Across a Great Divide

Michael Heatwole works on his family's dairy farm in Virginia, where upgrades prevent manure and rainwater from flowing into a nearby creek.
Michael Heatwole works on his family's dairy farm in Virginia, where upgrades prevent manure and rainwater from flowing into a nearby creek. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007

HINTON, Va. In the driveway, there was a strange man in a strange truck with a government logo pasted on its door. To Richard Wenger -- an Old Order Mennonite, wary of new cars and new people and governments alike -- this was the scariest kind of visitor.

"I don't trust you!" Wenger told him.

Mike Phillips, a worker with the local soil and water conservation district, was stuck for a comeback. He hoped to reduce the amount of cow manure that washed off Wenger's farm into a nearby stream, Muddy Creek. This was not going well.

"I wouldn't, either," Phillips said, meaning that he understood Wenger's distrust. "But I'd like to earn it."

The 2004 exchange in the Shenandoah Valley was part of a delicate environmental outreach that has also spread to Pennsylvania Dutch country and Amish enclaves in Maryland.

Although the religious sects don't want to share in the modern world, they do share its water: Pollution from their farms damages the Chesapeake Bay. So environmentalists and government officials are pushing the famously change-resistant people to alter their habits and pollute less.

Has it worked? From Wenger's perspective, the outsiders seem to have learned a little. In the beginning, "I don't think that they had a ghost of an idea," he said.

Farms operated by the Amish or Mennonites might make up as much as one-tenth of the 87,000 farms in the bay's huge watershed, but exact numbers aren't available.

That makes them a significant contributor to the bay's pollution. Manure that washes off their plots, which tend to be small and filled with livestock, causes harmful algae blooms in the Chesapeake.

"They're pretty small farms that typically have a pretty good number of animals," said Thomas W. Simpson, a University of Maryland professor who studies pollution from agriculture. "And so managing their manure is a pretty key thing."

But that's not always easy. That was obvious in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1990s, when state officials told local Mennonite farmers that they might be sued if they didn't find a way to keep polluted runoff out of streams. They offered to distribute government money to help pay for the cleanup.

That didn't go over well.


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