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.
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In the Amish heartland, these demographics are clashing with geography, as Beachy can attest. “Amish will have to spread out,” Beachy says. “That’s why you see settlements all over – they are looking for farmland. You can’t buy a farm anymore to farm.”Skip to next paragraph
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With his own farm, Beachy is in an enviable position. “I’ll never find out what this farm is worth, because I’ll never sell it,” he says.
But the nascent Amish diaspora is not always about economics. Some families are moving to other areas of the country because they think parenting becomes more difficult in a larger, more populated area – even if it’s Amish, says Professor Weaver-Zercher.
For example, nearly 30,000 Amish live in the greater Holmes County settlement, which is the nation’s largest and spreads over five counties. (Amish “settlements” refer not to places with defined boundaries, but to regional communities where the majority of the population is Amish.)
“Some Amish parents are looking for more secluded places, not just from the English” – non-Amish – “but sometimes from other Amish teens, because they want more supervision over their young people,” says Weaver-Zercher, noting that larger settlements can make it easier for young people to engage in risky behavior – such as drug use or alcohol consumption – more anonymously.
“Instead of a community of 5,000 kids, you suddenly have one with 25 kids,” he adds. “At that level, the roughhousing activities will be more akin to what parents approve.”
These issues are particularly poignant for the Amish, given that most formally end their education after the eighth grade. The population boom – combined with the land crunch – is forcing more young people to search for work outside the family home, which means they will experience a world much different from the one their parents knew, says Weaver-Zercher.
On the good side, they will have more disposable income, which will translate to more savings. But working with non-Amish supervisors and co-workers means there will be challenges in maintaining the work ethic and values that have been traditionally taught on the family farm.
Ernie Hirschberger, a father of seven, says his oldest son asked for a car when he was 16 because he “wanted more freedom.” Four years later, that car now sits with a “for sale” sign outside Homestead Furniture, the custom furniture operation Mr. Hirschberger runs with his family and 35 employees in Mount Hope, Ohio.
Hirschberger is a symbol of the future of Amish entrepreneurs: He grew up on a farm, but he started making furniture 22 years ago and today his pieces can be found in all 50 states. His son, who has now embraced the Amish lifestyle, is a manager in the company’s finishing room.
“He’s still a work in progress. He needs to learn,” Hirschberger says.
Besides furniture, which is now a growth area for Amish business, Hirschberger says he is looking to bring new ideas to Holmes County, such as shrimp and fish farms or using hydroponics to grow herbs. He knows he can’t raise cows on his family plot of 10 acres, but he can help innovate new business models for Amish people.
“You can’t just pick up your horse and buggy and go to Cleveland and be a computer tech,” he says. “We just have to think of other things for the smaller plots of land.”
There are tangible benefits of staying in the settlements. The self-sufficiency of the Amish lifestyle, and its emphasis on community strength, meant the recession did not hit most Amish settlements as hard as it did the outside world. That economic security, Hirschberger says, is one reason more young people are deciding to follow in Amish traditions today than they did when he was coming of age.
“They say, ‘This is a good option for our kids,’ ” he says. “To grow up as Christians should and in this lifestyle is not a hindrance.”