Nearly 3,000 acres in Westmoreland enrolled in program to protect farmland
The Costello brothers recently spotted four types of swallows nesting around buildings on their Mt. Pleasant Township farm. It’s just one result they attribute to steps they’ve taken to conserve natural resources on their family’s 370-acre spread.
“We’ve been amazed at what we’ve seen,” Joe Costello said of the new varieties of wildlife that have appeared at Friendship Farms since he and his brother, Mike, replanted trees on sections that had been cleared for agricultural use.
“They’re happy here, and they’re eating lots of bugs,” Joe Costello said of the swallows.
The Costellos are among 213 landowners in Westmoreland County who are participating in the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. The program pays an annual rental rate between $75 and $125 per acre and reimburses costs for diverting environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production to control soil erosion, protect stream quality and support animal habitat. The Costellos, who have set aside seven acres in the program, were featured in a tour organized Tuesday by the Westmoreland Conservation District.
In Westmoreland, 2,942 acres of farmland are enrolled in the conservation program. Participants can enroll acreage for 10 to 15 years with an option to renew.
Since 2006, the Costellos have planted trees and shrubs and installed fences to create buffers to keep their 150 head of cattle from trampling into streams that flow into either the Loyalhanna or Sewickley watersheds.
Joe Costello said the latest conservation measures are in line with the approach his family was taking to reinvigorate badly eroded sections of the farm they acquired in the late 1960s. The buffers “fit naturally into the areas we wanted to fence off. We were planting bunches of trees on the farm whenever we had time and could afford it,” he said.
Mike Costello showed tour participants a stream crossing constructed on a base of rocks that allows cattle to move between pastures and to sip from the stream in times of drought while keeping disruption of the waterway to a minimum.
Mostly, the cattle keep hydrated at a series of troughs the Costellos constructed that are fed by springs.
“We try to keep our animals out of the streams, especially the beginning of the stream,” Joe Costello said. Otherwise, “it becomes a real mud hole.”
Thomas Sierzega, district conservationist in the county for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, pointed out conserving the streams closer to their sources benefits all downstream — aquatic life as well as those who rely on the water for recreation or drinking.
Jason Pontillo, county executive director for the federal Farm Service Agency, said the agency will cover at least 50 percent of eligible conservation costs incurred by program participants. But that figure can increase to 140 percent if a project qualifies for additional state and federal cost-sharing.
The Costellos, who also raise free-range chickens and operate an on-site bakery, grow the native plant species they use to employ conservations practices on their land — and at other sites, through a contracting business.
The Costellos have assisted with reforestation efforts on sections of Gettysburg National Military Park and at the site of a related cavalry engagement, all part of an effort to restore the land more closely to the vegetation that was in place at the time of the pivotal July 1863 meeting of Union and Confederate troops.
Closer to home, the Costellos worked on developing nature trails and a pond while planting wildflower meadows and a butterfly garden at the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve adjacent to St. Vincent College near Latrobe.
“It’s been a good, long-term relationship with them,” Joe Costello said of officials at the Palmer Reserve. “It’s a really cool concept.”
The Costello brothers, along with their mother, Naomi, were honored as the Westmoreland Conservation District’s Conservation Farmer of the Year in 2008.
This week’s farm tours are meant to offer tips to other area farmers on “best practices” for using conservation methods. The tours will conclude Thursday with visits to cattle and crop farms near New Alexandria and Crabtree. Featured will be the longest stream buffer in the county, stretching for a mile and a half.
For more information on the conservation enhancement program, contact the Farm Service Agency at 724-853-5555.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer.