Amish leaving Ohio, Pennsylvania for New York

| Monday, July 18, 2011

HARRISBURG -- Affordable rural farmland and proximity to traditional population centers are driving a recent boom in Amish colonies in New York state, according to a study by Elizabethtown College researchers.

The Amish, many of them from Ohio or Pennsylvania, have established 10 settlements in New York since the start of 2010 -- growth that doubles any other state. Total population there has grown by nearly a third in the past two years, to 13,000.

The first Amish districts in New York were established in the Conewango Valley in 1949, but in-migration amounted to a trickle until about a decade ago. As recently as 1991, there were just 3,900 Amish in the state.

Elizabethtown professor Don Kraybill, who directed the study by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, said Amish movement into New York has been partially fueled by a contagion effect in which families report back on finding productive and underpriced land, and other factors that are conducive to the way they live such as weather, growing season and congenial neighbors and local officials.

In the 1980s and '90s, Kentucky played that role for the Amish, while more recently it was Wisconsin, Kraybill said. The Amish are currently in 28 states and the Canadian province of Ontario.

New York has lower land prices in rural areas than Pennsylvania and Ohio, states that together account for nearly half of the nationwide Amish population of about 261,000. New York also has more areas of rural isolation, Kraybill said.

"If you want to get away from the suburbs and the high-tech world, there are more places to hide in New York," he said.

New York, Kentucky, Illinois and Kansas have experienced the largest net gain in Amish households since 2006, the study found.

The largest net losers were Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Delaware and Ohio, although states with large Amish populations can grow in total numbers even if they lose households, because existing families normally have many children.

The Amish began arriving in Pennsylvania from Switzerland and Germany nearly 400 years ago, and nearly all descend from a group of about 5,000 a century ago. While their Christian beliefs and practices can vary from settlement to settlement, or from church to church, they were defined for study purposes as people who use horse-and-buggy transportation, and speak a dialect of Pennsylvania German or Swiss German.

"It's remarkable that a horse-and-buggy people like the Amish are thriving in the midst of high-tech, Twitter America," Kraybill said.

Large Amish families sometimes move into new areas to find farmland for the younger generations, while in other cases, they are more motivated by a desire to preserve traditional aspects of their family life and to resolve disputes about church rules, said Karen Johnson-Weiner, an anthropology professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam.

"The Amish moving to New York are going to be, for the most part, very conservative," said Johnson-Weiner, whose book on the state's Amish was published last year. "That means they're not going to be so willing to compromise or fit in."

Pennsylvania had the nation's largest Amish population in the new survey, just over 61,000, with Ohio a close second, about 400 people behind. Indiana ranked third, 46,000, Wisconsin fourth, 16,000, and New York fifth.

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