and rightfully so.  Murrysville has always had involved citizens, responsive elected officials, and professional administrators who work respectfully together to balance conservation and development for the common good. The result is one of the most desirable places to live, work, and play in all of Westmoreland County.”

Murrysville has had a formal working agreement with the conservation district since 1989, but the partnership between the two goes back as far as anyone can remember.  

“Murrysville people have always been ‘true believers’ in conservation,” observed Jim Pillsbury, hydraulic engineer with the district who has worked with communities throughout the county more than 30 years.  “Murrysville’s leadership and citizens are very progressive, and they’ve led the way with a lot of conservation ‘firsts’ – installing stormwater ponds, creating ordinances, promoting best management practices.  They have found the ability to create a balanced mix of open space, development, housing, public safety, citizen involvement, recreation, and all the elements that go into making a livable community.”

Water quality is just one of the many community benefits that Murrysville citizens enjoy because of the municipality’s progressive and long-term commitment to conservation, and specifically to managing both erosion and stormwater.

Before any earth is moved for development, Murrysville officials and conservation district staff routinely meet with the developer or engineer to ensure that the work will be done in ways that make wise use of natural resources and respect measures such as the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law.

Decades ago, Murrysville was one of the first Westmoreland County communities to install detention ponds to manage stormwater -- the water that runs off developed sites and paved surfaces.  

If not well managed, stormwater can cause homes to flood and streams to be polluted.  In the past few years, Murrysville has been working to upgrade more than a dozen of these important stormwater-detention ponds to make sure that they are able to handle the growing volume of runoff that comes from increased development.

The community also has been very progressive in looking to the future and creating ordinances that encourage the use of innovative conservation practices. A recent one encourages residential neighborhoods to install on-site sump systems, which infiltrate water from roof drains on each home site and so reduce the need for larger, stormwater detention ponds.

Another progressive approach Murrysville has adopted is that half of each new parking lot built in the community is now made of permeable material.  

“Permeable material allows water to run through it and directly into the ground, as opposed to impermeable material like regular concrete or asphalt that water just hits and runs off,” Pillsbury explained.  “Like on-site sump systems, permeable materials control stormwater right away, at the source.” 

Permeable materials also are built into the community’s recreation sites, including the Robert’s Parcel access to Duff Park and the Westmoreland Heritage Trail, and into the community’s new Miracle League recreation complex.  

The former is near Haymaker Run and the latter sits on a rise just above Steele’s Run.  Both streams are designated as high-quality by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

“It is unusual for a suburban community – especially one that is less than a half-hour’s drive from Pittsburgh – to boast a stream with high water quality,” Phillips said.  “Usually you find high-quality streams in the forested areas of the county where there is little development.  But Murrysville actually has two high-quality streams, which is a tribute to the efforts of its conservation-minded citizens and to the conservation awareness that the municipality builds into its policies and practices.”

One of Murrysville’s most recent conservation efforts to protect water quality was the planting of more than 300 trees and shrubs along Steele’s Run near its headwaters and the creation of a “no mow” area along that stream, which will act as an additional filter to keep pollutants out of the water. 

In 2015, the municipality worked with the district’s Low-volume Road Program to improve a portion of Maiolie Road, and this work helped to reduce the amount of eroded soil and pollutants getting into Steele’s Run. Similar work was done on Morosini Farm Court in 2018, benefitting an unnamed tributary to Turtle Creek.

Murrysville’s mayor and council also have submitted a plan to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection that will significantly reduce sewage inflow and infiltration into the community’s waterways. 

 “Our dream is that some day (the water quality will be so good that) our grandchildren can fly fish in Turtle Creek,” said Regis Synan, Murrysville mayor.

The community and the conservation district have worked together to support agriculture since the 1950s, when James Torrance of what was then called Franklin Township was named the District’s first “Outstanding Farm Cooperator” (now Conservation Farmer of the Year).

Today, farms in Murrysville are supported by an agricultural security area designation.  Individual farmers also work with the district to implement conservation practices that benefit both the agricultural operation and the greater community.  

A project is currently being planned on two adjacent farms that will allow their animals to cross Turtle Creek to get to additional pastures in a way that won’t affect the quality of that stream.

The municipality has been an active partner with the conservation district and others in stabilizing streambanks for the building of the popular new Westmoreland Heritage Trail, which runs for more than five miles through the community. 

Murrysville also works with the conservation district’s forester, and has an ordinance that ensures that timber-harvesting is done in a way that minimizes erosion.

Conservation awareness is taught from an early age in Murrysville. 

In the annual  hands-on environmental competition the conservation district sponsors, students from Franklin Regional Senior High School have placed first more often than students from any other school, taking the top price in 17 of the 34 annual events.  

And Franklin Regional teams were the only Westmoreland County high school teams to ever place first, second, and third in the statewide competition multiple times and second in the international competition.

Murrysville supports environmental education in other ways as well, including with a learning center and webcam at the wetland, and with a planned outdoor classroom for the new Sloan School on Sardis Road.

It also has an active Environmental Advisory Council and Parks & Recreation Commission, made up of area citizens, and is supported by a number of active conservation partnership organizations in the community, including the Westmoreland Conservancy, Friends of Murrysville Parks, the Murrysville Trail Alliance, and others.

Due to Covid restrictions, the District will not host its annual awards reception, but will present the awards in small, individual ceremonies at each winner’s location later this month.   

A link to short videos detailing the conservation accomplishments of each winner will be available on the Westmoreland County Conservation District website.

[How Clean Is Your Stream?

[DEP’s Interactive Report Viewer allows you to zoom in on your own stream or watershed to find out how clean your stream is or if it has impaired water quality using the latest information in the draft 2020 Water Quality Report.]

(Photos: Jim Morrison, Chief Administrator, Emily Mallisee, Engineer Technician, Regis Synan, Mayor of Murrysville; Ralph Frye, Pleasant Lane Farms.)

Related Articles:

-- Farmers Tell Why They Need An Agricultural Cost-Share Program To Support Conservation Practices (Video) 

--  46 Groups Want Farm Conservation Funding Bill Passed This Year

[Posted: October 19, 2020]  PA Environment Digest

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