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Age-old Amish experience a 21st century boom
David Warner, Religion News Service
August 19, 2010
6 MIN READ TIME

Age-old Amish experience a 21st century boom

Age-old Amish experience a 21st century boom
David Warner, Religion News Service
August 19, 2010

ELIZABETHVILLE, Pa. — Paul “Chubby”

Chubb cranks up the engine of his big Dodge pickup and sets off on his daily

rounds, running errands for the Amish, taking them shopping, delivering goods

and making friends along the way.

“People like them here,”

Chubby, 82, said of the Amish. “If people have a bad word, they are to blame.”

Chubby figures there are

about eight people in the area who do what he does — driving the Amish around

for a fee, called “taxis” in the local parlance. A day riding around the Lykens

Valley with Chubby provides rare glimpses of Amish life.

This rural hamlet is a

microcosm of an Amish population boom that has soared nationally by 84 percent,

from 1992 to 2008. The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at

Elizabethtown College reports that the population has been doubling every 20

years because of large family sizes and a retention rate of around 90 percent.

While more Amish residents

move out of Pennsylvania than those who move in, the state’s Amish population

nonetheless leapt by nearly 82 percent in that same period, according to

revised figures from the Young Center.

The study estimates that

Pennsylvania now has 59,500 Amish residents, up from 56,500 two years ago and

only 32,700 in 1992. That works out to a 4.3 percent increase in the last year.

The center estimates the national Amish population to total 240,000.

The study measures people

who meet two key criteria for being Amish — they have to use a horse and buggy

for transportation, and they have to speak Pennsylvania German. That leaves out

some more liberal groups, like Mennonites, who drive cars.

While the notion of a

pastoral population of farmers living off the land is ingrained in popular

culture, only about 40 percent of the Amish make their living by farming,

according to Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center at Elizabethtown.

The other 60 percent work in

construction, building sheds, or other trades.

That sounded about right to

a 29-year-old Amish roofer who grabbed a snack at Koppy’s, a convenience store

and gas station in the middle of Elizabethville. In keeping with Amish

custom, he declined to allow his name to be used in the newspaper.

The man said he had never

been a farmer, and lives on a half-acre property near town with his family — “three

beautiful girls, four including my wife.”

“This is the way I grew up,”

he said of his job, “My dad was a carpenter.”

Chubby’s first mission of

the day is to drive an Amish farmer several miles to a lumber store to pick up

a big box of screws and other supplies. The farmer, 32, and a father of five,

is building an extension on his barn for his Holstein herd, which grazes on the

120-acre farm.

RNS photo by Sean Simmers/The Patriot-News

An Amish farmer, who in keeping with Amish custom did not give his name, works his land in Pennsylvania’s Lykens Valley in his buggy. A recent study has shown that the Amish population has doubled in the past 20 years.

The conversation centers on

crops and the weather. Chubby notes that the corn along the rural road is

beginning to look brown. The young farmer reports, with some hope, that there’s

a 30 percent chance of rain on this day.

The farmer says he’s happy

to be in Lykens Valley, where his family moved in 1990 in part because there

are no “gawking tourists trying to take my picture all the time.”

Kraybill, in his book called

The Riddle of Amish Culture, explains the photo ban this way: “The well-known

Amish taboo against personal photographs is legitimated by a biblical command: ‘You

shall not make for yourself a graven image or likeness of anything.”

Chubby, who knows every turn

and bump in the rural lanes and roads, said he can think of only two “English”

farmers left in the valley.

“It’s a tough way to make a

living,” the young farmer said.

Local Amish estimate that

good farmland went for about $1,000 an acre when the Amish influx began in

1978. Today, good farmland would is closer to $6,000 per acre — still cheaper

than Lancaster County, the picturesque Amish heartland and tourist Mecca.

The Amish influx has been a

mixed blessing, said life-long resident Robin Straub, who owns an insurance

agency in Elizabethville. The Amish will preserve the area’s agricultural

character, he said, which is good.

But the Amish also don’t pay

worker’s compensation, which gives them an unfair advantage over “English”

contractors, he said.

Chubby stops for a chat with

an Amish woman who runs a bakery business, shipping some of her work to

Philadelphia markets. All kinds of bread and pies are cooked with propane fuel

and mixed with a compressed air mixer.

As she talks, her household

laundry sways in the hot breeze over the heads of two steers destined to become

part of the family’s food supply.

“There are a lot that have

another business besides farming,” she said. “Farming is not as profitable as

it was at one time.”

Later he pays a social visit

on an Amish farmer who also runs a small welding business in one of his barns.

So why are so many Amish doing other things?

“They need more money to

live and farming does not pay now,” the man said, blaming years of low milk

prices as part of the problem.

A housewife a short distance

away said farms are usually inherited by the oldest son, leaving his siblings

to find other work. The woman’s husband is a machinist, she said, and likes his

job.

But, she added, “we would

love to farm.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Warner

writes for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.)