Tradition + Flexibility: Sustainability in the Amish Community AN INTERVIEW WITH DONALD KRAYBILL BY LINDA ESPENSHADE
PRISM: What are their energy sources of choice?
While the Amish are well known for their desire to isolate their community from the world, they are more “in” the world than most outsiders might think, says Donald B. Kraybill, expert on the Amish.
Kraybill: Propane gas is used to operate lights, heaters, water heaters, refrigerators, stoves.They also use wood, kerosene, and coal to heat their houses. Diesel fuel is used for a diesel engine, which typically powers an alternator to regenerate a battery. The other things they use a lot of are battery-operated tools and other items.The American commercial market did the Amish a favor around 1975 when it started bringing out all kinds of battery-powered tools and toys. The Amish have been using batteries since the beginning of the 20th century.
PRISM: What are some of the myths that outsiders believe about the Amish? Donald Kraybill: The prevailing mythology is that all Amish people are farmers. But across North America, only 40 percent of the Amish get their primary income from agriculture. Outsiders also tend to think that the Amish are completely self-sustaining and don’t depend on the outside world. A typical, mid-range North American Amish farming household, farming anywhere from 30 to 80 acres, will raise the bulk of their own vegetables and can and freeze them. But none of them are completely self-sustained. And therefore they are not immune to the current economic woes. Farmers are affected by the price of propane and—unless they are raising everything they need to feed their livestock—cattle feed. Dairy farmers are affected by milk prices. Sawmills are very tightly crunched right now because of the national recession, and Amish contractors and carpenters, especially those who build high-end furniture, kitchens, and barns are feeling the squeeze. And of course, since they buy products, they are affected by rising prices. They don’t grind their own wheat, for example; they buy flour in the store. A lot of them buy bread from the store, or potato chips. But the Amish do have more resources at their disposal to cope and adapt better than the rest of the population during hard times. They all have a garden.They probably have an uncle who’s raising cattle that they can get some beef from. They tend to have closer-knit family networks that most of us. Many people also wrongly think that all Amish farms are organic and that they don’t use fossil fuels.
PRISM: You say it’s a misconception to think that the Amish farm in environmentally sustainable ways. How do most Amish farmers raise crops? Kraybill: While the bulk of Amish farmers use chemical pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides, there is a strong movement of organic farming emerging in some states.
Using horsepower to plow their fields and pull their carriages means that the Amish consume a lot less fuel than the average American. Photo by Dennis Donohue
is how to maintain an agricultural lifestyle without going bankrupt by buying a big farm. At first glance it might look as if it’s sheer economics, but the deeper motivation would be keeping the family living and working together in an agricultural setting. Being on two acres is much better than living in a suburban development or working on a construction crew where you have to drive 60 miles round-trip every day. Even if a farm family is organic, even if they are solarpowered, or if they’re grazing, we’re only talking about 20 percent of them.This is a new movement. But all these things do help lessen their dependence on outside energy sources and, in particular, keeps them from having to tap into the public utility grid, which is taboo for them.
This Amish farm uses solar energy to power the electric cattle fence. Photo by Daniel E. Rodriguez
In Lancaster, Pa., right now, there’s a sizable cooperative of about 35 organic Amish farmers. They find a niche, a specialty product, and attract the upscale customers. I know one guy who grows two dozen kinds of tomatoes. They ship to upscale restaurants in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Other organic farmers participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where a family in suburban Philadelphia, for example, will sign up and pay a set sum from mid-May to mid-September to receive a weekly delivery of organic vegetables. I would say that organic farming is driven as much by economics as by ideology; many of the farmers do it because they can get better prices and compete. Here in Lancaster, instead of buying a 100-acre farm for $1.5 million, organic farmers can survive on two to three acres with unique vegetable crops. The second growing movement, much bigger in Ohio than in Pennsylvania, that relates directly to sustainability is what they call grazing — where they let their cows graze yearround, moving them to a new section of their land each day. This way they don’t need a tractor, tillage equipment, or harvesters powered by gasoline. It’s a fairly efficient system that they say helps achieve higher forage yields. The other thing that is emerging, and becoming more widely used, is solar. It’s still pretty expensive on the front end, but they are already using solar for things like pumping water and for generating low levels of electricity to run a typewriter, a copy machine, or a coffee pot. The thing that’s interesting about these three areas of environmentally sustainable activities is that these aren’t traditional Amish practices but rather newly adopted ones.
