By: Joanna Poncavage
Publication: The Morning Call
Recently, the Lehigh County Conservation District honored three Lehigh Valley residents, George and Melanie DeVault of Upper Milford Township and Joseph DiRado, a teacher at Eyer Middle School, for their efforts to carefully manage the environment and preserve natural resources.
For their diligent use of soil and water resources, the DeVaults last month were named Farmers of the Year by the Lehigh County Conservation District. “It’s a great honor for us,” says George DeVault, “but it’s also recognition that there are other ways to farm. Small farms, diversified farms, and people who grow high-value crops and market directly can make a go of it, too.”
About seven miles upstream from the water filtration plant along Martin Luther King Boulevard in Allentown, where the city draws about one-third of its water from the Little Lehigh Creek, is the farm of George and Melanie DeVault.
Their 20 acres and five greenhouses are certified organic. With son Don and daughter Ruth, they raise many kinds of vegetables, blueberries and unique cut flowers that they sell at farmers markets and to customers who come to the farm. It’s a long way and 30 years from the DeVaults’ first garden in Columbus, Ohio, where the newlyweds dug up a strip of lawn in their city back yard to plant corn, tomatoes and anything that would fit.
Today, the DeVaults buy organic compost by the ton to keep the soil on their perpetually preserved, multi-generational, and incorporated farm rich and productive. In winter, fields are tucked under a blanket of oats and hairy vetch, a cover that eliminates soil erosion, smothers weeds and builds soil by adding organic matter and natural fertilizer.
To keep rain water from washing soil down hill and into their neighbors’ back yards the way it used to do, they don’t plow up or plant crops in the natural drainage ways. They installed underground drainage tiles under the fields to draw water from the surface. They allow buffer strips to grow naturally as habitat for wildlife.
“We try to make it better than when we found it,” says George DeVault, who is editor of Rodale’s Russian-language farm magazine, a board member of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture and a former member of the Lehigh County Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Board.
Melanie DeVault, a former Morning Call reporter, is a member of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. She’s also a past president of the Lehigh County Extension Advisory Board, which works with Penn State Cooperative Extension on the local level.
When a large dog kennel project was proposed for the land above their property, they hired an engineer, attorney and consultant and rallied dozens of neighbors to argue that it would adversely affect acres of wetlands that drain into Leibert Creek, designated by the state to be a high-quality, cold-water fishery with a naturally reproducing brown trout population, and subsequently into the Little Lehigh.
At the same time, Upper Milford Township was seeking to protect the creek with a $5 million sewer project. “It just didn’t make sense to put such a major potential source of pollution at the very headwaters of the creek we’re trying to protect at such great expense,” says George DeVault. The kennel developers dropped their plans.