How did the Amish get mixed up in the problem of the pollution of the
Chesapeake Bay? This fascinating story, written as a series in 1993,
highlights the impact of government regulations on the Amish. We will also
discover that while some Lancaster Amish do not recognize the problem,
others may be ahead of their neighbors in trying to improve the
situation...and even turn a profit!
According to a local Amishman who has become interested in this issue,
the depth of visibility in the Bay has greatly declined, and the oyster
harvest is only 1% of what it was in prime years. In the Bay's ecosystem,
the oysters clean the bay and create food for other creatures. The
clearing of land created problems because there were no longer leaves to
cover the soil. Leaves act like a sponge and help to hold the water and
release it gradually. Now traffic, housing, and agriculture are all
factors in the problems of the Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay Program brought together the states of Maryland,
Pennsylvania, and Virginia, to try to improve the situation. Upstream
pollution from industrial waste, sewage, and manure run-off with its high
nitrogen and phosphorus content were the main culprits. Since Lancaster
has the "highest dairy cow population per square mile in all the
United States," it was a main focus for those interested in making a
Intensive farming means increasing the size of hers without increasing
the land base, resulting in more manure per acre. As more fertilizers are
used to grow crops, increased amounts of chemicals also enter the soil,
compounding the problem of run-off and pollution of the water supply. In
addition, traffic and exhaust fumes result in acid rain. Sewer treatment
plants currently remove phosphorus, but not nitrogen, except at a high
cost. The nitrate problem reached the point where some hotels with
well-water informed their patrons that pregnant women should not drink
In 1988, some local Lancaster Amish were invited to go to the Bay and
talk with the fisherman there. They discovered that they had similar
problems. For one thing, weather is a key factor in production. For
example, Hurricane Agnes washed huge amounts of sediment into the Bay. And
so began some of the first discussion and interest among some of the local
Amish in relation to the impact of farming practices on the environment.
Around this time government relations were also in effect that not all
Amish were familiar with. Sometimes the Amish are simply unaware of new
regulations passed by local and state authorities. Sometimes those
enforcing the law run up against Amish resistance. (One need only look at
the fight over Amish one-room schools that went all the way to the U.S.
Supreme Court before being resolved in 1972.)
Thus, in 1989, two Lancaster Amish farmers were arrested and fined for
manure run-off violations. One local Amish feels the incident was caused
not so much because of environmental concerns as by a neighbor's grudge.
This neighbor, who was not Amish, had been pestering two Amish farmers for
some land to build a house. But after he moved in, he did not care for the
odor that resulted from being sandwiched between two dairy farms. The man
reported his two Amish neighbors to the Fish and Game Commission.
As one local Amishman wrote of this incident....
According to the law, a violating farmer can be fined $100 a day up
to $10,000. One farmer paid his fine until his money was exhausted and he
could not borrow any more from the bank. Then one day a cattle truck
pulled in and loaded up the number of cows required to meet the $10,000
fine. Fortunately, his neighbor had the money to pay the fine until he got
his problem in shape.
The Amish were responsible for the manure run-off, and
eventually the problem was remedied by diversion ditches designed to
prevent further run-off.
A meeting of representatives of the local Amish community, Visitors
Bureau, and County Planning Commission was held in 1989 in response to
this incident. The concern here was over what might happen if these and
other environmental regulations were severely enforced. Some even worried
that their futures as farmers were in jeopardy.
A few weeks later a meeting was held again with Department of
Environmental Resources enforcement people and the Amish. The goal was to
educate both groups. The goal was to educate both groups. The Amish
learned of the regulations and how they were applied. The officials were
informed of the "cultural and religious beliefs affecting the ability
of the Amish to comply with these regulations." Impressions were that
the meeting accomplished its aim.
Now let's talk with two people trying to do something about the
problem. One is Lamonte Garber, Agricultural Specialist for the Chesapeake
Bay Foundation. The other is an Old Order Amishman, who wishes to remain
Mr. Garber does not feel that the attitudes of Amish farmers are all
that different from their non-Amish counterparts. Both groups have a wide
range of opinions on pollution, management, and environmental issues, and
who should be handling them.
But while most programs rely on governmental assistance as an incentive
for the farmer to change his ways of nutrient management, this is
sometimes a "dis-incentive" for the Amish. Traditionally, they
refuse government aid or financial assistance, be it Social Security or
money for their parochial school system. Nevertheless, some are
involved in a local project and receiving financial assistance for the
cleaning of barnyards, reduction of run-off, and fencing of streams from
Because Amish farmers are slow in accepting government money or grants,
the Pennsylvania Game Commission program to build stream fences is not as
widely accepted as it could be. But more Amish are recognizing that it is
not good for their cows to be drinking this water, regardless of what the
environmental impact might be otherwise. In fact, Garber notes that
"a respectable number of Amish have participated" when the Game
Commission simply installs the fence for free.
One local Amish farmer told me that when one of his sons put in a
nitrate filtration system for the water his cows drank, his milk
production shot up dramatically. (Nitrates act in the blood by replacing
oxygen.) This fact alone may encourage more farmers to look into better
Some farmers, both Amish and non-Amish, feel they have been used as
scapegoats, since there are other sources of pollution that flow into
streams and rivers, and eventually to the Bay. Garber noted that up until
the past decade, there was little attention paid to the environmental
impact of farming. Mostly, the emphasis was on soil conservation, and so
issues like run-off and ground-water contamination are relatively new.
Garber agrees that the farmers have a point in that other sources of
pollution include car exhaust, urban run-off, lawn care products, acid
rain, and the loss of forest and wetlands. But farmers do control
one quarter of the land in the Bay drainage area, and so they have
significant impact. There is really no disputing that agriculture is an
important source of surface and ground-water pollution.
