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At the intersection of religious conviction and environmental ethics

A recent study from EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program has confirmed that the water quality in the nation’s largest estuary is improving, thanks to a pollution diet for states in the Bay’s watershed.

But there’s one part of one state—the five counties of South Central Pennsylvania—that lags behind in reaching its pollution reduction goals, mostly because of fertilizer that runs off farm fields into Bay tributaries.

Now, Pennsylvania, the US Department of Agriculture and the EPA have committed to spend $28 million to accelerate pollution reduction efforts in that region. But it may not be all that easy because some of those farmers are conflicted about taking that money because of their religion.

Take, for example, Tim and Frances Sauder, who tend to 15 grass-fed dairy cows on 55 hilly acres just outside of Quarryville in Lancaster County. The cows supply the milk that becomes yogurt from their Fiddle Creek Dairy.

Frances says they are "pretty aware of the downstream effects" of the choices farmers in their area make. She and Tim "think about that a lot," she said.

For example, they’ve been trying to protect the stream that runs through their farm by keeping their cows away from it because when cows do what they do in a stream, it all flows downhill, contributing to the excess nutrients in bay tributaries that lead to dead zones.

Now, they want to go further by planting seven acres of trees to form a 50-foot wide buffer, something they’ve had in mind since they bought the property four years ago. But that could cost tens of thousands of dollars, maybe as much as a hundred thousand, and they’re barely making ends meet as it is.

So, they’re applying for some of that $28 million through CREP, the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. It compensates farmers for taking land near streams out of production and planting buffers to filter the run-off; or, in the Sauders’ case, keeping their cows out of the streams. And that’s where the problem lies.

“We grew up Mennonite and I feel really bad getting government help,” Tim explains. “But I don’t know. I just decided to suck it up.”

The Mennonites are among several groups of Swiss Anabaptists, or Plain Sect people, who have a 500-year history of setting themselves apart from the rest of society in general and government in particular. And they don’t take government money.

There are nearly 30 different Anabaptist groups in Lancaster County—different versions of Mennonites, Amish and Brethren—in more than 400 congregations, numbering more than 50,000 members. And most of them are farmers.

Rich Batiuk, of the Chesapeake Bay Program, says most farmers will work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and take payments "for putting conservation practices" in place, "good practices that mean good for their production and good for their local streams." But those in the plain sect community don’t want government money, so "we just need to work with them differently."

That could mean a number of things, including taking money from private groups.

"We have private foundation funds," says Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "And we can work with the Amish communities and we can help them find resources that are not government based."

Tim Sauder concedes it’s been a tough balancing act, pitting his environmental instincts against his religious tradition. But, he says, getting involved in the CREP program will help him and Frances make improvements on their farm they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

He paid taxes back when he was making money, he reasoned. And “just because the government is doing     something doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” So, if the government’s doing something he thinks is a good idea, he said, he shouldn’t discourage that.

Still, Frances says, that has created tension with some of their neighbors who fear having government types poking around the Sauder farm could mean trouble for them.

To be fair, she added, there are a number of Plain Sect farmers signing up for CREP.

Dennis Eby, the outreach coordinator for the Lancaster County Conservation District, says there are approximately 53 Plain Sect landowners—that’s Amish and Old Order Mennonites—with CREP contracts and seven Amish landowners who have signed up but are waiting for contracts.

Sixty landowners may not sound like a lot given the size of the Plain Sect population. But Eby says that’s nearly a quarter of the 250 CREP contracts in Lancaster County. And that’s very encouraging.

"When we started doing the numbers here we were actually surprised it was that high," he said. "Those that are excited about it and have a good experience with it, they encourage other farmers in their general area. And so it’s kind of a growing thing."

So, balancing act or not, tension with some of their neighbors or not, the Sauders have become part of that growing thing. They have sought help from Team Ag, a consulting firm that focuses on agricultural engineering and knows how to work through the welter of government and private programs aimed at helping farmers.

Chris Frame, one of the TeamAg engineers, is helping the Sauders prepare a nutrient management plan. He says there a number of private entities—the Stroud Research Centre in Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation among them—that have money available to help farmers. And in his experience, farmers want to do the right thing; it just has to be affordable.

“At the end of the day so much of this is more about money than maybe willingness,” he said.

And that’s where the $28 million comes in, as long as people take advantage of it.

Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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