Grants aid studies on environmental and financial value of stream buffers

Amy Duke
April 24, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A group of doctoral students in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences who are examining the use of perennial grasses as stream buffers will benefit from four complementary state and federal grants.

“The big picture of this project is to get people talking not just about the environmental importance of stream buffers, but also the economic potential they have as value-added crops,” said Stephanie Herbstritt, a graduate assistant in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. “We believe our work can help boost farmers’ bottom lines.”

The studies, being conducted under the guidance of Tom Richard, professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State, have garnered several awards:

— A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program will support water quality monitoring at two demonstration sites Herbstritt and her team installed last year.

— Funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture's Sustainable Bioenergy Program focuses on developing new markets and cost-effective production systems for perennial biomass crops.

— An award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Landscape Design for Sustainable Bioenergy Systems Program will help doctoral student Veronka Vazhnik to develop modeling and design tools that optimize the placement of perennial grasses for both water quality and profitability.

— A state grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Riparian Forest Buffer Program — awarded to the nonprofit ClearWater Conservancy and local collaborators — will enable the student scientists to test their design tools on local farmland and expand their demonstration sites by approximately 30 acres through partnerships with private landowners.

Switchgrass photo

The use of switchgrass and other perennial grasses as stream buffers is being studied by researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. 

IMAGE: Penn State

Studying the perks of perennials

Vegetation adjacent to streams — typically native grasses, trees and shrubs — provides habitat for wildlife and can decrease the chance of flooding. These stream buffers also help to absorb excess nutrients and sediment runoff from urban landscapes and agricultural operations that can make water unlivable for aquatic life.

This is especially important for the Chesapeake Bay — the largest estuary in the United States. Pennsylvania plays a big part in the restoration of this crucial resource — about half of the state drains to the bay, and the Susquehanna River is its largest tributary, providing about 50 percent of its fresh water. Farmers are obligated, under the Clean Water Act, to do their part to prevent runoff from entering water sources.

“But there can be barriers to adoption, namely the financial investment involved with installing stream buffers and the potential loss of productive pieces of farmland,” said Herbstritt, who shares a passion for the outdoors with her co-investigators Vazhnik and Michael Hile, postdoctoral scholar.

They believe the answer to those dilemmas lies in the use of perennials — plants that come back every year and can grow with little or no maintenance. Using these types of grasses and flowers as stream buffers would enable streamside landowners to meet the mandate with minimal investment while scoring a bonus — a low-maintenance cash crop.

While they are studying a mixture of varieties from sunflowers to black-eyed Susan, they believe one perennial shows great promise for profitability — switchgrass.

Hile explained that switchgrass is a hardy, deep-rooted perennial grass that's known for its ability to grow despite poor soil quality, drought or flood. Switchgrass has many environmental and commercial benefits, such as affording shelter and food for wildlife, conserving soil, and providing a source of material for livestock feed, animal bedding, mulch and landscaping.

Perhaps the most significant benefit, according to the researchers, is its use as a sustainable fuel source. Its biomass can be used for heating, co-digested with manure for biogas and renewable natural gas, and used to make ethanol, an alternative to gasoline.

Now eight months into a three-year study, the students have established demonstration plots in Centre County, with another planned at the college's Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Lancaster County, where they are evaluating mixtures of perennial grasses and plants for growth and yields, measuring water and soil quality postharvest, and studying the marketability and profitability of the crops.

The team also is accelerating the research technology transfer cycle using a “learning by doing” approach. By implementing innovative design tools, production practices and marketing strategies on operating farms before the research is complete, farmers and other stakeholders will offer real-time feedback.

One of those eager to see the results is Calvin Ernst, a Penn State graduate and president of Ernst Conservation Seeds in Meadville, a company that specializes in native and naturalized seeds and live plant materials for ecological restoration, sustainable landscaping, reclamation and natural resources conservation. The company is donating seeds for the project.

“Like many people, we are interested in protecting the environment and Chesapeake Bay, so supporting these student leaders' research aligns with the mission of our company,” Ernst said.

Looking to partner with landowners

Thanks to the DCNR award, the students will take their studies beyond their current plots and establish stream buffers on private land throughout the state, with a focus on Centre, Huntingdon and Lancaster counties, which they said are deemed “hot spots” for nutrient pollution. They are looking for citizens with streamside land who are interested in partnering with them.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to see the benefits of stream buffers firsthand and demonstrate the environmental and financial gains,” said Hile, who added that their goal is to begin planting the sites as soon as the weather cooperates.  

Citizens interested in learning more about partnering with the team can contact Herbstritt at smh412@psu.edu. In addition, a webinar conducted by the team on multifunctional stream buffers can be viewed here.

  • Students at Spring Creek stream buffer

    Taking a break after a long day of planting perennial grasses along Spring Creek in Centre County are students, standing, from left, Michael Hile and Kyle Hillman. Front row, from left, are Enrique Peña, Kyra Sciaudone, Isamar Amador-Diaz and Laura Ranieri. They all worked in the lab of Tom Richard, professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated April 25, 2019