April 2007 Issue
The Amish are keeping one foot in farming, but are stepping into the world of business in teh traditional way: by employing generations of family members.
You may not have noticed - for the signs are quite subtle - but there is a revolution taking place in America's Amish settlements. It's a change so profound that scholars are studying it, and worrying about what it might mean. Not only for the Amish themselves, but also for those of us who admire them. For, after centuries of a determinedly rural existence - decreed by their religion and embraced by the faithful - today's Amish are forsaking the farm. Not by choice, but by necessity.
It's a seismic shift that sociologist Donald Kraybill describes as an "industrial revolution" in Amish society, "a saga of traditional people struggling to save their cultural souls while turning their backs on the pastures of their past."
Kraybill, professor of sociology at Elizabethtown College, documents the changes in a book, Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits. He and co-author Steven Nolt base their findings on interviews and case studies of the Amish communities in eastern Pennsylvania, where they found a majority of Amish families now derive most of their income from a business other than farming, and that an astonishing 20 percent of the businesses are owned by women, a phenomenon that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
The authors limited their inquiry to the Lancaster area. But I couldn't help wondering if the same thing is happening here. So, to find out, I spent several weeks touring Ohio's Amish communities looking for signs of a business boom. I visited the nation's largest Amish settlement, in the Holmes County area, and the smaller enclaves in Geauga and Adams counties.
Amish and "English" alike - offered the same opinion. The change is real, and it's dramatic. It's also somewhat frightening, for Amish culture is deeply rooted in the age-old business of tilling the soil, and the new economic realities could threaten the stability of a people whose greatest achievement has been their steadfast resistance to change.
The Amish have always paid a price to maintain their beliefs. In the 17th century, they paid with their lives, as many were martyred for defying the established churches in Europe. To escape persecution, they fled to the American colonies in the 1700s, and began migrating west to Ohio in the early 1800s. They ran afoul of American laws, too, over the years, but generally they prevailed in the courts - in their bid for conscientious objector status, for instance, and their exemption from social welfare programs they disagree with, such as Social Security and Workers Compensation.
Through centuries of upheaval, though, one constant remained: the family farm. Now that bedrock is slipping, and the Amish are forced to adapt. They are doing it in a uniquely Amish way - by holding tight to their core values, as they have for hundreds of years, while making the necessary adjustments to accommodate new ways of earning a living.
Amish entrepreneurs are popping up all over the land. They are establishing family businesses, where the generations can work together, as they did on the farm. And they are having remarkable success in this new nonfarming role.
The evidence is all around, right under my nose, as it happens. Just five miles north of Loudonville, where I live, I found two Amish families conducting two distinct styles of Amish enterprise, across the road from one another. On the north side of St. Rte. 95, Levi Hochstetler manufactures log cabin home-building kits that are shipped, in ready-to-assemble form, all over the country. On the south side of the road, John and Delbert Yoder, father and son, operate a modest woodworking shop, Quality Lumber Products, where they build fine furniture that's sold in retail stores and on the Internet.
Hochstetler Milling Ltd. has an impressive-looking sign, and a gorgeous model home that's open to the public. At his hilltop factory site, there are two acres of timbers stacked high for air drying, plus three enormous diesel-powered drying kilns to finish the job, and a towering silo that siphons off the sawdust, which is sold to farmers for livestock bedding. The company's size and apparent prosperity are obvious to anyone driving by.
At the Yoders' shop, there is no sign, and there are no sales to the public. The shop itself is barely visible from the road, located far down a narrow driveway well back from the house. The Yoders prefer to maintain their distance from the outside world. They will take special orders (you can pick from six kinds of wood and dozens of designs) but a middleman makes the arrangements. Their catalog is available only through dealers who carry their wares. The Yoders' business could grow bigger, if they were willing to make more concessions to modern ways - they are aware that their self-imposed rules will probably limit its growth. "This was a family decision," Delbert Yoder says, agreed upon by all the members.
Across the road, Hochstetler deals with the public, but only on his terms. Like most of the Amish businessmen I contacted, Hochstetler fiercely guards his family's privacy, but he did agree to an interview and a tour of his factory.
