Amish Living: Lessons and Answers

1 / 4
Supermarkets highlight the fact that the Amish do interact with the outside, "English" world.
2 / 4
Owning a phone is an unpermitted "yoke to the unbeliever." Using a pay phone, however, is perfectly acceptable.
3 / 4
Barn raisings symbolize the self-contained, community side of Amish culture.
4 / 4
The Amish method of rotating corn with hay and other crops helped lessen the effects of the 1988 drought.

It happened while Hannah was driving
Albert, David, Colt and Claude, four Belgian draft horses
that were pulling both the hay baler and the flatbed
loading wagon. I was behind on the wagon, grabbing the
blocks of fresh May hay the gas-powered baler churned out
and stacking them in a 3-3-3-2-1 pattern.

Suddenly Hannah stopped the team, jumped out, walked into
the mow of cut hay just ahead and gently picked up two
immature Savannah sparrows. She carried them out of harm’s
way, setting them in a timothy field that wasn’t going to
be cut for at least two weeks (until the young bobolinks
nesting in it were fully fledged).

I rested, wiping sweat and marveling at this Amishwoman’s
concern for two baby birds. Then I looked back toward the
barn and saw 10-year-old Samuel driving the family’s
peculiar 65-horse John Deere tractor, with its little
pneumatic tires up front, but uninflated, bolted-on rubber
ones in back. He was bringing out my next empty wagon. Yes,
that’s when it happened–when I got my first clue into
understanding the riddles of Amish culture.

The Amish are the answer to a question, I
realized. All the odd, apparent contradictions I was
witnessing were part of an overall cultural solution to a
broad, basic problem. A horse-drawn gasoline engine? A
tractor with two different types of tires, which hauled
things to and from the field but did no work in the field?
The fact that I could see the farmer next door loading all
his hay loose and then baling it–with an identical
gasoline baler–only after it was in his barn? Somehow
these things were all answers to the same question.

What was the question?

Ah, that’s what I still had to figure out. 

An Introduction to Amish Living

Three days earlier, I had driven to the Yoder place in
Amish-populated Elkhart County, Indiana. I was nervous.
True, Amos Yoder had invited me to visit him at his 65-acre
dairy farm. But everything I saw as I got closer, from the
horse droppings on the highway to the plain black carriages
filled with faces that looked none too happy to see another
English (Amish call outsiders English in reference
to America’s primary language), made me feel out of place.

Then I drove up the driveway of the immaculate Yoder farm
(lawn trim and green, barns and home clean and white), got
out, met Amos and was introduced to Hannah, his wife.
Hannah, short and sturdy, scanned me with eyes at once
cordial and cautious. I hardly noticed; I was staring at
her clothes. Not the plain, blue dress, the triangular
shawl pinned to an apron, the simple white devotional cap.
I’d expected all that. No, it was her shoes. She was
wearing Sears’ sneakers with Velcro fasteners!

Clearly, everything wasn’t going to be quite as different
as I’d anticipated. And somehow that was reassuring. It
made this whole new world I had just entered seem less

Indeed, that was one of the main lessons I learned on my
visit: Amish people are, well, just people. That may not
sound like much of a discovery, but the more I’d read about
them, the more I’d learned how different they are from most
Americans–how they have deliberately set themselves apart,
based on biblical dictums to not be “part of this world,”
but rather to be a “peculiar people.” Once among them,
though, I was struck as much by what we shared as by what
we didn’t.

Their kids sure acted like mine. When I dropped a bit of
meat at the dinner table, 10-year-old Samuel (a
cherub-faced scamp) was as quick to crack, “A swing and a
miss!” as my own nine-year-old son could ever be. Cute,
wire-thin, eight-year-old Katie was as willing to debate
who should feed the pet fox as my Jesse is to haggle over
feeding our dog. Solemn Marsha, the 13-year-old, could
demonstrate the moodiness of adolescent angst as well as
any teenager I know. Lovely Ruth, the 18-year-old, though
normally calm and peaceful, would argue forcefully with her
mom over the best choice of glasses for serving milkshakes
at her volleyball party. (A riddle: How does an Amish
family fix chocolate milkshakes? By mixing vanilla ice
cream, milk and Nestle’s Quik . . . with a hand eggbeater!)
And the oldest offspring, 20-year-old Jonathan, had a
strong hankering to play softball on the first day of
haying. (That’s how I got the job of loading the wagon.)

