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A squeeze and a vision: Why some Amish want to leave Lancaster County

For young Amish, in particular, the price of farming is out of reach.

  • Rachel McDevitt/StateImpact Pennsylvania
An Amish man’s hat rests on a rock outside a farmhouse in Leacock Township, Lancaster County, on July 24, 2019.

 Rachel McDevitt / WITF

An Amish man’s hat rests on a rock outside a farmhouse in Leacock Township, Lancaster County, on July 24, 2019.

(East Earl) — Over the past couple of years, Strasburg Township’s zoning office found itself fielding more and more requests from Amish to house horses on residential lots.

Most Amish in Lancaster County today work outside the farm, so they have been moving into homes on smaller lots but they still need horses for transportation.

In response, Strasburg Township’s board of supervisors voted to allow the horses with some restrictions.

That’s one example of how local governments and the Amish are adjusting to the pressure a growing population is putting on the plain community’s traditional way of life.

It’s a different scenario in Manheim Township, where some Amish are concerned about how plans for future development will affect the way they travel between each other’s homes. This summer, township commissioners approved a 76-acre mixed-use development along Oregon Pike.

But one Amish man believes turning to the townships to solve problems of space is like “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.” His vision is to see the Amish leave their historic homeland.

Rachel McDevitt / WITF

A woman arranges berries at Glick’s Produce stand at the Markets at Shrewsbury, an Amish market near one of Pennsylvania’s newest Amish settlements in Glen Rock, York County, on July 4, 2019.

The squeeze

Only about one-third of Amish in Lancaster County are still farming, but many want to preserve a rural lifestyle.

That can create some friction for non-Amish neighbors, who the Amish call “English.”

“I have seen a cultural clash between the Amish community and the English,” said C. Michael Weaver, a supervisor in Strasburg Township.

For example, some English might not want two horses in the yard right next door at their Amish neighbor’s house.

The township’s board of supervisors is trying to balance the needs of both groups.

A person used to need one acre of land per horse to keep the animal on their property. Last year, the supervisors voted to allow up to two horses, for the purpose of transportation, to be kept on a half-acre lot.

Jacqueline Larma / The Associated Press

Two boys ride in the back of a horse-drawn buggy stopped at a traffic light, Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in Lancaster County, near Gap, Pa.

The Amish, Weaver said, “were raised in Strasburg Township, the vast majority, and they want to remain here. I was raised in Strasburg Township and I also want to remain here. So, I have great sympathy and empathy for that position.”

As a compromise to English residents, the ordinance included restrictions on the size of the buildings used to shelter the horses, the distance they have to be from property lines, and requirements for storing manure.

Weaver noted the pace of the requests did slow down.

“But we have found with the new ordinance, many of the Amish have asked for variances on the size of the carriage house,” Weaver said. He doesn’t foresee another change; he said the current rules are a fair compromise for neighbors.

One way researchers at the Young Center keep tabs on Amish population and migration is by reading Amish newspapers.

They work a little differently than traditional newspapers. All the articles are written by unpaid “scribes” in each community about the goings on of the previous week or so the weather, where people met for church, who got married, who was born and who died.

“It’s a pretty interesting phenomenon, if in part because they’re some of the only print journalism titles that have expanding circulation year after year, because the Amish population keeps growing,” said Steve Nolt, senior scholar at the Young Center.

Amish can keep up with family members or friends who have moved by reading publications such as The Budget, out of Ohio, or Die Botschaft, printed in Millersburg, Dauphin County.

There are some restrictions as to what gets printed.

Rule 12 in Die Botschaft reads: “Mysteries, War, & Love stories will NOT be accepted.”

Amish are moving into homes on smaller lots because most have left farming behind for other opportunities.

For some, it may be a forced choice. For young Amish, in particular, the price of farming is out of reach.

Bill O’Brien, chief lending officer for the Bank of Bird-in-Hand, said he’s been financing agricultural loans for more than 30 years and he’s watched as the price for an acre of farmland in the county grew from about $8,000 to $20,000. O’Brien credits the increase to the desire among the Amish and Mennonite communities to own farmland, and the success the plain communities have had working the land.

He said it’s still possible to make money farming in Lancaster County.

“But we’ve reached the point where the price of farm per acre is well beyond the income producing ability of it,” O’Brien said.

The high cost is driving some Amish to pick up and move to where land is more affordable.

How did this happen?

Lancaster is one of Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing counties, in part because of Amish population growth.

While the United States’ population grew at its slowest rate since the Great Depression from 2017-2018, the Amish grew at about six times the U.S. rate.

Researchers at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College rely on Amish documents with self-reported numbers to calculate an estimated population.

The Amish population nearly doubles every two decades. According to the Young Center’s most recent tally, it now stands at 336,235 nationwide.

Lancaster County is home to 39,255, giving it more than 10 percent of the population and making it the largest settlement in the United States.

“In more recent years, what I’ve noticed, though, there have been some Amish households leaving Lancaster County going to new settlements,” said Edsel Burdge, a research associate at the Young Center.

He said about 20 households left the county in the last year — not statistically significant, but noteworthy.

