A small stream flows out of the mountains in Lancaster County, PA, near the Berks County border, with water as clear as a freshly wiped 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 up to 250 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 some 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 some of the more conservative Amish and other Plain Sect farmers 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. As a whole, Pennsylvania farms send about 64 million pounds of nitrogen into the Bay every year and, although that number has been dropping since 1985, Lancaster County still has one of the highest per-acre loading rates for nitrogen in the Bay watershed.
The Plain Sect is a broad name for several Christian groups, including the Amish and Mennonites, who 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 Amish leadership that work with the Plain Sect have described a growing willingness from them to be more environmentally conscious in farming.
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 were contaminated from 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 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.’”
The reimbursement program that Sigmund pitched at the workshop is funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in an effort to bring more farms into compliance with the law.
Hurst, a member of the Mennonite Community, serves on the agricultural committee of the Eastern Lancaster County Source Water Collaborative, a group concerned with drinking water quality. He is a vocal advocate for conservation in eastern Lancaster County.
“They came to me because they were concerned about offending people,” Hurst said.
Working with Hurst and other Plain Sect advocates helped the collaborative attract 400 farmers, mostly from the Plain Sect, to their first farmers’ meeting in 2013, titled Protecting Your Water Begins with Your Land.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit grant-maker, pools public and private funds to support a variety of government and nonprofit organizations for conservation work. Some NFWF grants support agricultural conservation in places with Plain Sect communities. In 2016, NFWF awarded $1.5 million to work on barnyard fixes, stream restoration, buffers and fencing projects with Lancaster County Plain Sect farmers.
Jake Reilly, NFWF’s Chesapeake Bay Program director, said there’s growing recognition that there is a real need out there. “I think what’s happening more recently is that you are starting to see some initial successes at several Amish communities around the watershed,” Reilly said. “People see pockets of promise. Maybe that helps them to be a little warmer to working with these communities.“
A $693,000 NFWF grant to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture will pay for improvements on all 32 farms located in the watersheds of three small tributaries to Fishing Creek in southern Lancaster County. Most of them are Plain Sect farms. The project has 20 public and private partners, including the Lancaster County Conservation District, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Lancaster Farmland Trust.
The goal is the complete exclusion of cows from the creek, said Jeffery Swinehart, the trust’s deputy director. Farm visits began this spring and so far, 28 of the 32 farmers are in the process of writing or updating their conservation plans, each of which will include fencing cows out of the streams.
The success rate of this program is especially welcome in southern Lancaster County, where Plain Sect church districts are considered very conservative and insular.
“We had some reservations. We thought we would have more difficulty,” Swinehart said. “Everyone is pleasantly surprised. They (farmers) are very grateful that there’s money available.”
The Octoraro Creek watershed is also in the southern part of the county and suffering from high nitrate pollution. Here, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay is working with 25 Amish farmers, supported by a $749,000 NFWF grant.
Jenna Mitchell, state director for the Alliance, thinks farmers have enough people telling them what to do. Instead, they need choices and a checkbook not connected to the government, she said.
“We’re non-threatening — that’s what we try to be,” she said. “They definitely like the fact that it’s not straight from the government and there’s not a lot of red tape. We help them get a conservation plan or we can do something, even if it’s small, to let them dip their toe in the water.”
That approach seems to be working. Mitchell tells the story of one farmer who wanted to stabilize his barnyard — and nothing more. Shortly after that was finished, he came back and wanted help with his son’s barnyard. And the third time, he wanted to plant trees along his son’s stream.
At another farm, on a tributary of the Octoraro, the Amish owner is so enthusiastic about improving his farm that he wants to record video of the creek before and after his fencing and buffer is installed.
“We find a lot of Amish farmers that are excited to plant trees,” Mitchell said. “There’s a whole spectrum — they are just people. There are those that care about the environment and others that don’t.”