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Resourceful Amish adapt as farming declines

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Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010
 

LANCASTER COUNTY -- Like most Amish kids, Ben Petersheim grew up expecting and wanting nothing more than a life as a farmer.

Yet, on a recent sun-drenched afternoon, on a ridge in Lititz overlooking the rolling hills of Pennsylvania's Amish country, Petersheim supervised a crew of fellow Amish workers as they scaled ladders and scurried over rooftops while installing a $90,000 residential solar panel system.

"It's not what I thought I'd be doing," said Petersheim, 42, of Bird In Hand, smiling at the irony of an Amish man in a high-tech industry. "But farming is not really feasible now. And this is good work. I enjoy it."

Once known for their strictly agricultural lifestyle and rejection of modernity -- including electricity, cars and telephones -- the Amish increasingly are turning away from the farm, accepting technology and opting for nontraditional jobs, academic researchers and church members say.

Though most Amish still consider farming to be the ideal lifestyle, land has become difficult to obtain. The community is thriving -- few leave the church, families are large and Lancaster's Amish population doubles every 20 years -- leaving young Amish with limited options: They can move elsewhere in search of available and affordable land, or they can stay home with the trade-off of seeking alternative occupations.

"Too many babies and too few acres," said Donald Kraybill, a professor and senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. "The Amish are not just surviving but thriving. There is limited land, and land that is here is being taken up by development. ... This is a transition. And it's not just Lancaster County. It's national."

What has not changed are the postcard images found in any Amish community in Pennsylvania and other states: horse-drawn buggies carrying families, barefoot children running through fields, and farmers in suspenders working their land with horses and plows.

But alongside such traditional imagery, it is becoming common to find Amish men filing into factories in Goshen, Ind., talking on cell phones in Lancaster, even building and selling extravagant playground equipment that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"Growing up, farming was the only industry I could dream of being in," said Amos Glick, owner of Swing Kingdom and one of about 30,000 Amish in Lancaster and Chester counties. "But now, moving forward, I would not want to be in farming. Things have changed."

As two of his Amish employees assembled monkey bars, slides and rope swings outside Swing Kingdom's 50,000-square-foot factory in Leola, Glick said that when he started the company 10 years ago, his father -- a lifelong farmer -- was dubious.

"He certainly did not give me the OK," Glick said. "He told me, 'No one is going to pay $1,000 for a swing set in their backyard.' But today, we don't even sell any swing sets for as low as $1,000. Most people spend between $2,200 and $4,500, and some spend $20,000 (for expansive, high-end sets).

"It's not what I expected," Glick said. "But I enjoy what I'm doing. It's a good product, we have a lot of good customers, and we've made good relationships. I'm probably in this for life."

Shift not new phenomenon

The shift from farmer to entrepreneur began decades ago, according to Kraybill and Steven Nolt, a professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana.

In Amish communities near Goshen, men began taking jobs in factories as early as the 1940s, Nolt said. By 1980, a slight majority of the local Amish households still relied on farming, but by 1990 only about one-third of the Amish in the area worked on farms, Nolt said.

Today, fewer than 15 percent of the Goshen area's Amish work on farms; most men work in modular home or recreational vehicle factories, Nolt said.

"Every Amish person will tell you that farming is the better way of life, but then they'll quickly add that it's just not feasible anymore," Nolt said. "Farming has been on the decline in all of the large communities, continent-wide."

Resourceful, the Amish adapted to the changes.

In Lancaster, Amish farmer Elam Beiler started what would become a multimillion-dollar company after trying to find a more efficient way to charge batteries for the lights on his carriage. Hoping to forego generators, he bought a single solar panel, started charging the batteries far more cheaply than he could before, "and he became the talk of the town," said Josh Mitten, CEO of Beiler's company, Advanced Solar Industries, in New Holland.

Beiler founded the company in 1995, catering mainly to fellow Amish. As solar power gained popularity, he offered his services to the "English" -- non-Amish communities -- and business exploded. In 2008, the company completed $1.7 million in projects, mostly in the eastern half of the state. Last year, the number jumped to $4.3 million. This year, ASI is on pace to top $20 million in projects, including its first jobs out of state, Mitten said.

Mitten credits a number of factors for the company's rapid growth, including the Amish's reputation of being highly skilled, honest and punctual. Four of the company's five foremen are Amish, including Petersheim.

"I've had customers call and tell me this is the first construction-type crew they've had where there was no swearing, no guys talking about how wasted they got last weekend, no cigarette butts off the roof," said Mitten, who is not Amish. "The work ethic is different, and people really appreciate that. We are constantly being told that we are different."

Tapping into innovation

Being different used to be an obstacle.

When Lorraine and Ike Kauffman opened a store selling handcrafted clocks in Ronks in 1981, they asked church leaders for permission to get a phone. "But the bishop said that if there was a phone within one mile of our house, we didn't need one," Lorraine Kauffman said.

Five years later, the Kauffmans left the church for personal reasons -- and because of the restrictions on technology, Kauffman said. They were shunned by the surrounding Amish community, but leaving proved advantageous, Kauffman said: They got a phone, a computer and no longer had to convert equipment into Amish-approved pneumatic or air-driven machinery.

"We grew rather rapidly after that," Kauffman said. "Being able to have access to technology, create lines of credit, use electricity, lighting, phones -- these were major conveniences."

Restrictions on technology are loosening in many Amish communities, especially larger settlements located close to major metropolitan areas, Nolt said. Near Goshen, the Amish eat out in restaurants and take vacations by hiring drivers and visiting places such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park, he said.

"I don't believe the leaders have the power to restrict technology anymore," Kauffman said. "Things like not having cell phones -- that's just so impractical. The Amish are so innovative; there is so much talent and creativity. They've certainly begun to tap into it."

Farm still a comfort

Rick Esh creates documented proof that Amish businesses are growing in Lancaster County.

Esh's father, who was raised Amish, started DavCo advertising company in the 1970s. In 1991, DavCo began publishing an annual business directory featuring Amish-owned businesses. Fewer than 100 companies advertised that first year. This year, more than 1,100 businesses are in the directory, and at least 75 percent are Amish-owned, Esh said.

"As with any business, you evolve or you go away," Esh said. "The Amish are very resourceful. They've evolved."

For all their successes, however, many Amish still crave the life of a farmer.

After Elam Beiler struck it rich with ASI, he handed over the reins of his solar company to Mitten and moved to Indiana to work a farm with his two teenage sons.

Petersheim said he understands why Beiler chose farm life over running a multimillion-dollar company.

A former farmer, Petersheim said he enjoys his new job and understands that returning to the farm is not an option, given the scarcity of land. Still, when he gets off work, no matter how tired he is, he often seeks comfort in the simple pleasures he once knew. He volunteers to help neighbors, happily throws himself into farm work and performs chores such as baling hay, milking cows -- anything that needs to be done.

"It's what I love to do," Petersheim said, smiling at the memories.

 

 

 
 


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