He has extensive dealings with non-Amish, of course, as he hires their firms to truck his wares, and he uses professionals to produce his slick brochures (and that stunning roadside sign) as well as non-Amish salespeople to staff his model home and to take orders at the numerous trade shows where he exhibits his extensive line of log homes.
In 20 years, his operation has grown from a single wood planer he kept under a tarp because he could not afford a building to house it, to a national leader in log-cabin sales. Customers appreciate the savings (about 40 percent) when they buy direct from the mill and they like the fact that his logs are milled from the heartwood - the strong center part of the tree. Since moving to Ashland County nine years ago, his manufacturing plant has doubled in size. His wood planers are state of the art, and his enormous wood-drying kilns can handle a forest of trees at one time. Hochstetler admits his business has gotten much larger than he thought it would. But he stops short of discussing the particulars.
Most businesspeople would brag about the bottom line. But Hochstetler won't even hint at the numbers. "Let's just say it's a pretty big investment, and a pretty good business."
Clearly, he enjoys the challenge of business, and the fact that his enterprise is successful. But the most important thing is what it means to the family. His oldest son, Joseph, 18, is already involved in the business. Others will surely follow. The family business, like the family farm in the old days, will keep the Hochstetler family together.
That's the highest ambition in any Amish family: to keep the children close, working together - no matter what kind of work it is - in a family atmosphere that helps them stay true to the faith and join the church one day, through adult baptism. Thus, two families, each one facing the same dilemma, arrive at a solution they can live with - after intense discussion, and some negotiation, in the bosom of the family, and among the elders of the church.
It's a scenario that's being played out in every community where Amish live, for Amish life is circumscribed by a strict set of rules that seeks to foster the community values of humility, modesty, cooperation (rather than competition) and simplicity in dress and deportment.
Within each church district, wise elders are chosen who will help the faithful to interpret and modify the rules, as necessary. Some church districts are stricter than others. But, beyond the fine print, the goal is the same: to live a good and holy life and to raise children in the faith.
For three centuries, the farm was considered the ideal place to nourish this faith - a place where moms and dads worked as a team and children and grandparents pitched in, as their ages and abilities allowed. The family was together at meal times, and most of the time in between. Life's lessons were taught by example.
On the farm, it's easy to do. Little kids can gather eggs or pull weeds or help mom with cooking and canning. But it's hard to maintain this closeness when fathers work in a factory, as some Amish do. But with a family-run business, there's more opportunity for children and parents to spend their days together, in some chore that's safe for children.
As revolutionary as it seems, the new reality (the family business) is amazingly similar to the time-honored tradition (the family farm.)
"Working together and learning together, that's the ideal way," says Hochstetler. "That's what we all try to do."
In a shop three miles east of Middlefield on St. Rte. 87, Michael Slaubaugh and his son, also Michael, make new buggies and repair old ones. The day I visited the Slaubaughs, Michael Jr. was working. Michael Sr. was doing the talking. He seemed philosophical about his decision to leave farming for business, but displeased at the thought that some of his children are taking jobs working in the factories near Middlefield, rather than starting businesses of their own.
"Men who work in factories aren't home enough to raise their children right," he says. Slaubaugh and his wife have 11 children. They worry about the choices that Amish kids must make - especially in this community that's so close to the big-city temptations of Cleveland and Youngstown.
Middlefield is growing more urban every year. The little town is beset with suburban sprawl and Wal-Mart. Land prices have soared way beyond any Amish farmer's aspirations.
The only ones who can make a living farming are those lucky enough to have inherited a farm, and even those fortunate few are hard pressed to eke out a living from the land. Slaubaugh estimates that only 20 percent of the Amish in this area are still farming. Perhaps half earn their living primarily as small-business owners. Many young people are drawn into what they see as the easier life of factory work, says Slaubaugh. It's less risky than starting your own business, and it's less work than farming.
Like many Amish craftsmen, Slaubaugh learned the trade from his father, who also had a buggy-making business, and, in turn, he's taught his son. At least one grandson is also interested in apprenticing in the shop.