The parents, too, were “just plain folk.” Hannah had a
reputation for spunkiness. Indeed, Amos said that’s what
first caught his eye: She stuck her tongue out at him.
(Hannah: “What was I supposed to do? A bunch of boys I
don’t know riding by in a car. I was 13!”) Amos, meanwhile,
showed a particular fondness for food. However, he denied
that his love for farm cooking contributed to a slight
midriff bulge. “Our good well water has too many calories,”
he claimed.

The Yoders are all fine, warm people, and I came to value
their friendship. The only reason I’ve perhaps “told
stories on them” here in print is to emphasize Amish
humanness. Remember such qualities, because, by necessity,
the rest of this piece will focus mainly on the
differences between their culture and mainstream
American society.

Ironically, I was poignantly reminded of those differences
the last night of my visit. As a thank-you treat, I
took the family out to dinner, escorting them in my Avis
sedan to a burger joint in a nearby town. As soon as I
entered that restaurant with an Amish family, I felt an
electricity of separateness–like a black man on the white
side of Selma. Nothing overt, just a feeling in the air. We
all pigged out on such delicacies as peanut butter
milkshakes and bacon double cheeseburgers (and even ordered
a couple of take-out custards for the grandparents back
home). Then the waitress brought the check. Or, rather,
checks: She gave one to Amos and a separate one to me.

So, on to differences. The Yoders, like other Old Order
Amish, dress in a plain, carefully prescribed manner, from
the full beards (but shaved mustaches) and broad-brimmed
hats of the men to the long, solid-toned dresses and
devotional caps of the women. They drive black, horse-drawn
carriages, not cars. They have no electricity or personal
telephones. No radios, TVs or musical instruments. They
speak a separate language, Pennsylvania Dutch (actually,
Dietsch , their term for German). However, they
very courteously spoke English–even to each
other–whenever I was present.

Still, their home isn’t as stark as it may sound. It holds
many modern conveniences: a propane (and therefore
wonderfully silent) refrigerator, white-gas reading lights,
indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water–even a
basement washing machine powered by a small Honda
lawn-mower engine. (“The women love the little Hondas,”
Amos said. “They’re so easy to start.”) So the family has
many basic conveniences normally provided by electricity.

Likewise, when they want to make a phone call, they can
walk down the road to a shared neighborhood phone (kept in
a locked homebuilt booth). If they need to get somewhere a
good distance away, they can hire a car and driver to take
them there.

More of these apparent cultural
contradictions–those puzzling answers to that still
undefined question. 

Amish History and Literature

To help figure it all out, I turned to Amish history and
literature. This Protestant religious group was formed in
the 16th century in Switzerland. Their most visible early
distinction was their belief in the baptism of informed
adults–not of infants. (Hence, their original name
was the Anabaptists , or rebaptizers.) Eventually
they split into two groups, the Amish (after Jacob Amman)
and the Mennonites (after Menno Simons). Today there are at
least 13 degrees of Amishness or Mennoniteness. The most
liberal drive cars and dress like other Americans. The most
conservative don’t even have iceboxes. Yoder’s family is
part of a typical Old Order (fairly conservative) branch.

The central principle of Amish creed and culture is
gelassenheit , a word meaning self-surrender, or
submission to God’s will. In contrast to the “I believe,
therefore I am saved” credo of evangelistic Christianity,
the Amish believe that the basis of redemption is the
practice of gelassenheit , dying to one’s self.
And how does one do that? First, by not asserting oneself.
As Amos told me, “The word ‘proud’ is anathema to the
Amish.” (For this reason, the Yoders asked me to take no
photographs of them and to change their names in this
article.) Wearing similar clothes and living prescribed
lifestyles both help check prideful individuality. The
second way to practice gelassenheit is to work on
building community. The more everyone helps others and
builds a loving brotherhood, the more they all surrender
self and better live out their Christian ideals.

