LANCASTER, PA. — DRESSED in a white T-shirt, black trousers with the trademark suspenders, and sneakers, Elmer looks like a traditional member of the Old Order Amish. But he represents the new Amish entrepreneur.
Unlike his father, a typical Amish farmer, Elmer decided it was more lucrative to take an apprenticeship at a small furniture manufacturer here in Lancaster, Pa., the heart of Amish country. After eight years, it's paid off. Elmer now owns the company and business is booming. (Only his first name was used because it is sacrilegious for the Amish to have their name in print.)
Elmer is not alone. Today, more than half of Lancaster's Amish work force has left the farm for employment in small businesses, which include a smattering of carriagemakers, carpentry shops, and shuffleboardmakers.
Until the late 1960s, nonagricultural work could mean ex-communication from the church, which was founded on the rigidities of Swiss 16th century Anabaptism. Not so today.
What's caused many Amish to put down their plowshares? Pure economic survival, says Donald Kraybill, a professor of sociology at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., and author of a new book published this month called ''Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits'' (John Hopkins University Press). The primary factor forcing the change, he says, is skyrocketing land prices here.
Lured by Lancaster's sweeping countryside, the population rose by 25 percent to 420,000 between 1970 and 1990. In tandem, the price of land rose well beyond the means of most Amish, from $924 to $4,943 an acre over the past 25 years. The average value of a farm went from $73,993 to $427,332 during the same period. At the same time, the Amish population has rapidly grown, doubling every 20 years, which has further exacerbated the scramble for farmland.
Tourism also has played a role in the success of Amish businesses, Professor Kraybill says. Lancaster County attracts more than 5 million tourists a year. Yet, only 30 percent of Amish small-businesses target tourism. Most are supported exclusively by the Amish community.
''These factors produced a crisis of sorts, which eventually forced [the Amish] to shift gears occupationally'' or emigrate to other Amish settlements across the country, Kraybill says.
Much of the success of the Amish small-business sector has been in direct contradiction to popular business philosophy that emphasizes the latest technology and a high-standard of education.
The Amish have side-stepped the industrial age. Electricity, telephones, and cars are, with rare exception, banned from the home and workplace. Horse-drawn buggies are still the mode of transportation. After some ingenious adjustments, Amish businesses remain low-tech. Formal education stops at eighth grade.
''By coming into [the business world] sideways, the Amish have questioned the assumptions that govern modern business thinking,'' Kraybill says. ''They have violated all the laws of operating a small business,'' and yet they are extremely successful.
According to a study of Amish microenterprises by Pennsylvania State University, the Amish small-business sector, against all odds, seems to be in a permanent boom. Of all Amish small-businesses in Lancaster, 60 percent were started after 1980; more than 20 percent have annual sales between $50,000 to $100,000, while 14 percent boast sales of more than $500,000, the study shows. More surprising, still, there is about a 5 percent failure-rate; the national average is closer to 65 percent. The Amish also don't accept government subsidies or welfare, yet there is virtually no unemployment.
What's the secret? Kraybill credits the Amish work ethic, the frugality and austerity inherent in their moral code, and their emphasis on apprenticeship as well as cooperation, not competition.
Elmer, who ended his formal education at the eighth grade, admits that the future of his business looked ''kind of shaky'' in the past. But the furniture he wholesales (mostly to Northeastern states) has proved so popular that his factory is now running at capacity. Five full-time and three part-time employees work from dawn to dusk, churning out 50 to 100 pieces a day that sell for from $25 (for a chair) to $50 (for a love seat).
Elmer uses drills, saws, and other machinery retrofitted with hydraulic motors or pneumatic power. Even the factory's overhead lighting is natural, provided from roof-top skylights.
Frank Lindenfield, a sociology professor at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pa., says the real success of Amish microenterprises lies in the tight-knit community. Because of their unity as a separate culture with a largely independent economy, he says, the Amish are mostly ''insulated from economic ups and downs.''