Bidding for Pollution Control Dollars in the Chesapeake: A Modest Proposal for the Amish Farmer

Shana Campbell Jones

June 10, 2010

If I remember my Sunday School lessons correctly, “clean living” should result in a lot of good things in addition to a heavenly reward: a strong character, an orderly home, and a healthy body and environment.   Ironically for the Amish, a clean living group if there ever was one, clean living also produces dirty waters.

As yesterday’s New York Times article reminds us, Amish farms in Lancaster county generate more than 61 million pounds of manure a year – much of which ends up in waterways that run straight into the Chesapeake Bay.  Dealing with the farmers in Lancaster county is a challenge: How do you encourage a population that resists change to adopt new farming practices? Impose stronger regulations? Do what we usually do with farmers, which is to pay them using grant dollars to change?

The challenge is even greater when you consider how strongly the Amish value self-sufficiency and distrust government.   Unlike many who loudly profess such values, the Amish practice what they preach:  they live genuinely self-sustainable lives, and they don’t take government benefits, refusing even Social Security. I was struck in the article by a farmer declaring he had vowed never to take a government grant – quite a different mindset from our culture of subsidies for agribusiness, corporate welfare, and bank bailouts.  

So what program would work? Although CPR Member Scholar Bob Adler doesn’t address the Amish in his recent article, Priceline for Pollution: Auctions to Allocate Public Pollution Control Dollars, he does propose a program for the Chesapeake Bay that might appeal to the Amish farmer precisely because the funds generated and distributed for improved pollution reduction practices are not “handouts.”  Based on his work with the Colorado River, Adler proposes that Bay restoration grants and subsidies be auctioned instead of being distributed based on political or other factors. The bids proposing the most cost-effective methods of meaningful pollution control would be offered implementation dollars. It worked well for the Colorado River Basin Salinity Program; it could also work well for the Bay.

“Farming is getting expensive,” said another Amish farmer in the article, and indeed it is – both for the farmer and for the Bay.  Many of the methods to control agricultural pollution – fences to keep cows out of streams, stream buffers, and even manure storage systems – are relatively cheap, particularly in comparison to, say, upgrading a sewage treatment plant. Under an auctioning program like the one Professor Adler proposes, a market could be created to pay Amish farmers with the most cost-effective proposals for providing environmentally protective services. It’s not a handout or a regulation: it’s a competitive bidding process for a valued activity.  Clean living might result in clean waters after all. 

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