To this end, the Amish have a very carefully laid out set
of rules to follow–the Ordnung –which
is defined by scriptural texts and by community consensus.
Church members who violate the Ordnung and won’t
heed warnings to stop are, again by congregational
consensus, put under the Meidung, the ban. Members cannot
socialize or do business with such shunned ones until they
repent. (The community will, however, help them out if the
need arises.)

Thus, the Amish don’t have a Sunday-only religion but try
to closely follow and live by the Scriptures in everything
they do. Following passages in the New Testament, they
don’t “conform to the ways of the world” but live in a
separate manner, not letting themselves become “yoked” to
unbelievers. They don’t swear oaths, and they are

And here I found the question I was looking for. From the
Amish point of view it is, How do you create an entire
community dedicated to God and not to the world?
the puzzling cultural answers I had observed followed from
their solution to that problem: by making decisions as a
community. If individuals had complete freedom to make
their own cultural choices, the overall community values
would inevitably erode. (Someone would get a car, TV or
other product of mainstream culture, and eventually others
would follow suit.) Yet new decisions have to be made. The
culture must be able to adapt as needed for survival, to
adjust to the outside world without getting swallowed up by
it. So every local Amish congregation can, by consensus,
modify the Ordnung when necessary.

Further, each decision has a rationale behind it. So it’s
OK to make outgoing calls on a community phone but not to
have one in your home? Yes, because the only people you can
call on a community phone are English (not other Amish), so
the phones will be used only for necessary business. You
can’t own a car but can hire a driver? Then if you need a
car for an exceptional reason (perhaps to get a relative to
a hospital), you can arrange for one, but your normal
visiting circle will still be limited to your community of
nearby neighbors. You can’t have electricity but can have
some normally electric appliances? That way, you won’t be
yoked to the unbeliever via a power line–and won’t get
engulfed by all the electrical doodads of mainstream
consumer culture. You can use a tractor for hauling (or for
stationary power when running such tools as a grinder) but
not for field work? That way, your farm will stay small
(horses can work only so much land), and you won’t swallow
up your neighbors’. The tractor has pneumatic tires up
front (to save wear on the engine) but lugged ones in back
(which can’t be used on state roads and so keep you from
using it for transportation). Even the puzzling fact that
Yoder uses his baler in the field but his neighbor does so
only in the barn comes clear. The neighbor belongs to a
different local church, and his congregation made a
different ruling on the best way to limit gasoline-powered
farm machinery.

Ultimately, no matter where the Amish draw their cultural
lines, there will be places along the boundary that appear
contradictory. The point, though, is drawing a line at
: using values to make cultural choices.

Technology, Environmentalism and Spirituality

Reframe the same question from another point of view and
this spiritual query becomes a very important environmental
one: How do you control technology instead of having it
control you?
As Kentucky farmer-essayist Wendell Berry has
written, “The Amish are the truest geniuses of technology,
for they understand the necessity of limiting it, and they
know how to limit it.”

Mainstream American culture has never dared address the
possibility of choosing between which new technologies will
have positive environmental impacts and which won’t. If
someone invents it–from an electric hair dryer to the
nuclear bomb–we use it. Occasionally, after a choice
has already caused great damage, we ban or limit it (RIP,
DDT). But have we ever shown the cultural foresight or
courage to close the door on a possibility beforehand?

The Amish are thus not a backward, antiquated culture (as
the thriving English tourist industries portray them) but a
traditional-modern hybrid that is fully aware of the
outside world and chooses carefully from its offerings.
Amish children are not kept ignorant of the lures and
luxuries of the outside world. Indeed, some teenage Amish
experiment with driving, drinking and more. (Jonathan told
me of some Amish boys who “like to sow their wild oats,
then pray for a crop failure.”) They then feel that they
know enough of both worlds to, when mature, make their own
choices. And not all of them remain Amish: for instance,
only two of Hannah’s six siblings had.

