Amish redevelopment in rural America

''The Amish are coming.'' This call might be heard throughout rural sections of the northeastern United States. Although not widely publicized, the Older Order Amish are spreading in increasing numbers into areas where they have not previously been found. The impact of this movement is felt in realms beyond the religious. For the Amish are having an important revitalizing effect on rural economies in some poorer agricultural areas.

In the process, they are turning marginal and abandoned farms into productive economic units.

In short, the Amish are showing all Americans what can and should be done to reinvigorate rural America at a time when many experts are lamenting the loss of more and more farmland to shopping malls and housing projects.

The roots of the Older Order Amish in the United States are found in the adult baptism movement in 16th-century Europe. The Amish first emigrated to North America in the early 18th century. Today the core of their settlement areaextends from southeastern Pennsylvania into Ohio and Indiana, with outlying clusters in surrounding states. Combining large families and a high birth rate with a traditional settlement pattern that emphasizes low-population-density rural communities, means that the estimated 88,000 Amish in 550 settlements need to find room to expand.

The core of settlement, however, is in the heart of some of the most expensive agricultural land in the world. Thereforethe Amish are spreading to other less-costly locations in the northeast quadrant of the United States.

The development of two settlements in upstate New York illustrates the approach that the Amish are bringing to depressed agricultural areas.

These recent settlements are found in St. Lawrence County along the St. Lawrence River. Historically, this area has been an important agricultural region. However, farm consolidation and the mediocre quality of some of the land cultivated in the foothills of the Adirondacks, have led to a decrease in the number of individual farm units and a decline in agricultural activity on smaller farms. These farms, with land that is considered marginal for large operations, are often available for purchase at relatively low price. Many are in close proximity and these the Amish are buying.

The Amish came to St. Lawrence County in the early 1970s. By 1981 their population had grown to approximately 350 on 60 farms. The Amish increment represented more than the entire 1970s population increase for one town and more than half of the increase for a larger town. In addition, the Amish have established 25 businesses such as lumber milling, harness and leather working, blacksmithing, and hardware sales. The largest business is a cheese factory known as the ''community cheese house.'' The factory was built with pooled funds to provide a market for Amish dairies.

In spite of the pastoral ideal that the Amish represent for many, their experience is not one of simple rural bliss. When the Amish arrive on newly purchased farms they make the existing houses livable, but concentrate on getting the farms back into production. This is not the picture-postcard landscape of Lancaster County, Pa., where so many tourists generally come into contact with the Amish. This is a landscape of redeveloping marginal farmlands with lots of hard work and a lack of surplus time and resources. Tidying of the farmstead is clearly not a priority for theological and practical reasons.

The Amish model of rural redevelopment is, in part, a throwback to a previous time. However, it is not, as many seem to think, colonial agriculture. It utilizes many farm machines that would have been quite familiar in the early decades of this century. The biblical phrase ''Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers'' (II Corinthians 6:14) is the principle upon which many operational decisons are based. An attempt is made to keep themselves a people set apart from the ways of others. However, it can also be seen that turn-of-the-century equipment and methods are well suited to the smaller farms that the Amish tend to buy. They will adopt modern approaches in adapted form if it seems necessary and theologically sound. For instance, liquid fertilizaton and herbicide tanks can be seen mounted on horse-drawn wooden wagons.

Some 1.2 million farms nationwide fall into the same category in terms of annual sales (less than $5,000) as the marginal farms of St. Lawrence County. Small farms such as those taken over by the Amish in northern New York are found in many areas of the Northeast. The Amish are fitting themselves into this niche of less desirable and readily available farmland.

Although Amish movement into new areas can lead to adjustment problems - such as traffic being hindered by horse-drawn vehicles, and school boards having to respond to unusual requests - the overall effect of recent Amish settlement in depressed rural areas seems to be positive. In addition to economic stimulation, the morale-building potential of this redevelopment of underutilized agricultural land should not be overlooked.

As one non-Amish farmer put it, ''They aren't hurting the neighborhood.''

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