Turkey Hill Dairy Leads the Way on Lancaster County Farms

Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is an astonishing place. Of the 650,000 acres that make up the county, 425,000 acres are used in agriculture. The county is home to almost 6,000 farms, of which 99 percent are owned locally.

Lancaster is ranked No. 1 in the United States for productivity on nonirrigated soil, and the value of market products sold annually is $1.5 billion. Farms in Lancaster provide pork, poultry, eggs and milk for millions of consumers.

These remarkable numbers do not come without a cost, though. More than half of Lancaster County’s 1,400 miles of streams are impaired.

Take a look at any pollutant-loading map and Lancaster is easy to find. Clearly outlined, without any political boundaries, the county shows up bright red for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. Lancaster alone is responsible for 21 percent of the nitrogen load calculated for Pennsylvania’s watershed cleanup plan for 2025.

While Pennsylvania requires all farms to have a conservation plan, or agricultural erosion and sedimentation plan, and has done so since 1972, it is estimated that only about half of the county’s 6,000 farms have a plan.

Increased pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has resulted in a greater focus on compliance efforts from conservation districts in the state. Lancaster County has the largest conservation district staff in the state. But at current capacity, it is estimated that it would take 30 years to support every farmer in the county in developing a conservation plan. Resources for implementation continue to be a challenge, but new leadership rising in the private sector could be the game changer that is needed.

John Cox, president of Turkey Hill Dairy, an ice cream distributor based in Lancaster County, is stepping up. Cox has been passionate about Lancaster’s waterways for quite some time, and he serves as the chairman of the Lancaster Clean Water Partners, an organization that coordinates water quality restoration work along with many other partners in the county.

After attending one of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s Businesses for the Bay forums, which urged companies to consider how they could change their operations to improve water quality, Cox was inspired to think about Turkey Hill’s direct impact.

Knowing that Turkey Hill is Lancaster’s largest dairy distributor, and that the dairy sector has one of the largest agricultural footprints in Lancaster, Cox decided the company’s focus needed to be its farmers, however indirectly. Turkey Hill does not conduct business directly with the dairy farms; rather, it buys its milk from a dairy cooperative — a collective of farmers who market their product together.

Timing was on Cox’s side because Turkey Hill’s reconsideration of its environmental footprint coincided with the rebidding of its contract with dairy cooperatives.

During their contract negotiations, Cox and his team added requirements that all farmers providing milk to Turkey Hill would not only have a conservation plan but would be implementing the practices called for in the plan. Once all farmers achieved this, Turkey Hill would pay a premium for the higher quality product. The Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association, which has members in Lancaster, responded positively to the idea, and was selected as Turkey Hill’s dairy co-op.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and Turkey Hill had partnered to receive a Conservation Innovation grant from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service — to support the farmers who could not afford the cost of a plan or its implementation.

This led to the Turkey Hill Clean Water Partnership, which includes the Turkey Hill team, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Maryland & Virginia co-op. The goal of that partnership is to give the co-op farmers as much support as possible. This partnership hit the ground running last winter and started strategizing how to best inform and support Turkey Hill’s farmers.

Alliance staff have met with Turkey Hill’s 130 farmers to explain the new goal and discuss options for assistance. The goal is for all of the farmers supported by the NRCS grant to have their conservation plans in place by winter 2019. The Alliance is in the process of seeking additional funding and resources to help those farmers.

At the Alliance we’ve learned that adding partners to the equation allows us to accomplish much more than we can on our own. Turkey Hill is leading by example and bringing about a systems-level change in how the dairy industry operates in Lancaster. Their leadership is going to catapult the county forward in achieving its conservation goals. When the public and private sectors work together in partnership, our ability to scale up implementation is tremendously enhanced. Leadership from within the private sector, like Turkey Hill’s, is the catalyst that Lancaster County, the state of Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay have been waiting for.

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