In a practice that's common among the Amish, the father and son recently traded places, so that the younger Slaubaugh now owns the business, and his father works for him. This is traditionally the way farm ownership is handled too, with fathers selling their land and equipment to their sons, but continuing to work as long as they're able.
"I don't intend to sit down in a rocking chair," the elder Slaubaugh explains. "My own dad worked 'til the last day of his life, and he died at 85."
Buggy-making is a craft that takes skill, patience, practice - and time. The trickiest part, says Slaubaugh, is the art of the wheelwright, making a steel "tire" fit perfectly on the wooden rim and balancing it just so. Basic buggy design hasn't changed much over the decades, although different church districts may favor different designs. Among the Geauga County Amish, there are three common models: the single-seat buggy; the two-seated surrey and the three-seated family-sized buggy that is like the Amish version of a minivan, with parallel seats that run along both sides. Accessories have been improved, though, with the adoption of LED lights and hydraulic brakes. The buggy's wooden wheels are made by an Amish shop in Geauga County; the steel springs are made by a shop in Holmes County.
In fact, the Holmes County area, with its huge Amish population, boasts hundreds of little backyard manufacturing plants housed in old barns, stables and woodsheds, making everything from nonelectric table lamps and gas-powered freezers to fiberglass buggy bodies (used in some church districts), to wood pallets for industry, foam wall insulation and fence posts made of recycled plastic.
Driving along U.S. Rte. 62, between Winesburg and Mount Hope, on a snowy day, I could see the wood smoke rising from countless workshop chimneys. It looked like a scene from the 1800s: little factories chugging away; small parking lots filled with buggies, not cars. When I stopped at a few to inquire, the work ceased as soon as I walked in the door. People politely answered my questions about what they were making, or repairing. But no one would agree to an interview.
All the little factories I visited were Amish owned. All the workers were Amish, too. But none of these shops had signs proclaiming their "Amish" credentials. Indeed, Amish business owners never use the word "Amish" in their promotional literature. "That would be bragging," one man told me. "We don't do that."
On a rural stretch of U.S. Rte 62, just south of Winesburg, Reuben Miller has a small sign that says "Miller's Hickory Rockers." Motorists driving by can guess that it's an Amish business when they see the phrase "No Sunday Sales." Sometimes he's overwhelmed by tourists who seem more interested in chatting than in buying. He's a bit of a talker himself, with an easy smile and a huge hearty laugh, so he rather enjoys the camaraderie, while at the same time fretting over the bottom line. He no longer farms, a fact that saddens him, and his wife and children depend on the income they make crafting traditional Amish-style rocking chairs out of bent hickory and oak. Business would be better if he were located in the retail shopping strip in downtown Berlin, where people park their cars and walk, from shop to shop, seemingly intent on picking up anything "Amish."
"Downtown Berlin's a gold mine," says Miller, with his booming laugh. He jokes that people who stop at his shop tend to "look at every table and chair," and then smile and say, "We're in a hurry now, but we'll be back."
I gladly bought a hickory rocker. Miller seemed pleased, but he still wouldn't let me use my tape recorder. He did agree to answer my questions, though, so long as I kept notes with a pencil and paper.
In the newer Amish settlements, like the one in Adams County in southwest Ohio, Amish-owned businesses seem to crop up overnight - to support the needs of the newcomers - and soon these little shops begin to morph into genuine tourist attractions, even in a remote and sleepy stretch of countryside that's hidden away in Appalachia.
That's what's happened at Miller's Furniture - an enormous furniture emporium, with a small bulk food store and bakery tacked on, and also at Raber Leather Goods, a store that sells shoes and boots.
Even though these stores are miles away from any real town, and are on county roads so narrow that buggies have a hard time passing, they are now the second-largest tourist draw in all of Adams County - after Serpent Mound, the prehistoric Indian site.
Business seems brisk, despite the isolation. I phoned both stores on a recent Saturday morning and found Raber way too busy to talk, with people waiting in line, and Miller on vacation in Florida while an employee stayed behind to run the store.
