The Amish are known for their bucolic way of living. They consider it their Christian duty to be stewards to the land, and their car and electricity-eschewing ways grant them a relatively low carbon footprint. But the New York Times reports that the government has begun to delicately involve itself in the agricultural practices of the Amish. The excessive heaps of manure generated by Amish cows move easily into the Chesapeake Bay, causing widespread environmental damage. And now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking steps to find a solution.

The runoff from manure and fertilizers from Pennsylvania Amish farms has flowed unchecked into the Chesapeake Bay for years. As the NY Times reports, this has created a dead zone in the bay since the 1970s, despite best efforts by environmentalists. Manure and fertilizers, in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus, reduce oxygen rates, kill fish, create algae blooms and more. Lancaster County, home to many Amish farms, generates more than 61 million pounds of manure a year. The next county on the list generates 20 million pounds less than that. 

This has left the government in an interesting position. The Amish are famously wary of government interference — for instance, they do not pay Social Security, nor do they take from the program. The EPA is walking a fine line between enforcing clean-up practices while maintaining a respectful understanding of the culture. 

John Hanger is the secretary of environmental protection in Pennsylvania. As he told the NY Times, “These are real people with their own histories and their own needs and their own culture … It’s about treating people right, and in order to treat people right, you’ve got to be able to start where they are at.” EPA officials want to communicate the need for agricultural reform before resorting to fines and penalties.

The EPA wants to encourage the Amish to create barnyard runoff controls and streamside forest buffers, and to also adopt no-till farming practices. Many of these changes would be underwritten by federal grants, but persuading the Amish to change their farming habits with government money will be difficult. 

Sam Riehl is a farmer in the area. As he told the NY Times, “It’s certainly generated controversy. We wonder whether we are being told what to do, and whether the EPA will make it so that we can’t even maintain our farms.”  

Instead, local agricultural companies are trying to get the word out about these changes with milk and doughnut sessions in barns or fliers left at doors. Many Amish are already ahead of the game. Amish farmer Matthew Stoltzfus recently applied for a government grant to build a heifer barn with a manure pit. He hopes are to avoid further EPA interference — and to help the environment.

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