Mark Heller: Local agriculture operator making a difference

Mark Heller: Local agriculture operator making a difference

Local agriculture operator making a difference
All photos taken by Sam Feibel, Yale Environmental Humanities

In 2018, Mark Heller looked out over his property in Lancaster County and saw a muddy, heavily used meadow right up to the edge of a stream with eroding banks. He thought “this doesn’t look healthy.” But he didn’t see a way to correct the problems with his career taking him away from home for several weeks at a time. 

Mark describes the situation as “kismet” when a representative from Penn State Agriculture and Environment Center visited him in 2020 and asked if he was interested in making improvements to the health of the stream, meadow, and crop land. “It took her by surprise because I immediately said ‘Heck yeah! Where have you been?!’” said Mark. 

Penn State worked with Mark to realign the streambanks, install a three-acre riparian forest buffer, and switch to no-till practices and cover cropping. 

Mark had a particular interest in the buffer from the beginning, putting hours of labor into planting 300 potted trees and 200 bare roots. And for three years after that planting, he knew he’d need to regularly realign tree tubes, replace trees, weed, mow, and keep vermin away. 

Mark was the first landowner to participate in the Buffer Establishment Support Team Program, affectionately known as the BEST Program – a brainchild of the Buffer Action Team with the Lancaster Clean Water Partners. The first four years of a buffer’s life are fragile. There’s many opportunities for trees to not survive, from vermin to invasive species to excessive flooding or not enough watering. That’s why the BEST Program pays landowners like Mark for buffer establishment care, including herbicide spraying, mowing, tree tube tending and tree replacement when needed. 

“I’ve driven past plantings that haven’t been maintained well,” said Mark. “You can see high grass, trees tipped over, you can see invasives growing in there. You can tell the trees aren’t going to do well or survive at all if it’s not taken care of.”   

The establishment care gives the trees their best chance to grow and thrive, says Mark. And the trees are thriving due to Mark’s commitment to mowing, spraying, straightening, and replanting with the help of the Lancaster BEST Program. 

With four years of establishment care complete, Mark plans to plant a three-acre pollinator meadow among the buffer to reduce routine maintenance long-term. While a forested riparian buffer alone prevents erosion, shades the stream, provides habitat, and helps filter pollutants, grass buffers are ideal for filtering runoff and helping to spread out the water flow to allow the full riparian buffer to treat any pollutants. The meadow will be planted with the help of Penn State Agriculture and Environment Center and the Chiques Creek Watershed Alliance, with funding from the Lancaster Clean Water Fund. 

“It’s neat to see the trees and shrubs really taking off,” said Mark. “It makes a huge difference in the overall health of the stream and the watershed. It’s what we should be doing. It’ll be a blast for my grandkids to play in the stream and among the trees when they get a bit more mature.”