Commentary: Seeing Sometimes Best Way to Understanding

Environmental Commentary by Cindy Ross

It didn’t seem like a big deal to the Amish farmer. It was just a narrow tributary off a creek that flowed past the milking parlor.

“We thought of the tiny stream as a drainage ditch, as a way of getting rid of material we did not want,” he said. The waste, including manure and wash water from the barn “ran downstream and out of our lives. We thought, ‘this stream is so small. There is really no need to worry about our actions.’”

And then his mind changed. Our Farmer Friend participated in a program offered by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that took him and several other out on a skipjack in the Bay to see and learn how thing are connected.

“That’s when it hit home. Every farmer is concerned about how to make ends meet, but until we actually saw the bigger picture with our eyes, the oyster beds, and all the people’s lives and livelihoods that is impacted from our nitrogen run-off, it was difficult to understand how we could possibly impact this huge, 200-mile long bay so far from our Lancaster County farm.”

Our Farmer Friend quickly adopted no-till practices. Since then, he has completely revamped his farm to make it environmentally sound. The changes made economic sense for the farmer. He now stores manure rather than spreading it on his fields to get rid or it. This cut down on his farm work and allows him to use the manure when appropriate, or sell it. A riparian buffer he put in reduces runoff and saves soil.

But many in the Amish and Mennonite community are fearful of the government agencies that oversee, and help pay for, farms conservation practices. They are concerned that big business and government will take over their farms, their land, their lives and their income. Our Amish Farmer Friend says it will take time for his neighbors to come to trust, to learn.

“I know this frame of mind. That’s how I, too, used to think. But of course, the water adds up. A small polluted creek leads into a larger river which leads into the Bay. It is all connected.”

His neighbors drive by and see that his farm looks cleaner. His animals do not wallow in muddy manure and as a result, don’t get as ill. Vet bills have decreased, his cows live longer and produce more milk.

More than a dozen farmers participated in the educational skipjack outing this year. When they saw how Lancaster County appears as a red zone on a map showing water pollution contribution, they understood how they add to the problem. There is a huge concentration of farms and animals in Lancaster County that contribute high nutrient run-off and sediment loads. The land is intensely used and many streams are impaired because of it.

“Before I learned, I was ignorant of a lot of the facts,” our Farmer Friend said. “But with this basic education and awareness, it is much easier to do the right thing and with the (conservation) agencies’ help, we can learn what the right thing is and get the necessary help and monetary assistance to make it happen.”

“Our people sometime look on the polluted Bay problem as one of the outside world, but we must care and respect it,” our Farmer Friend says. “I saw an Amish manure spreader with a bumper sticker that said, ‘No farms, no food,’ but I believe we can have farms and food and save the environment. We don’t have to spread manure on the field and have it run into the Bay.”

Ultimately, he said, he was doing his part for the future. “My father farmed this land, and his father and his father. We have a long lineage and a connection here. My passion for caring for the land comes from my desire to pass this land on to my children so it is possible for them to farm and build a life here. For it really isn’t our farm, in the true sense of the word. We are just caretakers of the land. When you buy a farm, you don’t buy the environment. Water is part of the commonwealth, belonging to all peoples.”

As our Farmer Friend came to understand: It all adds up; we all need to do our part.

Cindy Ross has written several books about the outdoors. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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