Each spring after the fertile fields have been planted in Lancaster County, PA, more than 400 Plain Sect children and their families gather on a restored section of Mill Creek, a stream that flows through an area with the highest concentration of dairy cows in Pennsylvania.From left, John Smucker, Henry Esh and Henry Beiler are members of the nearly all-Amish Mill Creek Preservation Association. (Ad Crable)

It’s a wonderful display of community as the delighted youths pluck more than 400 recently stocked trout out of the water. The fishing derby and the togetherness it brings for neighbors linked by a stream also is the face of the Mill Creek Preservation Association, the only Plain Sect watershed group in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

It’s a small group. There’s a core group of about six people and five of them are Amish. There are no members per se and no dues, though seasonal newsletters are mailed out to 440.

The group’s tactics are simple, direct and effective: Its leaders walk down the lanes of their neighbors, point out the evident erosion problems in the stream and urge them to get their cows out of the water and give up a small part of their fields to allow, for free, restoration work.

The nonprofit has been doing this for 15 years with steady success. Only counting projects with assistance from the Lancaster County Conservation District, nearly 5.5 miles of Mill Creek have been restored, a stream that once had one of the highest concentrations of nutrients in Pennsylvania. The stream is one of the main tributaries to the Conestoga River, itself a degraded waterway heavy with nutrients that flows into the Susquehanna.

More than 6 miles of stream bank fencing have been erected to keep cows from lolling in the water, several low-head dams have been removed, 35 acres of streamside buffers have grown up and hundreds of bank stabilization and fish habitat structures were embedded within the stream.

These improvements would likely not have happened if a government agency or another private group had come knocking.

“The government would not have been able to come in and do this. Nobody would have opened up,” said John Smucker, a local businessman and farmer who is the only non-Amish member of the group.

Though trends are changing, getting Plain Sect farmers to agree to give up pasture and accept government financial assistance has been a hard sell. The Chesapeake Bay cleanup has little motivational power, because few have ever laid eyes on it. And they tend to use every inch of available land for pasture or crops.

“The Plain Sect community can be somewhat isolated at times here,” said Jeff Swinehart of the Lancaster Farmland Trust, which has worked with the association on outreach for its projects. “Here, it’s their neighbors and family members and they see each other in church. They can develop that dialogue with their peers to really encourage them to make a change. It’s a great demonstration of community conservation.”

Each spring, a fishing derby is held along Mill Creek in Lancaster County, PA, to help a Plain Sect watershed group educate neighbors about the need to restore the stream in their midst. (Myrna Smucker)The group’s movers and shakers are mostly farmers who themselves once allowed their cows to cool off in Mill Creek and gave little thought to what that meant for those downstream.

“Any more, we realize that the folks downstream are really affected by what I do,” said 79-year-old Henry Beiler, a board member.

Fellow board member Henry Esh also came to see things very differently over time. 

Mill Creek forms a wide S-curve through his pasture. Floods smashing against banks kept eroding his fields and the land around a bridge used to get farm equipment across the stream. “In my younger years, after two floods about a week apart, it was going to put this bridge in the middle of the creek. Dad came down here and said we’ve got to do something.”

The association, with a grant from a natural gas pipeline company, contracted to have the stream narrowed while the steep banks were leveled so that floodwaters can overflow into the floodplain. Sediment is now filtered by a vegetative buffer.

Log structures placed in the stream bank deflect the force of high water and improve fish habitat. Esh dreams of catching trout in his section of the newly improved stream and has been taking water temperatures near spring-fed tributaries to see if the fish might survive hot summer water. His hopes rose when a recent stream survey of three restored farm properties turned up several trout nearby — likely escapees from the nearby fishing derby.

Asked if he had any complaints about the stream work on his farm, Esh laughed, “About the only bummer was last year we could not once go swimming because it never grew warm enough. At least it’s much cleaner than it used to be. The farmland is filtered before it gets to the creek. That’s one of the number ones.”

Now, Esh is one of those walking down lanes and knocking on his neighbors’ doors, asking them to do their part to make Mill Creek better.

Smucker, too, once thought nothing of letting his cows hang out in the stream on his farm. But he got to thinking. “A lot of us living down here just saw the eroding and devastation of the creek in its present form. We just began to talk about how we can fix this,” he said.

He and several other concerned farmers held a meeting on an Amish farm in 2004 to gauge interest in forming a group to take action. The interest was there, though one farmer spoke up that it was his land and he had a God-given right to let his cows cool off in Mill Creek in July and August.

The group started slowly. Money for projects was routed through the Lancaster County Conservation District and a local chapter of the Izaak Walton League, an early supporter. The group American Rivers helped with a project to remove an old low-head dam that was blocking fish migration and damming silt.

As support grew, the association became an official nonprofit and started getting direct grants from government agencies impressed with work being done in places they had not made inroads. Restoration projects took place on the campus of a Mennonite high school and in community parks. More Amish farmers are seeing the differences on their neighbor’s land. The annual fishing derbies are an educational tour de force.

“They galvanize the community,” said Matt Koffroth, watershed specialist with the Lancaster County Conservation District. “They’re the ones on the ground with these people 9 to 5. They’re the ones knocking on the doors. It puts a local face on it and allows us and other agencies to go out and get things done.” 

Many concerns about government intrusion have faded away. The hardest thing often is to get farmers to give up more than 10 or 15 feet to plant filtering grasses and trees. Part of the challenge is that on small Amish farms, all available ground is needed to squeeze a living from the land. But there is also a long-entrenched feeling that overgrown land is unsightly and reflects poorly on a landowner.

“We meet so many farmers who say this looks hairy,” noted Beiler, pointing to grasses waving in the wind on a restored stream section of Mill Creek. “To me this looks good.”

About all that’s holding the group back now is a need for more money. “We’re just committed because we see how much good it’s done,” Smucker said. “We want to do more of it.”