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The Amish & the Chesapeake Bay

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 change.

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 their water.

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 anonymous.

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 cows.

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 nutrient management.

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 fall.

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 management."  

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) 234-5550.   

Amish Country News Article by Brad Igou, (1993)

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