What Can We Learn from the Amish?

Posted on April 23, 2019 by

Excerpted from the Spring 2019 edition of Communities, “Community Land”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

For most people throughout human history, community and land were inseparable. From the earliest hunters and gatherers, people banded together in small groups for mutual support. Even the Creation story of many religions has a Creator making man and woman together—the first community—and placing them in a garden. With the family unit, the community grew to include others to form tribes and as time progressed, to form cultures and nations. For the early Christian hermits living in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, isolation was normally only temporary as the hermits still came together in community every week to worship, break bread, and commune. In fact, the very words “communion” and “community” are clearly related—coming together as a community to share. Truly, the human individual has never been alone and was never really meant to be alone.

Since man and woman first began to cultivate the soil in Mesopotamia, a strong bond with specific plots of land developed as farming enabled those small communities to settle down and stop moving in search of game and wild food. With the domestication of animals and plants, communities could stay in place for generations. Over millennia, this stability led to the rise of civilization as we know it. As the earth yielded up sustenance to those working its soil, communities found themselves inseparably bonded with their land. As the Albanian saying expresses it, “Better to eat dirt at home than honey abroad.”

Since the fourth century, various monastic communities sprang up across the Middle East and Europe. In 19th century America, other groups attempted a similar separation from society, such as the Shakers in various states, the Amana Colonies in Iowa, and Amish and Mennonite communities, Hutterites, and the modern Bruderhof Communities, the latter of which are intentional communities often based in cities. In Russia, the Old Believers fled to Siberia and other rural areas and during the Communist period they fled the Soviet Union to America where they continued their isolated life, as did several Orthodox Jewish communities that settled mainly in New York.

In the modern world that has arisen in the 20th and 21st centuries, this bond with the land has been severely weakened in many of our societies. With urbanization and industrialization, people left the land for the cities, often moving to suit the demands of work, but still tried to maintain some connection to the land through their yards, gardens, and flowerpots. Appalachian farmers and southern Blacks who moved to northern industrial areas tried to preserve this connection through their music and literature. For many, this lost connection was felt clearly and painfully and could only be healed by moving back to the land.

This void in the modern human psyche that resulted from losing connection to the land seeks to be filled today through walks in the park, a hike in the woods, some indoor plants or flowers on the balcony, or the agrotourism that allows people to pick their own fruits and berries, do “internships” on farms, pet some gentle livestock, or even visit a farmers’ market so they can know people who still till the soil and grow the food they eat. People today yearn for that connection to the land of which modern civilization has too often robbed them. Indeed, there is often a spiritual emptiness that can be filled only through contact with the soil.

Intentional communities often try to find that connection by returning to the land. This may be done with larger lots for houses in a low-density, planned community, by owning farms in a common area so personal connections can be maintained, or even by living in common on a larger tract and sharing the work. Villages in Europe usually followed the model of people living close together in community and then going out to their farms to work, returning to the village at night. Perhaps the best example of intentional communities that have consciously chosen to build their common life around the land are the Amish and Mennonite communities.

David Kline is a noted writer on sustainable and organic farming, draft-powered agriculture, beekeeping, and the vital connection of land and community. He is also an Amish bishop who lives in the lush, rolling farmland of central Ohio, farms with horses, and publishes a quarterly magazine, Farming—People, Land, Community. To explore this issue more deeply, I traveled to Ohio’s Amish Country to discuss the question of community and land.

On a chilly May morning, as the wood stove crackled and a team of horses rested outside, I sat across the simple table from the elderly, bespectacled man whose picture I had never seen in spite of reading hundreds of articles and books he had authored (Amish modesty precludes portraiture). His kind eyes and gentle smile bespoke the faith of his peace-and-nonviolence community as we settled in for a chat that lasted well over two hours.

Community, according to Kline, is vital to Amish life. I asked Mr. Kline if it is possible to be Amish alone, without community. “No,” he said, “we are like herding animals in that we need support from each other. If you light a candlestick, it does not make any noise but just shines its light out. But if you take it outside, the wind can blow it out so it needs protection, a globe to protect the light. That’s where we are as a community, as brothers and sisters, we are the globe for each other that keeps that light from being snuffed out.” Kline also recalled how he and his son were once plowing with teams of horses. “We stopped up on the hill to rest the teams, and we counted 15 other teams plowing in the neighborhood. I knew that if we had some misfortune, all those teams would unhitch and come to our help. It’s not a controlling community at all, but a passive one that will always be there for you.”

I asked Mr. Kline if it is possible to be Amish in an urban setting, but he was very clear that it is not. The Amish, he said, live only on farms and in villages, but never in cities. Every Amish home has a garden and raises at least part of their food so as never to lose their connection to the land. According to Kline, “All Amish are still part of the agriculture community, such as making farm machinery, the horse economy, etc. If we lose our agricultural base, we lose a lot more than just agriculture. Even our seasonal Scriptures are in tune with agriculture. We are so rooted to the land and I see it very much as part of our spirituality.”

The attraction of the city, however, can be very tempting, especially for young Amish who are tempted by such modern accoutrements as computers, cell phones, cars, and other forms of technology. Like the ancient Egyptian hermits, though, the Amish will do business in the city, buying and selling, but only on occasion and only for the minimum time needed and then leave. Much of the homesteading literature makes a similar point that while it is good to be outside the city, it is also good to be close enough to one that you can do business there. For many members of intentional communities today, that may mean close enough to commute to a day job, while trying to spend as much time in community as possible.

