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Mennonites did not ask for farm runoff exception

March 10, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

Mennonites did not ask for farm runoff exception

Mennonite farmers in Washington County don't think they should get special treatment when the General Assembly considers state regulations on the use of fertilizer.

"It would be unfair competition," said the Rev. Maurice Martin of Hagerstown Mennonite Fellowship at Huyett's Crossroads. "If it was a Bible principle, we would appreciate an exception. But this is not the case."

Maryland's House of Delegates and Senate last week approved separate bills designed to limit runoff of nutrients blamed for outbreaks of the fish-killing Pfiesteria microbe on the Eastern Shore last summer.

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Despite some differences, each bill would grant religious exclusions from the regulations to Mennonite and Amish farmers. A conference committee will attempt to negotiate a compromise between the House of Delegates and Senate bills before the annual 90-day General Assembly session ends on April 13.

"The joke going around the county is our Mennonite population is really going to increase," said Don Schwartz, Washington County agricultural extension agent.

The possibility of special treatment has drawn the normally aloof religious community into the public discussion.

Religious leaders, speaking on behalf of congregations made up mostly of farmers, want to make sure the community knows they did not ask for the exemption.

"We're not going to be the voice that calls for the exception," said Darrel Martin, bishop for the Washington County, Md., and Franklin County, Pa., Mennonite Conference.

There is no religious conviction that would prevent Mennonites from following the proposed fertilizer regulations, said Darrel Martin, whose conference represents about 100 farmers in the county.

"We're willing to work with it," Darrel Martin said.

That is not to say that Mennonite farmers support the bill. Like other farmers, they are concerned that the regulations will be costly and aggravating.

Washington County's 180 dairy farms, about two-thirds of which are owned by Mennonites, will be affected, Schwartz said.

Mennonites said that being singled out for protection is not the answer.

The Rev. Aden K. Diller, of Greencastle, Pa., is worried the exemption could foster religious hatred.

The amendment was offered by Del. John Wood, D-St. Mary's, who said as many as half of his county's 140 Amish farm families could leave if regulations hurt them.

"These farms are being sold off," he said. "These are good people and they don't bother anybody."

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, last week suggested that the law might force the county's Mennonite farmers over the border into Pennsylvania.

But Mennonite ministers disagreed.

"It may be a possibility, but I don't think it will set off a mass migration," Darrel Martin said.

Farmland already is threatened by development pressure.

Schwartz said most of the county's farm machinery and supply businesses are owned and operated by Mennonites.

"Our Mennonite farmers and the industry that supports them are not just important to Washington County agriculture, they're the backbone of Washington County agriculture," he said.

Schwartz said lawmakers may have been well-intentioned, thinking of federal contracts that allow Mennonites to be exempt from paying or receiving Social Security, he said.

But they were way off base, he said.

"The Mennonite folks don't see where it's coming from," he said.

The issue doesn't give farmers much confidence in the final farm runoff regulations, he said.

Farmers are willing to help clean up the environment, but they worry that the law will be passed before scientists can determine the best ways to prevent pollution, he said.

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