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The Amish: From Plows to Profits

As 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 the farm.

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 million dollars.

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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