So the consensus is that regaining that connection to the land requires leaving the city for a rural area or a village, but staying close enough to the city to do business as necessary for economic survival. After all, even the off-grid, homesteading, small-scale farmer usually needs to sell his or her wares at an urban farmers’ market.

However, the desire of the Amish to keep their communities small means they often have to split their districts and send people off to start farms in other areas. Amish areas tend to appreciate in value very quickly due to the care they give their land, the tourism that develops around them, and the general appreciation of farmland. These new groups will often move far away in search of cheaper land, a factor that has contributed greatly to the growth of Amish communities in Kentucky and Tennessee, as land in Pennsylvania and Ohio gets priced out of the reach of young Amish. Analogous challenges confront many intentional communities and only strong communities can manage to succeed in this situation.

Farming is critical to the Amish way of life. The agrarian lifestyle is a deliberate choice they believe allows them to live out their faith by reinforcing their values and choices. According to Kline, “Amish farmers always sold on the general economy. Getting into private enterprise and manufacturing brought wealth, whereas with farming you did not get wealthy. Agrarian Amish never got wealthy, but they had a good life. My father would always say, ‘Farming is such a good life. When you sell, you take what they pay you; when you buy, you pay what they ask you. You have no real bargaining power. It’s such a nice Christian life!’”

Reflecting further on their choice to farm with horses and not tractors, Kline said, “We try to limit wealth. Farming with horses does that. Agriculture is very visible, everyone can see what you do. With manufacturing, much of it is invisible. It’s inside, the technology is invisible, people do not see what you do and it’s easy to get wealthy. With agriculture, everyone can see your mistakes.”

Simply returning to the land, however, is not enough. The choice of living on the land is normally coupled with a desire to simplify one’s life and a conscious effort to reject consumerism. While this may start out as an attempt to save money, many soon realize it is much more than that; it is not just about regaining a physical connection to the land, but also that lost spiritual and emotional connection to the land. Again, the Amish have much to offer in their collective wisdom on this topic as they initially separated themselves from the rest of society because of the changing technology of the Industrial Revolution.

“With consumerism, you have to keep it on a leash,” said Mr. Kline. “That’s why we have these Ordnungs (rules). I hardly ever go into a big box store, but when I do it’s amazing how many aisles I don’t have to walk down because of this. We have a dress code for the men—one suit—so on Sunday morning, I do not have to make a decision. I have one suit, one shirt, one hat, one pair of shoes—it’s liberating! As far as simplicity, it really helps.” I remember hearing a Russian Orthodox monk in Israel once say the same thing; “One of the nice things about being is a monk is you never have to worry about what to wear!”

Related to simplicity is the concept of “enough.” In this, the Amish communities are very serious about not being a slave to wealth or letting the love of money dominate their lives. As one such example of how Amish economy functions, Mr. Kline related the following story about buying strawberries.

“Some years ago, we had a bad strawberry year. We had a variety that blighted and we had no strawberries. I went over to a farm in Kidron one day, about seven miles away, and I stopped at three places that were Swartzentrubers (a very conservative branch of the Amish community) that had signs for ‘Strawberries for Sale.’ I ordered them for the next week and when I went to pick them up, they charged me $2.50 per quart when they could easily have charged me $4 and I would not have blinked. Another time, I stopped at a place for blackberries and it was on a Saturday and they had marked the price down to $2 because it was Saturday. I said I could not take them home that day because my wife was not ready to prepare them and that I would come back on Tuesday. One of the children said they will be $2.50 then. The mother, who was inside the house but listening through the screen window, said ‘No, they’ll be $2.’ That impressed me that she would not interrupt them except to lower the price. They are just very happy with a decent price. The love of money really is the root of all evil. We do not want either riches or poverty.”

Neither riches nor poverty—definitely a radical philosophy in today’s world of the “free market,” “unbridled capitalism,” “greed is good” society.

So what can intentional communities learn from the example of our Amish neighbors? Three things: love the land, live simply, and avoid excess.

First, a connection to the land is vital. If at all possible, live on the land, work the land, care for the land, be one with the land, and grow at least part of your own food so you have a physical connection to it. Even if you live in town, regain that connection to the land by working your little plot or pot of soil.

Second, our connection to the land must not be just local, but also global. Adopting simplicity and rejecting consumerism contribute to a better world in so many ways. We are part of the environment and part of global warming. Each of us has a moral duty to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Simplicity as a way of life helps restore the land, reduce waste, and contributes to a smaller carbon footprint.

Third, learn what is “enough.” We do not need to compete with the Joneses or be somehow better than our neighbors. We do not need to store up in our bank accounts more than we truly need to get through life. Living off the land can certainly yield some abundance, but it is never extravagant. If modern society would put this concept into practice, gross income inequality would greatly decline and an improved quality of life would be possible for everyone.

People were meant to live in community and intentional communities are a great way to build that life around common interests and values. Restoring our connection to the land through such communities is regenerative and restoring for both body and soul. Touch the soil, live simply, and be satisfied with “enough.” It’s worked for the Amish for almost 300 years and it can work for us as well.

Michael McClellan is a retired Foreign Service Officer living on a small, organic farm in Kentucky where he keeps bees using treatment-free methods. He also works with the American University of Kurdistan to advance educational opportunity for young people in Iraq and the larger region. He has long had an interest in such intentional farming communities as the Amish, Shakers, and monasteries based in rural areas.

Excerpted from the Spring 2019 edition of Communities, “Community Land”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

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