The archetypal example of the difference between Amish and
mainstream American thinking is agriculture. Conventional
farms are often chemical addicts, with soil that gets high
(yields) on drugs (chemical fertilizers and pesticides).
The agribusiness credo: Bigger is better. So what if
topsoil erodes by the truckload? If ever-increasing water
usage drains eons-old aquifers? If family farmers and farm
communities become extinct?

Now, look at the Yoder farm. Amos uses four-year crop
rotation on his fields; corn to oats to wheat to hay. This
rotation provides rich soil fertility (no chemical
fertilizers) and keeps down weeds (almost no herbicides)
and harmful insects (no insecticides). Yoder, along with
most of his farming neighbors, is thus, while not entirely
organic, a low-chemical farmer. He has low expenses, too;
he grows much of his own fuel–the hay and grain for
his draft horses.

Those horses provide other benefits. For instance, they
don’t compact the soil the way tractors do. Amish farmers
who buy tractored farms find that the soil doesn’t loosen
back up until after three years of farming with horses. And
Oberlin College researchers found that the Amish
horse-worked farmland absorbs and holds almost seven times
more water than conventional no-till fields.

True, a diversified, low-chemical livestock-and-crops farm
requires more labor per acre than do today’s monoculture
spreads. But that’s not a problem for the Amish, because
they are successful breeders of the most vital farm crop of
all: future farmers. The children in their typically large
families all learn to help–little Katie was right out there
at 5:30 in the morning washing and stripping udders.
Children quit their Amish schools after the eighth grade
and work on the family farm until they marry. And many of
the children do stay in farming when they mature. Both
Jonathan and Ruth planned to.

Likewise, Amish farmers help each other out. They join
together to thrash each other’s wheat or to get in a sick
neighbor’s hay. The community as a whole esteems farming as
the most valued occupation; they feel that being close to
the land is being close to God. (Amos, opening a screen
door to let a bumblebee out, said, “You can feel the
Creator in nature. You see his handiwork.”) 

Lessons from Amish Agriculture

Indeed, the real backbone of Amish agriculture is religion.
Wendell Berry calls it “Christian agriculture, formed upon
the understanding that it is sinful for people to misuse or
destroy what they did not make.” John Hostetler, author of
Amish Society, points out that “soil has a spiritual
significance for the Amish because God created it in the
Garden of Eden. Man’s first duty is to dress the garden, to
till it and manage it as a good steward. Second, man is to
keep the garden, protect it from exploitation.” And Yoder
told me, at once both lightly and earnestly, “It helps you
act ecologically if you know you’re going to hell if you

What does all this mean to the larger American society? For
one thing, that small-scale family farming can
still work. Yoder grosses over $40,000 from 65 tillable
acres, working steadily but by no means fanatically: I saw
him take two naps in one day. Likewise, the Amish as a
whole are doing fine. Their population in the U.S. has
tripled (to 100,000) in the last 35 years. So chemical
agribiz, with its environmentally destructive side effects,
is not the only way to go.

The Amish also demonstrate–in vivid, day-to-day living–the
premise upon which this four-part series has been based:
that spiritual motivation can, indeed, lead to positive
ecological acts.

Amish society isn’t perfect. It is legalistic and
restrictive. Internal differences have often caused
disruptive divisions. And the difficulty of becoming, and
living, Amish eliminates the possibility that
their culture will ever spread widely.

But a backward tourist attraction? An agricultural
anachronism? A bizarre religious cult? Rather, people of
any faith can appreciate the ways the Amish, in all aspects
of life, try to live their belief.
Environmentalists should study the way the Amish work with
nature, and the way these people include humans as a part
of that relationship. (One Amish farmer–who in one
day counted more than 1,800 young birds within 200 feet of
his house–notes, “On this type of farm we enhance the
land for wildlife rather than being detrimental.”) And
anyone interested in the conjunction of environmentalism
and spirituality should admire the way that, more than any
other contemporary culture in America, the Amish have
joined the two.

