Bonded by a love for managing the land

Seven years ago, when the LaGrange County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) held a meeting with local landowners to discuss water quality issues in Indiana’s Little Elkhart River watershed, those in attendance had little to say. Many were Amish. Old Order Amish landowner Monroe Raber stepped forward.

“I told the guy if he needed a liaison, I could do that because I knew a lot of the bishops, so I started attending meetings,” Raber said. “It just seemed like it took off from there. There’s a lot more interaction now than there used to be.”

“In my dad’s time, there wouldn’t have been meetings like this.”

Today, Raber is an elected member of the SWCD Board, maintaining the Amish traditions while assisting his community in advancing conservation matters that affect everyone in the county.

The Amish community makes up more than 44 percent of LaGrange County – the third-largest Amish community in the United States – so working with them to address issues like getting cattle out of drainage ditches and managing forestland is critical.

“They’re working at it from ‘nature provides resources, how do we use them?’ but at times they haven’t hit the sustainability part, the ‘if we plough the ground every year, what’s that going to do to the soil eventually?’” LaGrange SWCD District Manager Martin Franke said.

Over the last several years, Franke has established a rapport with the Amish, respecting their desire and culture of working for themselves and being self-sustaining, while appealing to their desire to maintain and improve the quality of the land and nature.

“The SWCD has finally reached a place where we are considered friends and neighbors with much of our Amish constituency,” he said. “The Amish, conservative Christians as they are, closely identify with the concept of acting as good stewards of God’s creation. We’ve been successful in getting Amish participation in cost-share programs designed to improve environmental conditions and agricultural productivity.”

Amish landowners have accepted assistance from programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) 319 Water Quality Implementation grants, Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Lake and River Enhancement programs, and Great Lakes Commission Best Management Practice implementation grants.

Some of the transition into utilizing funding has come from Raber’s assistance. As a board member, he can speak from the Amish perspective and beliefs, and when questions arise that may conflict with those beliefs, Raber will bring it back to the community and seek guidance from the bishop.

Raber’s own election to the Board was an instance where both sides were willing to make exceptions. Amish tradition would not allow Raber to seek election to a governmental body – he had been appointed two previous times with permission. While Raber went back to the community and the bishop, the SWCD considered changing its bylaws to include an exception to allow Raber to continue his service without the election requirement.

Raber’s neighbors, other members of the Amish community and the bishop, who have seen firsthand the benefits of working with SWCD cost-share programs, agreed to the election process.

The relationship – while progressing significantly in the past seven years – has taken decades to develop.

About 40 years ago, the district began renting out a three-row no-till planter to reduce tillage farming practices. Twenty-five years ago, the district began working with the Amish on rotational grazing and organic certification, which Franke said nearly single-handedly saved the 20- to 40-head dairy farming in LaGrange County.

In the early 2000s, the district began annual pasture walks, and the district provides the transportation to Amish who want to attend. Just over 15 years ago at the first winter rotational grazing conference – now called the Northern Indiana Grazing Conference – there were 275 participants. This year, that number grew to more than 1,600, with 80 percent of the participants from the Amish community.

Five years ago, the district started its annual forestry field day program. Participation, again mostly Amish, has nearly doubled since.

That first effort to address water quality issues resulted in farmers fencing their land so the cattle wouldn’t roam into the drainage ditch and streams. The bishop himself had cattle that contracted Johne’s disease through cattle waste in the water where his cattle were drinking. Johne’s disease is a chronic, contagious infection in which a bacteria embeds in the lower intestines. It causes the intestines to thicken, thereby reducing the cattle’s nutrient absorption and eventually killing the animal.

The bishop and neighbors reported an improvement once exclusion fencing was installed, and in the bishop’s case, water mains for an automatic water system for the livestock were put in.

Now the district is moving toward forest management, again with Raber’s assistance. Raber owns 12 acres of forest and manages it intensely, including harvesting.

“I do stand improvements and tree release. If we have a timber harvest, 12-15 years later we have a lot of growth,” said Raber, who has soft maple and sugar maple. “A lot of guys in the area don’t pay attention to their wood lots. We approach it like they wouldn’t let their weeds get out of control, and it’s the same thing.”

“That’s one word we’re getting out there is the importance of managing your wood lots,” he said.

Franke said the biggest takeaway in working with the Amish community is recognizing that they are landowners like any other in the county.

“Some landowners get started through cost-share and then continue because it makes sense; the Amish are the same way,” he said. “This is not an Amish thing or an English thing, it’s a people thing.”

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