MECHANICSVILLE – Joe Stoltzfus has lived in the same Amish community here for all of his 56 years. His parents moved from Lancaster, Pa., to this land near Mechanicsville, where he was born and where his kin now drive their horses and carriages along sleek highways past food marts and gas stations.
Stoltzfus says Maryland has been friendly to the Amish, who don’t ask for much from the state.
Except to be left alone.
That’s what lawmakers had in mind last week when they exempted Amish farmers from bills that would strictly regulate the use of chicken manure as fertilizer on farms in Maryland.
“It’d be the thought of it, the fact that you couldn’t run your farm the way you always thought you could farm it … the way you learned from (your) parents,” said Stoltzfus of the proposed regulations.
The religious exemption is one area of agreement between competing House and Senate bills aimed at limiting nutrient runoff from the manure. The restrictions are designed to stem future outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida in state waterways.
Farmers across Maryland have complained about the government interference the proposal would bring, saying their voluntary efforts to curb nutrient runoff should be enough.
But Amish farmers said the plan would be a particular affront to their way of life.
“We don’t participate in government programs,” said one Amish farmer in Southern Maryland, who wished to remain anonymous for religious reasons. “We don’t have any crop insurance or anything like that … you have to be prepared.”
Maryland’s Amish say they try to limit their contact with state government.
“St. Paul says we’re supposed to pay our taxes,” even though the Amish normally do not accept government aid, said a 76-year- old Amish farmer who asked not to be named.
Stoltzfus said the Amish “don’t go along with any government assistance because we don’t want to impose on that government.”
“We want to stand on our own two feet and take care of our own,” he said. “We don’t want to lose sight of that practice.”
Stoltzfus conceded that opposition to fertilizer controls was not so much rooted in faith as in the state intervention in their way of life.
“You won’t be running your own farm, in a sense,” he said. “To me, it would seem like you wouldn’t be a steward of your land anymore.”
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, and a leading proponent of the runoff-control plans, said he was confident the religious exemption “doesn’t give them (Amish) carte blanche.”
“The Department of Agriculture has always been able to find a way to accommodate” the Amish, said Frosh.
State Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Virts — who treated Amish livestock in his 28 years as a private veterinarian — described the Amish as “very honorable people” who have always complied with state efforts to limit nitrogen running off from farms.
Virts said that many Amish farms are already low in nutrients anyway. He said he is confident they will also cooperate with the new plans to limit phosphorus, because they know they would save money by reducing fertilizer.
“They don’t bother anybody, they like to live their own lives,” said Virts. The state should accommodate them “if they want to be free to live quietly,” he said.
Stoltzfus, who worked on a nearby farm for 30 years before moving to take over his father’s sawmill, said he misses the “peaceful, slow-paced” farm life.
He said all of his 12 children “were raised on the farm and like the farm life” and want to become farmers themselves. But maybe not in Maryland.
“It’s been a good experience living in this state, but I expect we’ll be moving out of the state anyway” because of increasing traffic and urban growth, he said.
“I think we’re going to have to look at other states further west, away from metropolitan areas,” he said. “There’s a number of other families contemplating the same thing.”
And the encroaching development does not tempt him for a minute to give up the simple Amish lifestyle for a modern gadget such as a telephone or television.
“We don’t miss it because we never did have it,” he said. “Never did, never will.”