An Amish Drought Journal

David Kline, regular
columnist for the Amish publication
Family Life, kept a journal at his 120-acre
Ohio farm during last summer’s drought
. The excerpts printed here reveal some of the
sensitivity, faith and
closeness to the land of a good Amish farmer. (Great
Possessions, a collection of Klines writings, will be published this winter by North
Point Press

Saturday, June 25.
no rain. The mercury soared rapidly during the day until it reached 100° by late afternoon. What is unusual is that the
heat is accompanied by almost no humidity. Interesting. Weather of the West,
and we didn’t have to leave Ohio to experience it.

Sunday, June 26. Attended church at
the home of the northernmost family in our church district. The services were
held in the barn. While the pigeons strutted along the barn beams and the cliff
swallows busily attended to their young in nests along the eaves, the minister
gently admonished the congregation that the drought may be God reminding us
that it is He and the rain He giveth that makes our crops prosper.

Wednesday, June
is amazing how the corn continues to grow. The last measurable rain we’ve had
was 45 hundredths of an inch on June 15. And for a month or so before that it rained
only one or two tenths of an inch weekly. What really suffers from the drought are the
shallow-rooted crops like the bluegrass pastures, second-cutting hay and the
oats. Of course, the lawns are turning brown. The children think the lawn’s dormancy is just
fine. No mowing.

Saturday, July 2. We are feeding the
cows four bales of hay a day–hay that was meant for the winter months. It
bothers me to throw hay down from the mow this time of the year. Especially with
the second-crop hay not looking too great. We do have one option, one that I don’t even
like to think about, and that is to turn the cattle into our woods. The woods
are fenced off and not pastured, in order to provide better cover for wildlife,
particularly ground-nesting birds like the rufous-sided towhee. But if worse
comes to worst…

Friday, July 8. Threshed all day.
Motionless air, 100+°. In spite of the
had a marvelous time working and groaning together. We now understand
why folk in warm climates love siestas.

We sold some of
our wheat today. It tested 11.8% moisture. In normal years 14% moisture is considered
excellent. The price of wheat is up. We got $3.52 per bushel. One bushel has enough wheat for 60 boxes of Wheaties,
the Breakfast of Champions, with a street value of over $120.

Wednesday, July
hay in the forenoon and then baled after dinner. The total was only 96 bales, or around 14
bales per acre. Normally, second-cutting hay produces from 80 to 120 bales per
I think
it was while making second-cutting hay that the seriousness of the drought fully dawned on us farmers. At about the same time, the past three or four days, the milk production
has begun dropping rapidly. Some farmers have found milk production down by more than 50%. And yet in talking to neighbors I detect no panic-more like resignation. A few are buying hay. But with hay selling at from $110 to $360 a ton, most of us are taking more of a wait-and-see attitude. Many dairy cows are being sent for slaughter, however. Every weather front moving through without producing rain sends more cows to market.

Saturday, July 16. Almost depressingly humid. But as the humidity increases so do the chances for a thundershower. The two oldest children were at a picnic today and came home with the report
that the weatherman is calling for severe thundershowers tonight. 80% chance.

Sunday, July 17. We slept outside last night. Elsie and the children used a tent, while I stretched out
under the stars. If it rained, I wanted to be there when it happened. One advantage of the drought is that there are
almost no biting insects. What few there are the birds get. What is so unusual about the nights is the total silence. Usually this time of the year the gray tree frogs are busy trilling their
love songs, filling the lull between the spring’s peepers and the late summer’s katydids. It seems all creation is awaiting rain.

None came.

Monday, July 18. Started cutting oats in the 11-acre field. Considering the sparse rainfall, it is almost unbelievable the crop is this good. After dinner, Elsie, Kristine, Anne and I shocked up as fast as Tim cut. In the meantime, ominous-looking-or rather, promising-looking-clouds began building in the northwest. It is amazing how fast one can shock when thunder rumbles in the distance. At 4:30, with lightning flashing constantly, we unhitched the horses. Tim covered the binder with tarps
and quickly took the team to the barn. Running row to row we had just set up the last shocks when the sky opened up and the
rains came. While the others raced for the security of the buildings, I removed my hat, raised my arms and let it wash over me. Sweet (in Ohio, apt to be a tad acid), wonderful rain.

