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Support Community Based Approaches

Local and regional community based approaches work. There is a critical need to foster more community based approaches that are farmer-led.

Most if not all success stories to date in Pennsylvania involve locally led, community based approaches to water quality improvement. State, federal, private and foundation funders need to continue to make resources available to achieve success in locally led restoration initiatives. This includes providing the technical assistance and tools needed to conduct strategic watershed planning, provide decision support tools to help local leaders make better watershed management decisions, coordinate and conduct outreach to farmers, municipalities and other key landowners, develop conservation plans, and design and implement conservation practices.

Yet investment is not only needed in technical tools and expertise, but also in leadership training. Participants pointed out the importance of enhancing the capacity of local communities by building and sustaining local leadership and watershed based community engagement and partnerships. All communities have leaders capable of steering these efforts. Some need to be discovered and cultivated; others don’t even yet know they are the leaders of tomorrow.

Several participants recognized that local, community based approaches must be organic and customized to the specific region, community and local leadership structure and dynamics. For example, while focus on a single watershed may work in a particular area (e.g., Conewago), others may be more suited for county based efforts (e.g., York County); still others on broader regional partnership structures to support local work (e.g., the Upper Susquehanna Coalition). Regardless of scope, local coalition approaches should be fostered, where multiple partners share expertise, leverage funding, and improve efficiencies to achieve greater conservation outcomes.

Particularly important are farmer-led initiatives. Several participants noted that building community based water quality initiatives in agricultural areas can be challenging. Some of the challenges lie in the nature of the farmer, noted one group. The farmer often chooses that profession because he/she is “independent by nature and does not want help.” Farmer led efforts have a much greater chance at success. “Conservationists and ‘bad’ farmers never run in the same circles,” offered one participant. With respect to some communities, new and customized outreach strategies might have to be developed. It was noted for example that many Amish will not accept financial assistance for practices, but they will accept technical assistance. Thus programs focused on outreach, education and free technical assistance may be more productive.

Farmer-led initiatives are likely to succeed when they involve those producers who are “thought leaders” in the community, and when they build farmer-to-farmer networks. The Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance is a successful model for this peer-to-peer approach. These strategies work and are highly embraced by the agricultural community. Farmer-led efforts provide the trust which is necessary to reach other farmers, and can cost effectively provide education and technical assistance to other farmers.

However, to truly be successful, local community efforts must involve and embrace not only the farmer, but the full range of stakeholders in the community. In many agricultural communities, there is an intertwining of land uses and a very real interface of urban and rural; thus opportunities exist to collaboratively and comprehensively address both agricultural and urban runoff. Language that says “we are all in this together” is needed to build that community mindset. 

One participant suggested that broadly stated, easily understood, publicly stated goals (e.g., percent of land under cover in winter; miles of streams protected by trees) can be useful to rally the whole community behind these goals and develop knowledge of and support for good conservation, not just by farmers, but local government and the general population. Collaboration with “outside” partners who can bring certain technical skills or expertise, particularly when the initiative remains locally led and locally driven, is often critical to success.