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Amish Farming: A Modern Day Paradox

January/February 1993

Craig Kolodge, Farm Advisor, Santa Clara County Cooperative Extension

"Amish society emphasizes informal learning- through doing, a life of goodness, rather than a life of intellect; wisdom, rather than technical knowledge; community welfare, rather than competition; and separation, rather than integration with contemporary worldly society." 
-Chief Justice Warren Burger.

This observation of a unique American agricultural community was made by the United States Supreme Court in 1972 upon granting the Amish and related groups the right to limit formal education to eighth grade. Eighth grade? What could people with an eighth grade education possibly teach us about farming let alone life in a high-tech society?

Apparently a lot, if family and farm well-being in Amish communities are any indication. At a time when many conventional farmers across the US are in desperate financial straits, Amish farms are still making money and turning a profit with a cautious disregard for get-big-or-get-out modern technology and no participation in direct government subsidies, other than those built into market prices, which they can't avoid. In fact, the Amish have been exempted from paying Social Security tax, not because they don't want to pay taxes, but because they are opposed to accepting the benefits. They resist receiving money from the government for any reason.

Not only are the Amish not fading away, they are actually thriving both financially and in numbers (the Amish community has doubled over the past 20 years to approximately 100,000 members throughout 20 states and one Canadian province).

Many people throughout the world are taking a close look at this modern day anomaly that offers a striking and unusual alternative to our present society in the hopes that lessons can be learned about "old" ways that continue to produce fruit in the form of personal as well as economic rewards.

Like all human communities, the Amish way of life is not without its problems. It is a life that values being ordinary over being special and adherence to rigid laws are strictly enforced to preserve their way of life.

I would like to share with you the observation of a Bay area woman, Sue Bender, who lived with the Amish and wrote a book entitled "Plain and Simple: A woman's Journey to the Amish".

The Amish prefer farming as a vocation over all others. They see all work as important and of value and they honor what she calls the process and the product. "What I saw among the Amish was the amazing amount of energy available to people who get pleasure from what they are doing and find meaning in the work itself. But they are practical people who want that can of beans at the end of the day and the sixty jars of relish. For them it's all connected."

They honor all work so there is no need to rush to get one thing over so you can move on to more important work. "The Amish understand that it's not rushing through tasks to achieve a series of goals that is satisfying; its experiencing each moment along the way."

They celebrate the "ordinary". Everyday events give life its stability and its framework.

Care for others is expressed in practical ways. Both joy and hardship are shared with others, and the risks of life are accepted as a natural part of living. They face the unexpected with a measure of acceptance and when difficulties are encountered by an individual or family, the burden is shared by those in their community.

A person is content when their expectation and achievement match. "The Amish standard of excellence is to do the best you can." They set limits and minimize distractions so they can do what they do well. In the satisfaction of doing a job well, they experience freedom... the freedom that comes with peace of mind of knowing you have done your best.

Ms. Bender also writes, "There is a big difference between having many choices and making a choice. Making a choice- deciding what is essential- creates a framework for a life that eliminates many choices but gives meaning to the things that remain. Satisfaction comes from giving up wishing I was somewhere else or doing something else."

Interestingly, most of the comments made by Sue Bender have little or nothing to do with religious dogma or doctrine as we normally understand it, but more with basic values that were woven into the fabric of most family farms in America at one time.

In their own unique and often baffling way, the Amish remind us that there are many ways to view the world, and underlying all of these ways is the reality of living closely connected to land and to others who share in this connection.

Farming still remains today a way of life for the Amish, not a way to make a fortune so one can retire early and travel. Land is not bought for speculation, it is purchased forever. There is no pressure to pay off the mortgage in a short span of years. If it takes three generations to clear the mortgage, it is of little consequence- the farm is in the family to stay. There is a pity among most Amish for people who cannot live on or near farmlands.

Maybe the greatest paradox and tragedy of modern society is that so many of us have become disconnected from the land that nourishes and feeds us with its beauty and bounty, and yet we experience no sense of loss. As any good farmer will tell you, Amish or not, sooner or later one reaps what one sows.

If you would like additional information on the Amish approach toward farming, call or write Craig Kolodge for a copy of the article, "Amish Economics-A lesson for the Modern World."

Dr. Craig Kolodge, Farm Advisor, University of California Cooperative Extension, 2175 The Alameda, Suite 200, San Jose, California, 95126, (408) 299-2635.