Environmentally Conscious Farming: The Plain Sect and Bay Conservation
An Amish farmer working his team of draft horses.
By Donna Morelli
Photographs by Erica L. Shames
A small stream flows out of the mountains in Lancaster County, PA, near the Berks County border, with water as clear as a freshly cleaned window pane. It winds through woods and over stones, shaded by trees and embraced by undeveloped land.
Downstream, where the trees give way to farmland, the stream flows through an enclave of Amish farms, first through Benuel Zook’s pasture and then through Raymond King’s.
As recently as 2012, the stream ran brown once it hit pasture. It was often lined with 200 or more cows, from the first pasture to the last—about 40 from each farm. Their manure, combined with soil from eroding banks, entered the stream.
But then farmers began to make some changes—and delivered a chain of conservation actions with collective results.
“Look at my neighbors, they’re the heroes,” King said. “I’m not ahead of anybody. There are five farms around that stream and all of them buffered their property back in 2012 or 2013 using the CREP program.”
For many farms in the Chesapeake Bay region, this would not be a surprising story. CREP—the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program—is a federal program that provides financial assistance to farmers who take streamside land out of production and plant it with pollution-filtering buffers. But many of the Plain Sect farmers (mostly Amish and Mennonite here) are reluctant to participate in CREP or any other government-funded program.
Reducing sediment and nutrient pollution from farm fields is the top priority for the bay restoration effort, but working in areas like Lancaster County, where many farms are owned by Plain Sect farmers, has been a challenge.
People of the Plain Sect faiths generally separate themselves from most aspects of modern life. They are very independent, relying on their own communities to meet their needs. Some of the more conservative groups distrust the government and, although they pay taxes, they don’t pay into Social Security because they choose not to collect it.
These cultural differences have made it difficult to recruit Plain Sect participants in government-funded conservation programs. Even basic outreach is a challenge using modern methods: most don’t use computers or other means of mass communication.
But now, in Lancaster County, Plain Sect participation in conservation farming activities is on the rise. The Lancaster County Conservation District, nonprofit organizations and Plain Sect leaders have seen a growing willingness to be more environmentally conscious in farming.
By the numbers
The extent of the increase has not been formally documented, but Conservation District manager Christopher Thompson said that some Amish and Mennonite farmers are taking independent action while others are accepting government assistance or working with nonprofits that steer both private and public funds toward farm conservation projects.
The change can be tracked to a combination of factors. Pennsylvania farmers in general are under increasing pressure to comply with state-mandated farm management plans. Many began lining up to write plans after the state began inspecting farms in 2016; others still feel the sting of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency visits to Watson Run in 2009 that found 17 out of 23 farms—all Plain Sect—not only had manure management problems but had nitrogen and pathogens in drinking water and barn wells.
Regulatory pressure is not the only reason for more Plain Sect involvement. There is now greater financial assistance available through nongovernmental organizations, more Plain Sect outreach and many outspoken Amish advocates who speak about their projects.
Some success is the result of efforts that began long ago: the County Conservation District responded to the unique cultural and social need of the Plain Sect community by hiring a Plain Sect outreach coordinator about 10 years ago.
In more recent years, Thompson and Russell C. Redding, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, have also been meeting with Plain Sect leaders to discuss their concerns.
“I have seen a great response from the Amish leadership,” Thompson said. “The leadership understands the benefits of conservation and they have been quietly encouraging their community to be part of the solution. They want to do the right thing.”
Two of the county’s most vocal conservation advocates, Thompson said, are King and his neighbor, Zook.
King had long used no-till practices to reduce erosion from his fields. His interest in additional conservation projects began when Zook worked with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to finance and install a manure storage system on his dairy farm. That led to a barnyard improvement project. King liked the way it looked, so he worked with the NRCS and Lancaster County Conservation District to put manure storage on his farm as well. Then he opened his farm to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and agricultural service agencies for farmer workshops.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also took King and his neighbors on a boat tour of the Chesapeake.
“I saw all these fishing boats pulling in nets,” King said. “These are all working people. We really need to do a better job.”
New streamside buffers, planted to reduce erosion and runoff from fields, seemed to grow organically from one farm to the next, almost to the stream’s confluence with the Little Conestoga Creek, which flows into the Susquehanna River.
Nearby, at Aaron Hurst’s hardware store in Terre Hill, farmers often gather for workshops. On an unseasonably warm February afternoon, 10 young Plain Sect farmers listened attentively while an agronomist explained the intricacies of planting a healthy field of pumpkins without tilling the soil.
After the presentation, the talk turned to conservation and manure management plans. Both have been required by law in Pennsylvania for more than 30 years but, until recently, there was little pressure to comply. Chris Sigmund, president of Team Ag, an agricultural consultant firm, talked to the farmers about a program that reimburses farmers for the cost of the plans.
“We got 30 applications today—people are taking advantage of the opportunity,” Sigmund told the group. “Especially the young guys that say, ‘My dad never did this, but I want to.’”
Donna Morelli, based in Harrisburg, is the former director of the Pennsylvania office of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.