Amish Family and Community

    The Amish family and community are interdependent and reflect the interrelationship between people and their environment. Below we describe a typical day in the life of an Amish farm family. First, though, here is an aerial photo of their farm and community.

Hershberger Community

    Lester Hershberger rises at 5 a.m., dresses and goes to the barn for morning milking of his small herd of Holsteins. Sometimes his father Adam, his wife Katie, or son Daniel (aged 10) help with the milking chores. Each cow finds her way to a stanchion and begins eating feed deposited in a trough. Lester uses milking machines to collect the milk, which is then dumped into milk cans and stored in cool spring water until picked up around 9 a.m. along with the previous evening's collection. He then puts the Holstein cows out to pasture if the weather is not too wet or too cold.

    Between 6:30 and 7 a.m. Katie prepares breakfast of cereal, milk and eggs, the usual fare eaten on most mornings. Homemade cake or cookies may also be on the table. Occasionally the family has pancakes but usually not meat for breakfast. The milk and eggs are produced on their own farm. After breakfast Lester returns to the barn and hitches up a team of Belgians (horses) for plowing or cultivation or spreading manure or harvest activities depending on the season and cooperation of the weather. As few as two draft horses are used for light hauling or as many as five Belgians are used to pull his two-row sitting plow. If there is no field work or the weather is bad, he may repair fences, clean up after a downed tree limb, or keep busy in the barn cleaning stalls, shredding and mixing feed, and maintaining equipment.

    Lunch is served from 12:30 to 1 p.m. usually consisting of canned or frozen vegetables produced on the farm, especially sweet corn, peas, green beans, and tomatoes, the latter is also used to make homemade ketchup. Potatoes from the garden are a favorite of the children, French-fried, mashed, or home-fried. The Hershbergers also eat bologna or hamburger for lunch, the latter often the product of a Holstein bull calf from the farm raised as a steer. Katie also cans peaches, applesauce, and grape juice, some of which is grown from the land on the farm. Lester says that he remembers of his youth that his family produced more food products on the farm, such as butter and more apples.

    After lunch Lester does about four and one-half hours more of work in the fields and in the barns, although not a great departure from the tasks that filled his morning hours. Throughout the day he may get visits from other Amish farmers or a feed salesman, a diary salesman or a veterinarian.

    Dinner at the Hershberger household is served between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. consisting of a stew or casserole and just as often, leftovers from lunch. Katie's apple pie is a favorite along with some of her other baked goods that come from family recipes three generations old or more. Katie also uses a store-bought recipe book for cooking and baking.

    Evening milking follows the evening meal and Lester takes the Holstein cows through the same basic routine as morning milking except the milk cans are stored overnight in the spring water. The major income source for most Amish farms are milk sales along with calves and cull cows, so managing the dairy herd in an optimum manner is critical. Lester's only other source of income comes from selling horses. He recently sold two yearling Belgians at $950 each. After the chores are done for the day, the family enjoys leisure activities that includes reading, singing, or playing games.

Familty Succession

    Amish families are based on single heir succession. This means that one heir, usually the first born son but daughters can be candidates as well, takes on the responsibility of farming. The heir and his spouse normally purchase the farm from his parents at an interest rate somewhat below prevailing rates and real estate valuation. This money supports the parents in their retirement years. When the agreement to transfer the farm to the designated heir occurs, the grandparents move into a separate home as shown in the photo below of the Hershberger Farm.


The local schools for "young scholars" between the grades of 1 through 8 and the local churches are the two key institutions in Amish rural communities. Both the school and local church districts are small. The one room school houses may have as few as 20 or 30 students but usually have over 50 students split between a class upstairs (grades 5-8) and one downstairs (grades 1-4). Since the 1972 Supreme Court ruling giving Amish the right to have parochial schools, most Amish attend their own local schools usually taught in English by young unmarried women from the community. Local farmers are members of their school board and they figure out ways to raise the necessary $1300 per month cost for the teacher, books, and utilities that must be shared by the families that send their children to the school. At recess the pupils speak German and play games.

    Church districts usually have between 30 and 40 households in them and the church service rotates from house to house every other Sunday. It is an all day affair with a service in High German, a meal that follows, and then the children playing and adults exchanging news. The Ohio Amish Directory which is published every 5 years lists all the church districts except the more conservative Swartzentruber sect. In the 1996 Ohio Amish Directory there were 159 church districts with a church membership of 9,513 and 10,594 as non-members owing to the fact that children are non-members until they join the church when they become adults. The total Amish in the Directory is 20,107 which gives us a good idea of the number of Amish in Holmes and Wayne Counties of Ohio. Farm families account for about a third of all Amish families listed in the directory.

    Because it is not uncommon to find families with 6 children, the population has been increasing. This puts pressure on the schools which soon become over crowded. Because of this we are experiencing a situation where the schools split according to geography. The church districts follow suit and also divide. Right is a case where this happened.

Local Industry

Because the Amish are hard workers and strategically located between several urban areas, companies have moved into the area providing job opportunities to those who do not farm. This has been a mixed blessing because it provides jobs and stimulates the local economy but at the same time brings new things such as men and women working side by side on assembly lines. Taking one church district which had more farmers than most, here are the jobs listed for church members (heads of household only): farming (16), Carpenter (1), Wayne-Dalton Overhead Garage Door Factory (5), Feed grinder (1), cabinet shop (1), Weaver Leather (2), and Lehman's Hardware Store (1).

    Amish society tends to have very clearly divided job tasks based on the Biblical division of labor. Women tend the kitchen garden, milk the cows, and dig the potatoes. Women also do the laundry, canning, cooking, and clean chickens while men slaughter the larger animals. Women help out in the fields by helping to bale hay, shock oats and corn, and pick corn. They usually do not operate horse-drawn equipment other than driving a wagon.

Helping Each Other in the Community

    Labor exchanges happen everywhere throughout the community. If the church service is to happen at your house, others--particularly close relatives might come by and help clean the horse and cow stalls. Another form of this labor in the church is women making quilts to sell to generate funds to help someone in need. For instance, in the Mt. Hope area there is a long-standing effort to help Haitians. A farm wife might participate in quilting bees where 18 to 20 women gather from church to sew an entire quilt, start to finish, in two days. Besides the oat threshing rings and corn silo filling rings, it is common to find friends in the fields. We also see sons-in-law working with their fathers-in-law working together.

Quality of Life

    It is impossible to measure the all the quality of life features of Amish society but being out in the barns and fields with them we sometimes do get a glimpse of a spirit of inner happiness. Certainly we see some families where there are real hardships and misfortune. On others we do see some farming practices that are not environmentally friendly. Generally, however, we see prospering farms that promote biological diversity. Through the seasons we might see someone singing a cappella in the middle of a field or shoveling manure. In the spring they may take a day off to take a walk and observe the wonders of nature through collecting herbs or morel mushrooms. One farm recorded 173 species of birds the year we visited (and knew the songs!). They had cliff swallows, purple martins, red-winged blackbirds, grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, and bobolinks, each with their own distinctive melody. People sit on their porches on summer nights, playing with children, and watching the fireflies over the oat fields and waving to friends in the horse buggies as they go up and down the road adjacent to the farm.


Source: May 1998 Field notes of Scot Long, Graduate Research Associate, Department of Anthropology, The Ohio State University. Research sponsored by USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grant, D. Stinner and R. Moore, Principal Investigators.