Among the Amish, taking a vacation was once unthinkable. You traveled for weddings and funerals, but that was it. Now Amish business owners - no longer tied to the demands of the farm - are free to take a pleasure trip now and then, without worrying about who'll milk the cows.
Adams County's most visible Amish success story is that of Roy Keim, who, 25 years ago, was selling pies from a buggy parked on the berm of the Appalachian Highway - the major road in these parts. Eventually, he built a store on the highway, Keim Family Market, and expanded his line to include bulk foods and furniture, shipped down from Holmes County.
"The bakery business is booming," says Keim's son-in-law Henry Mast, who's operations manager now. "Especially since Cincinnati radio personality Bill Cunningham said on the air how good our creme horns are, and now we can hardly keep up."
Mast doesn't see much future in farming. "Big farms require too much capital, and small farms have too little profit," is how he puts it. Still, every businessman who can afford it seems to keep one foot in farming. Even Levi Hochstetler, the log-cabin manufacturer, does a little farming on the side, and keeps an eye out for property to buy so his children can farm someday.
In some areas, the family farm - greatly reconfigured - may be making a comeback. Subtle signs are cropping up in Adams County, where some Amish are growing organic crops for the restaurant trade and area farmers' markets.
In Geauga County, some Amish farmers are toying with the notion of grazing their cows on pasture alone, rather than feeding them grain, so the milk can be used to make "green" cheese - a hot-ticket item with the food purists who will pay premium prices for these pure grass-fed cheeses, according to Nevin Byler, who operates the county's oldest and largest family-owned business, the Middlefield Cheese Co-op.
Since its founding in 1957, the co-op, which has 113 members, has provided a market for Amish dairy farmers' milk, and made it possible for scores of area farmers to stay in business. The co-op also sells a variety of cheeses at its retail store just east of town.
Home-building is another business venture that attracts the Amish. Jake Hershberger and Gid Yoder were a couple of out-of-work teenagers in 1981 when they decided to start a company of their own, Berlin Construction.
"We were young and we had nothing to lose," says Hershberger. "We got some remodeling jobs. We did good work. Our reputation grew. Slowly the economy improved and we started building custom homes."
For the first few years, Yoder and Hershberger did most of the work themselves. Now the company has two five-man framing crews, two footer men and five specialists installing trim and custom tile. Lavish ceramic-tile bathrooms are a big selling point in Berlin Construction's homes.
The partners' wives share the bookkeeping duties. One of Hershberger's sons is a framer; one of Yoder's is foreman of the follow-up crew. All of their kids take an interest in the work, says Hershberger. As each house nears completion, their daughters come in to give it a day-long, top-to-bottom cleaning, supervised by their moms. "Customers really appreciate how they make it shine," Hershberger adds.
Some Amish entrepreneurs are nervous about growing too large, and fearful of crossing the line beyond what's considered to be right and proper, in the eyes of the church.
There's an Amish-owned bakery near Millersburg that I've been patronizing for nearly 30 years. It used to be just a winterized front porch, with a big cast-iron oven and a few rickety racks holding pies and cinnamon rolls. Over time, as the shop passed to the second generation, great improvements and expansions were made. Now the Kuntry Korner Bakery is modern and huge, although it's still part of the Rabers' farmhouse, and the adjoining shop sells everything from apple butter to zucchini relish, and an assortment of notions and books.
Edna Raber, the founder's daughter, now runs the shop with her husband, Eli, and a few neighbors she's hired.
When I stopped by to purchase a pie and ask her for an interview, she seemed shocked, as though I'd proposed that we hop into her buggy and rush off to rob a bank.
Finally, she said she'd have to ask her husband, who was out with a group of neighbors cutting blocks of ice from the pond. She said she'd telephone me Monday morning if I could come back for a talk. The Rabers have what the Amish call a "community phone," meaning that any of their Amish neighbors can use it - although it's for business purposes only.
I waited all day, but she never called. I finally took "no" for an answer. Of course, I'll still buy her pies. I have to admire a business owner who actually shuns publicity - due to religious convictions.
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