Old Orders vs. Government Orders

Published on: 10:47AM Jun 25, 2010

Having been a number of times to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I can say without reserve that it’s one of the most diverse – and because of that diversity, interesting – places to farm in the U.S.  It’s the one of the 10 largest milk-producing counties in the entire U.S., and the only one east of the Mississippi.  But what really makes it interesting is the contrast between the Amish and Mennonite farmers who dairy there, right next to their modern brethren.  You have the 21st century colliding, sometimes literally, with farming practices that mostly are from the pre-industrial 18th century.

The New York Times made note of this too, earlier in the month, when it wrote a story about how the Environmental Protection Agency is essentially pushing the Amish to clean up their act, where manure handling is concerned.  Because the Amish milk a lot of cows in Lancaster, and because they tend not to employ state of the art manure handling systems, they are now being singled out as one of the reasons why the Chesapeake Bay has water quality issues.  As the story notes:

According to E.P.A. data from 2007, the most recent available, the county generates more than 61 million pounds of manure a year. That is 20 million pounds more than the next highest county on the list of bay polluters, and more than six times that of most other counties.

The real rub in the story is that state and federal officials want the Amish and Mennonites to utilize grant money to help improve land and water quality practices, but because they are resistant to government interference, the Old Order people don’t want that involvement.  That’s understandable, but the government is going to work on cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay one way or the other, and that manure from Lancaster is a visible target.

Although the story didn’t mention it, it indirectly raises another issue, which is that it’s not fair to automatically assume that small farms are good for the environment, while larger farms – say, CAFO-size operators with lagoons – are bad.  Larger operators usually have to have a nutrient management permit, while smaller farms, whether they are Amish-owned or not, usually don’t have to deal with the issue.  That means the adverse environmental impact of 20 50-cow dairies that are unregulated may be greater than one 1,000 cow farm that does have regular monitoring and a nutrient management plan in place.

Diversity in farming, as in other businesses, is a good and welcome thing, but the expectation is that everyone has to be held to account for their impact on society, environmentally and otherwise.  That’s a modern fact of life that we all have to live with.