The Amish: From Plows to
most visitors to Lancaster County quickly notice, a large number of the
Amish earn a living in non-farming occupations. Amish shops selling
everything from quilts to gazebos dot the countryside. What were the
factors behind this shift from "plows to profits," and how is it
affecting Amish culture today? The beginnings of this shift actually had
something to do with farming changes among the non-Amish in the 1940ís...
Horse-drawn equipment became
increasingly scarce after 1940, as more American farmers began using
tractors. Consequently, several Amish mechanics opened machines shops to
refurbish horse-drawn implements. By the mid-sixties it was difficult to
buy horse-drawn machinery, so Amish welders and mechanics began producing
component parts in order to repair horse-drawn equipment. Taking a major
turn, they also began buying implements designed for tractors and adapting
them for use with horses. For example, they mounted engines on hay balers
that were pulled by horses instead of tractors. Thus, somewhat ironically,
the Amish were nudged into business in order to preserve their horse
farming in the face of a booming agribusiness enamored with tractors.
One church leader described the rise of
shops in his church district from 1963 to 1993. The congregation had
twenty-one working households, not counting retired persons. In 1963, the
district had one shop; by 1993, this number had grown to ten, and only
half of the adult men were farming.
During the explosive growth of Amish
business in the 1980s, entrepreneurs moved into a wide variety of new
ventures. Some opened retail stores for their own people, selling shoes,
lighting fixtures, kitchen appliances, wet and dry cell batteries,
hardware supplies, furniture, and all sorts of food. New firms also
targeted non-Amish customers with furniture, dry goods, greenhouse
products, camping gear, and building supplies. Others plied the tourist
trade, selling quilts, lawn furniture, and other crafts to visitors as
well as to wholesale dealers.
The transformation of Amish work was a
monumental bargain between a tenacious people and the forces of a modern,
rationalized social order. The Amish were willing to experiment with new
occupations, products, and markets if they could control their newly
created world of work. Farming remained highly regarded. Many new
entrepreneurs tried to maintain the patterns and virtues of farm life in
their new commercial context. Moreover, they remembered the lessons from
their foray into factory employment in the seventies. And so the ethnic
enterprises, burgeoning in the eighties, were located at or near home as
much as possible. No travel to far-off industrial parks would separate
fathers from their families. Working at or near home preserved family
values by blending spouses and children into the world of business.
Parents working alongside their children could pass on the virtues of
Amish life in the context of work, albeit at the edge, not the center, of
This astute compromise enabled the Amish
to harness their work within an ethnic subculture. Employment within the
context of kin and church reinforced Amish values, fortified the
Pennsylvania German dialect, and accommodated the calendar of their
holidays and celebrations. Finally, and most important, the implicit terms
of the agreement enabled the Amish to work within the moral boundaries of
their faith. They could now easily avoid Sunday sales, fringe benefit
packages, and other dubious influences that sometimes accompany factory
employment, such as blaring music, profane language, and organized labor.
The rapid rise of Amish enterprises is
surely the most significant transformation in the history of the Lancaster
settlement. Although few Amish-owned firms existed before 1970, within
twenty years nearly a thousand shops had sprung to life. In fact, 60% of
all Amish businesses have been started since 1980, and 31% have opened
their doors in the last five years alone. In other words, Lancasterís
Amish community has given birth to nearly 300 enterprises in half a
decade. The move toward small-business ownership has been dramatic and
sharp. Each month new firms move into new markets, offer new products,
develop new product lines, and increase their sales.
By the mid-nineties, the Lancaster
settlement had some 1,000 Amish-owned businesses with annual sales of more
than $1000. The older, more densely populated portions of the settlement,
which face the greatest land and population pressures, have the most
enterprises. In one district near the heart of the settlement, almost half
of all Amish households own a business. On the other hand, only 13% of the
households in one congregation in the more rural, southern flank of
Lancaster County are involved in business.
One-third of the firms are part-time or
seasonal operations. These part-time, or sideline, businesses provide
extra cash throughout the year or on a seasonal basis on family farms.
Two-thirds of the businesses are full-time enterprises providing regular
employment and income for their owners. Some firms employ up to fifteen
people, although two to six employees is more common. All totaled, Amish
businesses provide nearly 2,000 full-time jobs and some 1,400 part-time or
seasonal slots. The financial scope of Amish commerce varies, as well.
Although many firms are small, 7% sport annual sales in excess of one
Amish shops produce an amazing variety of
products and services. "You would flip out if you knew how much
product is being pumped out of these little shops," one Amishman
chortled. Woodworking trades comprise the largest clustering of
enterprises---furniture building, cabinet making, and storage barn and
gazebo construction, as well as more general woodworking activity. Smaller
wood products, such as doghouses, birdhouses, cupolas, picnic tables, and
lawn furniture, also flow from Amish shops. The small storage sheds widely
distributed in several states are another popular product of Amish
carpentry shops. One Amish observer estimates that more than 700
"little red barns" are shipped out of the country each week
during peak production. One shop makes about 4,000 storage sheds a year.
But the modern world abounds with values
often at odds with cherished Amish virtues. Business ventures are indeed
transforming many of the cultural sentiments that have regulated Amish
life over the generations and gave birth to Amish enterprise in the first
place. Personal names are appearing more frequently on business cards, in
business names, and on advertising trinkets. And unlike farming, failure
or success in business points much more directly to the personal ability
of an entrepreneur to survive the harsh competition of the marketplace.
Entrepreneurs who straddle the worlds of
tradition and modernity often feel pulled in conflicting directions.
Always tempted to use more and more advanced technology, they also realize
that the restraints of their culture have bestowed upon them a satisfying
way of life. One successful entrepreneur, who at times has faced the
censure of the church for stepping across the boundaries, summed it up
this way... "Sometimes I think of leaving the church, but why should
I leave when I know there are millions of people out there who would just
love to have this way of life."
Lancasterís Amish have negotiated a
workable settlement with the forces of modernity. Forced to leave the
farms of their past, the Amish have refused to enter the alien culture of
corporate America. They have, indeed, relinquished their grip on the plow
as well as on some aspects of their family-centered living, shaped by
three centuries of tilling the soil. But they have yielded neither their
right to manage their own time and resources nor their control of
technology. Acting in a rather judicious fashion, the Amish have held the
terms and conditions of their work within the religious boundaries of
their ethnic community. Their move toward entrepreneurship marks a pivotal
moment in their history as a people---a most significant adjustment to the
modern world. They have struck a bargain that nourishes their economic
health without conceding their cultural soul---a bargain that appears to
be a good one, at least for the present generation.
You may enjoy reading the entire book,
from which this article was adaptedÖ.
Amish Enterprises: From Plows to
Profits, by Donald B.
Kraybill and Steven M. Nolt, is published by the Johns Hopkins University
Press, and is available in area bookstores. Other highly recommended books
written or edited by Dr. Kraybill include The Riddle of Amish Culture,
The Amish and The State, The Old Order Amish: Their Enduring Way of Life, and
The Amish Struggle with Modernity.
Amish Country News
Article by Guest
Writers Donald B. Kraybill & Steven M. Nolt
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