In another era Carl “Bunny” Meister might have been one of those western heroes of black-and-white TV. Fit, handsome and steely eyed, they taught America the difference between right and wrong. Men of honor, their values were imbedded in their land as deeply as the riverbeds and the roots of the ancient, gnarled trees.
Meister actually does ride high in the saddle. A former steeplechase jockey and lifelong foxhunter, for years he has been spearheading the drive to save local watersheds that are so vital to all of us.
Clean water is the cornerstone of healthy communities. Its value and importance to people, plants, fish and wildlife is impossible to overstate. Since 1988 Meister has been a prominent board member of the Brandywine Valley Association (BVA), established in 1945. Its mission is to counter the pressure from rapid development growth by promoting the restoration, preservation, and conservation of natural resources in the Brandywine Valley.
If you live in the Brandywine watershed you probably get your drinking water from an underground well that taps an aquifer deep below the surface. Otherwise, your water comes from pipes underground that begin at a water treatment facility. Water treatment facilities get the majority of their water from the Brandywine Creek and occasionally from underground sources.
In the mid-1950’s BVA initiated the Watershed Work Plan for flood control and water supply. These days it includes five flood and water supply structures that have repeatedly shown their value during floods and droughts over the years. In the 1970’s BVA pioneered the first land application system for treated effluent, the process of removing contaminants from wastewater. Today land application is an accepted practice that helps improve surface water quality, recharges ground water, and preserves open space.
Meister is especially passionate about BVA’s Red Streams Blue Program goal to ensure that all streams in the Brandywine Watershed meet Pennsylvania water quality standards. Simply put, blue streams translate to those that are swimmable, fishable and drinkable. BVA’s first five projects have turned around 5,200 feet of streams.
“No other clean water program in the country is like ours, going from a detailed analysis of each stream to a comprehensive restoration plan,” Meister explains. “Our mission is to be proactive but we’re really careful to call upon science to understand all the facts before we make a decision.”
“Bunny is the catalyst for a lot of what we do,” says Jim Jordan, BVA’s executive director. “He chaired our recent $3 million capital campaign. Bunny is our greatest ambassador. He’s always wearing a BVA hat.”
Meister has been a driving force of the Brandywine Hills Point-to-Point races since 1961. Staged in the rolling hills outside Unionville, the races have raised $15,000 to $20,000 annually in recent years.
“Horse owners and foxhunters in particular are an active force in preserving the rural character, the contiguous pieces of open space in several parts of the county" says Meister, who has fox-hunted with the Brandywine Foxhounds Club for sixty years.
“Grass and water are essential to horses so their owners have to retain these natural resources. In doing so, they provide a service to their fellow men.”
A short canter from the Point-to-Point race ground resides BVA’s Myrick Conservation Center. A unique outdoor teaching facility, it reinforces classroom lessons that reached nearly 12,000 elementary and middle school students last year through hands-on exercises and field experiences. “Through both our on the land and in the water education programs the children have the opportunity to learn conservation and sustainability while getting dirty and having fun,” Meister says. “All of them leave with a better understanding of, and an appreciation for, the natural world. It is one week of camp, but the lessons will last a lifetime.”
Michele Wales-- Eat Your Veggies
Flight DNS-157 departed early on a Sunday morning. Not from an airport, but from Coverdale Farm Preserve in Greenville.
It was the flight of a monarch butterfly with its flight number printed on a tiny round sticker attached to a front wing. Every autumn hundreds of the orange-and-black winged insects are tagged and released by citizen-science students during the fall migration to Florida and central Mexico.
Each year at Coverdale Farm more than 12,o00 youngsters, families and individuals are schooled in agriculture, natural resources and environmental advocacy. Groups of students (from K to 12 in four states) also learn to test water quality in streams and ponds, remove invasive plant species that threaten native plant populations, and care for livestock such as cows, chickens, pigs and sheep.
Education program coordinator Michele Wales has been leading the charge for the past dozen years.
“The hands-on, experiential learning is an extension of what teachers do in the classroom,” Wales notes. “We engage the children and bring the facts to life here outside. They learn a lot and have plenty of fun.”
Take the K-3rd grade program. Depending on the season, youngsters prepare seeds, plant or harvest produce, and determine the composition of various soils. In the process, the kids realize how soil types impact crop choice and influence plant growth. The tutorial takes place on seven acres that grows a bounty of vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs for its Community Supported Agriculture program.
Coverdale’s nature preserve is widely viewed as a model of the best practices in biodiversity management.
The farm complex is home to a late 1700’s stone bank barn and comprises 352 acres of old-growth forest, flood plain meadows and Burrows Run, one of Delaware's cleanest waterways.
Adults go to school, too. There are miles of nature walks, cooking workshops, photography and art classes. Cooking classes go beyond acquiring new recipes and emphasize the full farm-to-table growing and harvest cycle. In its “Cooking with Corn” workshop, participants don’t just make tasty relishes, chutneys and side dishes-- they go out to the fields to pick the ears, all the while learning what it takes to grow sweet corn.
“I’m the conductor, giving out recipes and they get to jump in there with all the produce and divide and conquer, leaving with wonderful ideas on preparing new dishes,” Wales relates. “They also learn why we need to save farmlands and why supporting local farms is so important. If you’re putting your dollars back into your local community, you’re making a statement saying, ‘I want more fresh fruits, veggies and herbs. I want more of this available.”
Bill Elkins-- What’s Your Beef?
If we are what we eat, then Dr. Bill Elkins is doing his part to keep us healthy.
At his Buck Run Farm located just off Route 82, Elkins’ cow and calf operation goes against the tide of the modern meat industry of corn-fed beef. Elkins’ farm occupies 300 acres where roughly 100 head of beef cattle are bred and graze freely, a throwback to ranches sixty years ago when the cows came in daily contact with the earth, sun and the steady gaze of a farmer. It’s a low-impact, gentler kinder of farming.
All cattle are typically raised on grass in the early months of their lives. But in the 1950s, cattle raisers hoping to cut costs and improve efficiency of beef production began to ship the animals to feed lots where they would be fattened on a diet of corn and soy, and dosed with hormones and antibiotics. The diet enhances fat marbling, the more fat within the red meat the richer the taste and the higher the grade. But it also raised fat and cholesterol levels.
That approach had always stuck in Elkins’ craw. Fifteen years ago medical findings indicated that beef from grass-fed cattle was an excellent source of good fatty acids, such as CLA, Omega-3 and vitamin E. Like good and bad cholesterol in our bodies, there are good and bad fatty acids in food. The fatty acids and many other important nutrients help guard against cancer and heart disease.
“That totally changed my outlook,” says Elkins who retired from a career in bio-medical science. “When you put an animal on grain, those good fats go way down. Nowadays restaurants offer the grass-fed beef, ten years ago, you couldn’t.”
It was a steep early learning curve. He constantly battles Mother Nature. A lightning strike killed off a portion of his herd. Elkins’ grass-fed Angusburgers one-pound packs retail for roughly $6. He sells to Philadelphia’s Reading Market, Pete's Produce Farm, the Harvest Market and Talula’s Table. Like many farmers, Elkins sell directly to consumers at the farm.
“It’s been an ongoing battle,” Elkins says. There’s always the next challenge, but at the end of each day there is truly a sense of pride.”