Garber affirmed that the old method of spreading manure on the fields is
the best way to re-cycle, but the intensive dairy farming of recent years
results in more manure spread over less ground, and therein we find the
real problem, and the challenge.
One new program, which in fact was used by some farmers in the past, is
intensive grazing. Cows are fenced into a certain area for grazing each
day. Then this area is left to grow back. One local Amishman, who I will
call "John," told me that "younger farmers are doing this
and I endorse it 100%." The program results in less feed storage and
equipment, and thus reduces overhead. Warm and cool weather grasses are
planted for the cows to ear, and less corn is needed. Grasses, of course,
cover the ground and reduce the amount of run-off, unlike the fields of
corn which have more exposed soil that increase the run-off amount.
Terracing and contouring can be reduced.
"My dad and granddad were pasture people," John noted,
referring to what was essentially intensive grazing. But the agricultural
experts said we could produce more by planting corn and storing feed. We
now see that these farming practices brought other health problems.
One Amish farmer who is now using the intensive grazing system is
currently milking his cows three times a day instead of the usual two. The
main goal in milking three times is trying to improve cash flow without
investing additional money in more cows and equipment.
For the Amish, the main concern is not so much the Chesapeake Bay as
how they can continue to earn a living. When management techniques and
small changes reduce expenses and increase production, the Amish farmer
(or anyone) is more likely to take notice and apply the practices.
Perhaps even more importantly, as one Amish farmer noted, "I don't
know anything about those people fishing the Chesapeake Bay, but if I know
I can improve the water supply for me and my children and my
grandchildren, then I'll do what I can."
To conclude this article, we went to talk to an Old Order Amishman who
wishes to remain anonymous. We'll refer to him simply as "John."
You may be as surprised as I was to learn that some Lancaster Amish may be
ahead of their "English" neighbors in trying to improve the
situation...and turn a profit.
John had visited the Bay and talked with the fishermen. He came back
with a real interest in the problem and possible solutions. His main
interest is in the process of composting manure, both as an
environmentally sound practice and as a money-making business venture.
Five years ago, experts in the field of the environment and agriculture
got together to come up with a practical composting plan for small farms.
If manure is composted, it can be spread on the fields as a more stable
product, and leach more slowly into the ground. But might it also be a
product that could be sold to landscapers and nurseries?
The answer came one year ago at a conference in Chambersburg. There
John heard a presentation by an Austrian family named Leubke that
described a system of controlled microbial composting, or using microbes
to break down manure contents. This was high-tech composting by any
standards, but the Amishman decided to try it. His first success came last
The manure is placed in long piles called winrows. The rows are 80
inches wide, rising to about three or four feet high. A carbon source like
straw or hay is added, along with some soil (like red clay) and rock dust
(obtained at local quarries). There must be the right balance of these
ingredients, and proper moisture, temperature, and CO2 levels. Friendly
aerobic bacteria are injected to begin the breakdown process. The piles
are kept covered, but turned when indicated by the measuring instruments.
Since the machines to turn the piles must move slowly, horses were not
a possibility, and the first machine to arrive had an electric drive. The
Amishmen involved in the business put on a gasoline engine and have since
modified and enlarged the original machine they purchased. Self-propelled
and pulled turning machines are now available.
Last year 60 tons of ingredients resulted in 30 tons of product that
was sold for a profit almost as soon as it was available. Its takes only
six to eight weeks in mild temperatures to produce a stable product to
sell to greenhouses. The resulting compost product is excellent for
vegetable growers and nursery owners. There is more disease control, fewer
weeds, and more retention of moisture. The product reduces leaching of
nutrients into the underground water supply and increases soil fertility.
This business is now a partnership between two Amishman, who plan to
expand on the idea and are working under a special agreement with the
Leubke family. Other younger farmers are taking notice and three have
placed orders for turning machines to do composting of their own.
"We're not trying to make a big splash. We're just working little
by little. Our main concern is to improve our situation for future
generations. We were laughed at five years ago when we talked of
composting manure, but not today when seen in the light of nutrient
The Nutrient Management Bill proposed by the Pennsylvania State
Legislature this year drew much interest and concern from local farmers,
both Amish and non-Amish. Many attended hearings and meetings to voice
their feelings and learn more about it. There was no disputing Lancaster
had a problem, with an estimated five million tons of manure produced
every year! The bill was to help reduce the Bay pollution by 40%, being
just one element in an overall program. Farmers wanted to apply voluntary
reduction plans. Environmentalists were not satisfied those efforts would
do the trick, or do it fast enough.
The Nutrient Management Bill has since been passed. The Chesapeake Bay
Foundation's Lamonte Garber notes that the bill only affects farmers with
over 2,000 pounds of livestock or poultry per acre. The majority of Amish
farmers should have adequate land and thus not fall under this regulation.
Garber feels that the bill is simply promoting sound farming and getting
farmers to work up a nutrient management plan for their fertilizer and
manure. He added that we all need to look into ways to reduce run-off and
pollution so that we can have safe drinking water and healthy streams.
Everyone seems to agree that something needs to be done. The prime
force in taking action may very well be each person's concern for his
children's future, whether on the farm or in the city.
If you are interested in becoming part of the solution, contact the
Chesapeake Bay Foundation Headquarters, 162 Prince George Street,
Annapolis, Maryland, 21401, or call the Maryland Office at (410) 268-8833,
the Virginia Office at (804) 780-1392, or the Pennsylvania Office at (717)
Amish Country News
Article by Brad Igou, (1993)
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