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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Much of the country’s farmland is disappearing to development, and in Lancaster County in eastern Pennsylvania lies some of the country’s best growing and dairy farming land. While conservationists have been struggling to establish legal and bureaucratic ways of preserving the best of what farmland is left, old order Amish farmers in Lancaster County seem to have found an answer in their faith. For ten years a sociologist from Elizabethtown College, Conrad Kanagy, has been tracking farm sales in the county. We recently spoke about his findings.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Farmland in America is rapidly vanishing under pavement and housing tracts. The American Farmland Trust says nearly 40% of our best vegetable-producing land and almost 30% of the best dairy land is located in areas of the country that are developing quickly. While conservationists have been struggling to establish legal and bureaucratic ways of preserving the best of what farmland is left, traditional Amish farmers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, seem to have found an answer in their faith. For 10 years, a sociologist from Elizabethtown College, Conrad Kanagy, has been tracking farm sales in the county. He recently spoke about his findings.

KANAGY: What I found was, that the Amish were gaining a phenomenal number of farms, and that's a net gain. They gained 137 farms from 1984 to 1995. Everyone else is losing farms. Mainstream Mennonites are losing farms, the Church of the Brethren, another Anabaptist, kind of mainstream group, are losing farms. So, the Amish are really the only Anabaptist group that's gaining farmland.

CURWOOD: The most conservative--

KANAGY: The most conservative. The horse and buggy Amish.

CURWOOD: Right. And the others that are gaining, in Lancaster County are what, developers?

KANAGY: The others that are gaining are developers. And they've been gaining, on average, 3 or 4 farms a year.

CURWOOD: Just how much land has the old-order Amish in Lancaster County amassed in this past decade?

KANAGY: Over the past decade, they've gained about 11,500 acres.
And again that's--

CURWOOD: That's a lot of land!

KANAGY: That's a net gain. It is a lot of land. It's about 950 acres annually.

CURWOOD: Or, on the scale of several square miles.

KANAGY: That's right.

CURWOOD: Tell us, what's the secret of the Amish success?

KANAGY: I think the secret to their success is a religious and cultural identity, ethnic identity, that attaches them to the land, that keeps them attached to the land, that has kept them attached for several centuries. And I think that secret of success would be hard to replicate anywhere else, because for those of us in the modern world, our religion, our community, our family, all of these social institutions, have in some ways become disconnected. We go to church or synagogue on Sunday morning, but that's not particularly related to our occupation. We go to our occupation, but that's not necessarily related to our family.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the cultural attachment to the land. I mean, what's it all about?

KANAGY: I think that, for them, the land has become a place where they are able to develop a self-sufficient life-style, a place where family can be raised with marginal interference from the larger society. I talk about the Amish as forming what sociologists call a 'sacred canopy.' And farming is really a part of that; it's where they find protection, it's where they find comfort, it's where they find their sense of identity and community. It's a way of life for them that, I think, continues to be important, in large part because they have not, they don't go on for higher education.

CURWOOD: Hm. So Amish only go to 8th grade.

KANAGY: They only go to 8th grade. They take one year of 9th grade that's a kind of vocational training, but that occurs on the farms and in the homes.

CURWOOD: So education, maybe, pushes people off the land?

KANAGY: I would argue that it does. Among the Mennonites and Brethren, for example, these folks were traditionally farmers as well, and yet, my studies showed that, for every 10 Mennonite farms that sold in Lancaster county, only 2 or 3 end up staying Menonite. The rest go to, some to the Amish and some to non- Anabaptist. Among the Amish, for the last 3 years, only 1 farm has been sold outside of the community. And I think that part of it has to do with higher education. As Mennonite youth left the farm, and as college became acceptable, in fact Mennonite colleges developed, you see very few youth with higher education that ever come back to the farm. And when they do come back, farming represents an economic opportunity. It's no longer, to them, nearly as much a way of life.

CURWOOD: The Amish in Lancaster farm some pretty expensive farmland. It's worth, what, $4, $5, $6,000 an acre?

KANAGY: Right now, farms are selling for about $6,500 an acre. That's if it's sold to a non-family individual.

CURWOOD: So 100 acre farm is 2/3 of a million dollars. It's not cheap.

KANAGY: It isn't cheap, and you'll find a lot of these farms that the Amish are buying are going in between $5 and $750,000.

CURWOOD: How is it that the Amish are able to be buying this land at pretty fancy prices?

KANAGY: The growth in small businesses that has been taking place in Lancaster County over the past 15 years or so, which a former colleague of mine, Donald Craybill tracked, that it's really these small business owners who are able to purchase this farmland. And it's a kind of ironic twist of capitalism, because of the Amish restrictions on size, on the size that a business can become, I think many of these business owners are taking their profits and putting them into the land, which is not something you would find Mennonites, Brethren, or any other non-Anabaptist groups doing.

CURWOOD: What kind of businesses, what kind of businesses do they find consonant with their principles?

KANAGY: Lancaster County has become the hub and the center for the manufacture of Amish farm implements. So a lot of the machine-manufacturing is going on, that is directed towards the Amish community. The other kinds of things they're doing, some of them are doing quilting, of course, and crafts. Seven percent of the entrepreneurs are grossing more than $1,000,000 a year, so, we talk about small businesses, but in many ways, these are some very sizable businesses. Some of them are mobile construction crews that go out of state, into Philadelphia; Baltimore; Washington, DC; to build homes; to put cabinets in; a lot of it is fine cabinetry that they're building, all of those kinds of things.

CURWOOD: What challenges do the Amish still face, do you think?

KANAGY: The creation of a kind of capitalist elite that didn't exist before. You've got these capitalists, these business owners, who are making quite a bit of money, some putting it back into the land, but in many ways represent the development of a new class in Lancaster County among the Amish, that you didn't have before. There's also the development of the day-laborers, many of whom are Amish. Most of the laborers in these shops are Amish, and so you have a day labor class that's developing, and then, of course, the third group would be the traditional farmers. I think that's going to represent a challenge for the Amish community, to make sure that inequality doesn't increase among these three classes, because typically, everything was pretty equal.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Conrad Kanagy is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Thank you, sir.

KANAGY: Thanks, Steve.



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