Reasons for leaving include finances, family ties, a desire to farm, and even just a change of pace. Some are seeking a more conservative or liberal lifestyle.

Chet Lapp, an Amish realtor, argues more of his fellow Amish should leave Lancaster County for the purpose of preserving their faith.

Amish and Mennonites were born of a Christian reformation movement in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. A hallmark of the Anabaptist movement is that they advocate adult baptism, as opposed to infant baptism.

Some started moving to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s at the invitation of William Penn, and because of the promise of religious toleration, and they took root.

The Amish have become a distinctly American group. They’ve now existed longer on this continent than they did in Europe.

“Over time, the Amish Church has taken on some characteristics that we might commonly think of as belonging to an ethnic group,” said Steve Nolt, senior scholar at the Young Center at Elizabethtown College. “There are a relatively limited number of surnames, for example, people are related to one another. The persistence of the Pennsylvania Dutch, or sometimes called Pennsylvania German, dialect.”

Particular ways of dress and customs — like driving horse-drawn buggies reflect important religious values of humility and simplicity.

The vision

Lapp describes himself as a “mad visionary.”

The 37-year-old is responsible for the creation of one of Pennsylvania’s newest Amish settlements, in Glen Rock, York County.

Lapp had been helping Amish families move out of Lancaster County to join other settlements since he got his real estate agent’s license in 2012, but the Glen Rock community is different. Lapp scouted the area with his broker ahead of time, then found people interested in moving.

One of those people is Sara Glick.

She and her husband own the Glick’s Produce stand in the Markets at Shrewsbury, not far from Glen Rock. Glick called her move from a settlement in Newburg, Cumberland County a “good challenge.” She’s now closer to her work, and that lets her spend more time with her five children, ages three through 12.

Glick is an outlier in her new community, though. She said most of her new neighbors moved from Lancaster County to farm.

Lapp is hoping the settlement can become a blueprint for the future. He said it’s far enough away from Lancaster to be affordable, while being close enough that those who move can still see family back home regularly.

He said he believes many Amish would move if they had that structure and remained close to supportive family members.

Lapp is concerned that, as a group, the Amish lack a plan for tackling issues of affordability and identity.

It’s only families with money, he said, that will be able to keep farming in Lancaster County.

“For young John Stoltzfus, if you will, to maybe be starting at zero at 21. He’s not going to make he’s not going to carry a lunch bucket then turn around and pay a million bucks. Ain’t gonna happen,” Lapp said.

Matt Slocum / The Associated Press

A farmer cuts a field as a horse-drawn cart heads down a county road in Lancaster County on July 11, 2018, in Lancaster County, Pa.

As Amish heads of household more often work outside the home, in fields like business and construction, families are spending less time together. Lapp said those experiences in the modern world threaten their culture and traditions.

“That influence comes back into the home period, you can’t change that,” Lapp said.

As he sees it, the Amish could evolve in two ways: either by taking on more of the modern culture in Lancaster County or safeguarding the traditions of their faith outside of their historic homeland.

“I’m perfectly content to ride this out until people understand that we have to [move],” Lapp said.

The beginning of the end?

It’s unlikely Lancaster County will cease to be a cradle of the Amish community.

Support from older generations would be key, Lapp said, to help younger ones start new communities.

Traditionally, there’s been something of a stigma for those who leave. The Lancaster County Amish, in particular, have been very loyal to their homeland.

Rachel McDevitt / WITF

Steve Nolt, a senior scholar at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, sits in a reading room at the center on June 13, 2019.

“The Lancaster settlement has relatively fewer people as a percentage leaving,” said Steve Nolt, a senior scholar on plain communities at Elizabethtown College, noting Amish in large Midwestern settlements move around more freely.

“There seems to be just a stronger attraction or pull in the Lancaster settlement of people staying here, of preferring to take on non-farm jobs and remain here,” Nolt said.

An older farmer who wished to be identified only as a Leacock Township Amish man spoke about why some Amish move.

Most Amish, for religious reasons, do not agree to be photographed or have their voices recorded. WITF is not using the Leacock Township farmer’s name because he agreed to a limited recording for the radio version of this story, and even that is frowned upon in his community. He was concerned that if he were named in the online story, community members would know he had been recorded as well.

He said he’s had family members move for better opportunities, but he’s never considered leaving.


Rachel McDevitt / WITF

Trees shade the grass next to a barn and workshop on an Amish farm in Leacock Township, Lancaster County, on July 24, 2019.

His large white farmhouse and barn sit far back from the road, surrounded by fields of corn.

As he sat in his front yard under the shade of an old tree, he told how his ancestors came to the county in 1800 and his five-times-great-grandfather bought this very farm.

“Our roots are here,” he said. “Our ancestors are buried here. We feel attached to this. It’s part of our heritage.”

He understands why younger people would want to leave. Some just want to “chase the Daniel Boone spirit,” he said, but many can’t afford to buy farmland, especially if their fathers left agriculture for another trade. He also cited growing taxes and encroaching development as reasons for leaving.

We are being squeezed, he said.

Still, he added, they’ll maintain the culture.

“I know we use horse-drawn vehicles. I know we farm with horses,” he said. “But we do this to preserve our heritage and for our children and our grandchildren.”

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