The picture many have of the Amish is of agrarian simplicity – of horse-drawn plows and harrows slicing the fertile loam.
But skyrocketing land prices and other anti-farming influences have forced the Amish to seek different forms of livelihood to make ends meet – not only to keep their lives off the grid of modern society but also on steady moral ground.
Today, Amish men, and even some women, are working in factories, restaurants, craft shops, lumber mills, construction businesses – a phenomenon that has had a huge impact on the stability and viability of Amish life.
“The Amish shift into non-farm work is the most major and significant transformation of Amish life in the last century,” said Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown, Pa., a scholar who has written extensively on the Amish and their way of life.
This shift has led to significant though subtle changes in Amish culture, and for some innovative entrepreneurs, a new acquaintance with big business.
Along with Goshen (Ind.) College history professor Steven Nolt, Kraybill wrote Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits (1994, Johns Hopkins University), an examination of the dramatic sea change in Amish livelihood.
“In some settlements such as Nappanee, Ind., and Geauga County, Ohio, over 80 percent are working in non-farm work,” Kraybill said. “Even in Lancaster County, Pa., and Holmes County, Ohio, at least 60 percent are in non-farm work.”
This doesn’t mean that field or livestock work no longer top the list of Amish occupations. In some places, farming still holds sway, though sometimes not by much.
“The percentages vary from settlement to settlement, but in the newer settlements and smaller, more rural areas and states, over two-thirds are farming,” Kraybill said. “In all of the larger, old settlements, including Arthur, Ill., over two-thirds are in non-farm work.”
A longtime Amish minister who lives near Middlebury in northern Indiana said the trend toward non-farm work has meant an uncomfortable influx of “English” influences in some Amish homes, especially ones where the wage-earner works for a non-Amish employer.
In Elkhart and LaGrange counties, several manufacturing concerns employ Amish workers, including large furniture, boat and RV makers.
In “English” workplaces, church leaders believe, bad language, listening to popular music and smoking can leave a negative impression on Amish workers. These influences then can begin to invade other quarters of Old Order society. The minister – who, like other Amish quoted in this story, will not be named – said that despite prohibitions against smoking in most of the Amish church, some Amish men who work away from home have started smoking cigarettes.
Cigarettes always have been banned by Amish ordnung, or church-approved social standards. Cigar and pipe smoking are still allowed in parts of Pennsylvania. The minister said this practice is quietly tolerated as long as the person smokes only at work. If he brings his tobacco habit home and exposes his neighbors or children to it, however, the church is likely to intervene with admonition or even discipline for the unrepentant.
The result in Indiana and other places has been the slow development of Amish-owned businesses.
Not far from Middlebury, a prosperous sawmill, owned and manned entirely by Amish, has been operating in recent years.
Also nearby are other Amish businesses – dry-goods stores, fabric and notion shops and a variety of woodwork enterprises, some of which have been in business for several years.
An Amishman who has a farm and dairy near the mill said this kind of workplace is having a positive influence and is popular with its employees.
He said in “English” workplaces, Amish practices such as attending funerals or weddings can be frowned upon or misunderstood. In Amish society, funerals and traditional Thursday weddings are major community events, usually requiring a full day’s attendance. Amish workers often were penalized or even fired when they had to take time off for such activities.
An Amish workplace such as the lumber mill, he said, is not only free of foul influences like smoking but understanding and tolerant of the peculiar rhythms of Amish life. As a result, he said, the employees work harder and remain loyal. They also remain closer to home, helping head off what some perceive as a decline in the work ethic of children whose fathers are often away.
An Amish leader in Pennsylvania said the trend toward non-farm work has had a harsh effect on the Amish family structure, because the authority figure in the household spends much of the day working in town. Young men and women at home, he said, are often left without the guiding hand of a traditional male role model.
And as work takes more Amish away from their farms, other traditions may have to be re-examined, such as resistance to higher education, use of certain kinds of technology or restrictions on long-distance travel, especially by air.
“I would estimate that nationally, two-thirds are in non-farm work,” Kraybill said. This means the shape of the Amish world has changed considerably in the past few decades, and could change even more.
This article first appeared in Mennonite Weekly Review. Used by permission.