Tuesday, July 19. I awoke several times
in the night and heard the beat of drops on the roof. As I lay in bed, I listened and
thought of the words penned by farmer-poet Wendell Berry:

“My sweetness is to wake in
the night
After days of dry heat, hearing the rain.”

This morning the rain gauge showed one inch, and
still it came down. The corn, the hay, the gardens, the pastures and trees are celebrating. So are we.

Saturday, July 23. Rain!

Rain chased us out
of the oats field again last night and continued for most of the night. We’ve had almost five inches since the drought broke, but none has run off from the fields.

It is a wonder to
behold the greening of the earth since the rains began on Monday. The corn must have grown nearly two feet. The gardens, hayfields and
lawns are
rapidly turning green. So are the weeds in the garden: the pigweed, the lamb’s-quarters, the bindweed and purslane. For now, the drought seems to be over.

The farmers are smiling. Maybe we can even resume our biweekly Friday night home delivery of pizza. When the drought became severe
we suspended this treat indefinitely.

Tuesday, July 26. A friend of mine stuck a measuring stick in his cornfield on the evening of the 18th. A week and six inches of rain later, his corn had grown
two feet.
One of the children asked
how many gallons of water per acre resulted from six inches of rain. So
we sat down and figured. Using the round number of seven gallons per cubic foot, we came up with 152,460 gallons for every acre, with a total of 18,295,200 gallons on our 120 acres. When I realized this, I felt like the Prophet Ezra when he wrote, “And when I heard this thing,
I rent
my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the
hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonied.” All this water without any man’s doing or help. All we did was watch and behold and give thanks.

Wednesday, July 27. Clear skies. In the afternoon the
children mowed the lawn for the first time in six
I removed the tops from the oat shocks
we set up on Monday, so they’ll dry better now that the weather seems more settled. Under one of the caps I discovered a black field cricket that had just molted its skin. The crinkled old skin was still attached to the posterior of the pink and soft
It didn’t want to
move until its skin hardened. I had exposed the cricket at an inopportune time, a time in the delightful insect’s life when it is vulnerable. I know the feeling. I gently replaced the cap.

Thursday, July 28. One of our best cows was dead this morning. She had freshened the night before last with a heifer calf, and since she was an older Jersey and prone to milk fever, we had watched her closely. Kristine saw her at 9:30 last night and all was well. I should have checked her during the night. We all feel terrible. As I walked to call the “knacker” truck, I thought of the cricket.

Friday, July 29. The USDA promotes chemical no-till farming as the way to go. This drought, however, has set their
argument on its ear. No-till corn is the joke of the year. The other Wednesday I listened to a group of farmers from the
western part of the state:

“The no-till corn looks so bad out my way that the owners have
gone into hiding. Except when they
come out to spray it again.”

Saturday, August 6. Walked over the farm in the afternoon. The effects of the drought have vanished from the fields. The third crop of hay already reaches
midthigh and, unless flattened by hail or a severe thunderstorm, should produce five times as much as the second cutting. The new seeding of legumes made
on the 28th ofJuly (last spring’s died for lack of water) is two inches above the ground and reaching for the sky. The pastures are lush and green again.

Perhaps the most phenomenal of all is the recovery of the corn. From our early hopes of a 50% crop, my neighbors and I are constantly raising our yield estimates to where
many are now saying from 90 to 100% of normal years.

Of course, the corn
in this
area never looked as
poor as in some other parts of the Midwest. I give the credit to the traditional method of crop rotation. Our corn followed hay that was plowed after being liberally covered with strawy manure, which for some reason beyond my knowledge seems to hold moisture. Even in the worst part of the drought I could still take
the heel of my shoe and dig up moisture in the cornfield.

We did lose a considerable amount of milk production during the drought, but that, too, is now returning to normal. And we didn’t have to pasture the