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For Amish, fastest-growing faith group in US, life is changing

As the Amish population in the US grows – forecast to hit 1 million by 2050 – the decline of farmland is forcing the community to spread to new areas and to evolve its agrarian culture.

By Staff writer / November 30, 2012

An Amish man and girl plow a field near Troy, Ohio, this fall.

Tony Dejak/AP/File

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Millersburg, Ohio

For Jacob Beachy, life moves along much as it always has. Every day, there are the 35 cows that need tending, as well as 90 acres of farmland. His is the life of an Amish farmer, in which family, work, and faith intertwine on one plot of Ohio land.

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Yet across the street, on 60 acres that were once a farm, stands a sprawling new mansion, complete with a multidoor garage. A few years back, that land sold for $1.4 million.

“When we moved here in 1968, we thought we were in the sticks,” Mr. Beachy says, rocking in his living-room recliner. “All of this was working farms. It’s changed a lot.”

Indeed, for America’s Amish, much is changing. The Amish are, by one measure, the fastest-growing faith community in the US. Yet as their numbers grow, the land available to support the agrarian lifestyle that underpins their faith is shrinking, gobbled up by the encroachment of exurban mansions and their multidoor garages. 

The result is, in some ways, a gradual redefinition of what it means to be Amish. Some in the younger generation are looking for new ways to make a living on smaller and smaller slices of land. Others are looking beyond the Amish heartland of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, seeking more space in states such as Texas, Maine, and Montana.

In Ohio’s Amish country, centered in Holmes County about 80 miles south of Cleveland, these forces are reshaping a region where 42 percent of residents are Amish – the highest percentage of any part of the US. Amid these changes, Amish here are struggling to maintain the traditions they hold dear: establishing core values within the family through manual labor close to home.

The American Amish population has boomed during the past few decades. A study released this summer by Ohio State University in Columbus found that the Amish are growing faster than any other faith-based group in the US, with 60 percent of all Amish settlements in the US founded since 1990.

According to the study, there are 456 settlements in the US and Canada – a number forecast to reach 1,000 by 2050. Likewise, the US Amish population – now at 251,000 –is estimated to grow to more than a million by 2050, the researchers add.

The most apparent reason for such rapid growth, experts say, is that Amish birthrates are high and the community emphasizes keeping children in the faith. About 90 percent of Amish children keep their family traditions intact, though many may temporarily stray as teens and young adults, says David Weaver-Zercher, a religion professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

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