PRISM: Why is it so important to the Amish not to use the public utility grid? Kraybill: Their concern originally was not to connect to the outside world. This was around 1925 to 1935, when rural electrification was happening. The Amish were saying, “If we connect to the outside world, where’s it going to lead us? It’ll lead to more conveniences and luxuries, and those don’t help us earn a living.” So across the country in Amish settlements, they decided to reject highline electricity, connecting to the grid — although they’ll do it for special medical purposes, if someone needs to be on an oxygen machine, for example. They’re actually quite flexible with that kind of thing. PRISM: Do the Amish understand the potential damage of pesticides and fertilizers to the waterways? Kraybill: They aren’t smarter than anybody else. There are agriculture consultants who work with the Amish, who are out selling them products and testing their soils. Like other people, most Amish aren’t biologists — they don’t always understand these processes. They’ve stopped school at the 8th grade, including all the leaders and ministers. Now of course there are some very smart ones in the community who read and are highly self-educated. And things do change. For example, one debate that’s going on in the community right now is over smoking and raising tobacco. That wasn’t there 20 years ago. So they’re slowly becoming aware of its dangers, but they haven’t had health education courses in public high school and are not watching public service health ads on television. Also the Amish are skeptical about government. They believe in a sharp separation of church and state. So if a government official comes out and says that what they’re
PRISM: Does investing in things like solar power and grazing management help further the underlying goal of the Amish to remain separate from the world? Or is something else pushing them to pursue these possibilities? Kraybill: That’s a complicated question. I think the motivations are mixed. For the organic farmers, the primary motive
PRISM: While they have shown themselves to be flexible over time, what has helped the Amish sustain the core of their traditional way of life over so many centuries?
doing on their farm is killing fish in the Chesapeake, your average Amish farmer is going to think,“How do I know I can believe him? They’re paying him a whole bunch of money just to drive around and tell people this to scare them.” In addition to their skepticism, they’re very pragmatic and frugal. If you show them how they can make some money by selling their manure or raising organic crops, then they’ll be more ready to listen. They have a rural, pre-industrial mentality in many ways. So while they aren’t any savvier about creation care than most other Christians in this country, the essence of their lifestyle is a lot more environmentally friendly than yours or mine. Most Amish, even those who own businesses, have a garden. The garden is a big tradition, where the family works together. Where businesses use diesel engines, they’re using them smart. For example, take a machinery or carpentry shop—the diesel runs an air pump and a hydraulic pump that will power all of the equipment, but it will also take the hot water in its radiator and circulate it through pipes in the concrete floor, and that will heat the shop. So, yes, they’re burning diesel fuel, but they’re very smart about getting the most productivity out of it as possible. Farmers will run the diesel engine just when needed, like when milking, but they’ll also run an air line off it to run their water pump. And although the diesel only runs from time to time, they can store the air in a tank and then run a sewing machine 24/7 off that. You can’t do that with oil. Another aspect of their lifestyle that is easy on the environment, besides growing their own vegetables so they’re not buying vegetables shipped from California, is their simplicity of dress. Since they’re not buying commercial clothing and are not at the whim of fads and fashions, they use very little fabric. They just have basic sets of clothing that look alike and are worn again and again. They dry their clothes outdoors. There are no air conditioners in these houses. There are no TVs, no computers or dishwashers, so the electrical load for an Amish house is dramatically low. They don’t drive automobiles. They do have drivers, but even when they go with drivers, often it’s with a large group of people in a passenger van, so it’s highly efficient. Otherwise they use scooters or walk or ride in horse-drawn carriages or take public transportation. Also, the Amish don’t live alone—you’ll have a homestead where three or four families live on the same site — you might have 25 people all together. Given all these factors, I am sure that the average use of fossil fuel on an Amish farm or home is much lower than the demand in a typical American home.
Kraybill: The most striking difference between their culture and mainstream American culture is communalism versus individualism.The central value of the Amish culture is communalism, church, community. When they join the church on bended knee, they place themselves under the authority of the church. And they view that as a very serious vow, binding them for the rest of their lives, even though they’re only maybe 18 to 23 years old when they take it.The church makes decisions about technology and lifestyle, and they feel responsible to follow the rules and regulations. That’s very different from how other Americans grow up, where the most important thing is to be free of social constraints. Everything from our cars to how we dress is grounded in the value of individualism. But for the Amish, it’s obeying the authority of the community and submitting to decisions made on the basis of what is best for the welfare of all members. n Donald B. Kraybill is a senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, a sociology professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., and the author or coauthor of many books about the Amish, including Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Jossey-Bass, 2007) and The Riddle of Amish Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). Linda Espenshade is a feature writer for the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, Pa.
An Amish man works with a wood planer powered by hydraulics. Photo by Daniel E. Rodriguez
Published on Mar 12, 2012
An interview with Amish expert Donald Kraybill explores what makes that communalistic culture thrive.