Amish Farming

What does an Amish farm look like?

    "...We farm the way we do because we believe in nurturing and supporting all our community - that includes people as well as land and wildlife" (Kline 1990). The farming practices used by today's Amish farm families have developed over 300 years and sustained the Amish as one of the most persistent and successful subcultures in North America (Stinner et al. 1989; 1992). Their farming systems generally are much more diversified than non-Amish farms, and they are "solar powered" by draft horses (Belgians and Percherons in Holmes County) rather than fossil fuel powered (although small amounts of fossil fuel are used). Animal manure is valued highly for building and maintaining soil fertility and is the main source of fertility on the three farms in our study (low levels of chemical fertilizers are used by most Amish farmers). Although a growing number of Amish families are shifting into market vegetable production in Holmes County, dairy and diversified livestock farms still dominate. Natural breeding, with male animals instead of artificial insemination, is the primary breeding method for dairy cows, hogs and horses. This helps to increase genetic diversity within livestock species. Holsteins are the dominant dairy animal, although a few Amish farmers prefer smaller breeds such as Jerseys (Guernseys are preferred but existing gene lines do not meet with Amish farmer approval). Horses and cows all have names such as Tom, Barney, Maggie, Tony, and Linda and this helps both to identify and create a close bond with individual animals.

    In addition to crop and animal production, many Amish farm families manage woodlots for hardwood lumber, wood stains, maple syrup, nuts, soil and fuel. All Amish families (even the growing number who are not farm based) have vegetable gardens, which the women typically manage. Meat for the family is raised from chickens, hogs and bull calves. On the mixed livestock and dairy farms, a four to five year rotation of: hay (a mixture of Trifolium pratense, T. hybridu, Medicago sativa and Phleum pratense) - hay - corn (Zea mays) - (corn silage) - oats (Avena sativa) - spelts (emmer wheat, Triticum dicoccum)/wheat (Triticum =E6stivum/barley (Hordeum vulgare) is used. In addition to crops, Amish livestock farms have permanent meadows/pastures. Increasingly, some form of rotational grazing (Voisin 1960) is being used on pastures, hayfields and crop fields after harvest.

    The diversity of crops with the rich sources of organic matter from legumes and manure create several ecological and economic benefits for Amish farm families which contribute to their sustainability. Most insect and disease cycles are broken, therefore there are few expenses for insecticides or fungicides and healthy communities of beneficial below- and above-ground organisms. Soil quality is good and fertility levels are sufficient for high levels of production with low purchased fertility costs. Our research to date indicates that the case study farms are operating on extremely efficient nutrient cycles for nitrogen. Finally, Amish farming practices create a diversity of ecological zones which serve as habitat for rich biodiversity on their farms and in their communities which is an important quality of life value for many Amish families.

    The Amish still tend, as a rule, to pay attention to the signs of nature as a planting guide in the spring rather than following solely the date on the calendar. For example, clover is best sown when the ground reaches a "honeycombed" state brought about by the freezing and thawing of the soil. When the serviceberry, zarvis, (a flowering tree and shrub, (Amelanchier arborea) blooms, it is an indication that the soil temperature is warm enough to sow the oats, haver. (This usually occurs around mid-April. However the flowering of the serviceberry can vary up to three weeks; from early April to May). Several weeks after the serviceberry has bloomed, the dogwoods (Cornus florida, or hundsholz to the Amish) burst forth in bloom and the young leaves on the white oaks (Quercus albus, weis acha) will be the size of a squirrel's foot and the soil is ready for the corn, velshcon. When the first monarch butterfly (Danus plexippus) comes winging across the hayfield it is time to think about cutting the hay. Watching barometric pressure, reading weather forecasts, cloud watching (Kline 1997) and "gut feeling" are used to decide precisely when to mow hay, which needs three days of sunshine to cure properly to be stored for the winter months.

    The Amish still prefer the traditional mixture of clover (primarily medium red clover (Trifolium pratense) and some alsike (Trifolium hybridu), alflalfa (Medicago sativa), and timothy (Phleum pratense) for their hayfields. Not only does this diversity assure a good crop of hay, it also makes a much more attractive and interesting field for humans, domestic animals, and wildlife. A mixed hayfield in early to mid-June is a colorful and delightful place to be. Bobolinks (Dolinchonyx oryzivorus) abound in its varied habitat and so do many other species of birds and mammals (Kline 1990; 1995b). Butterflies (sommer v=F6gel to the Amish), too, congregate in the hayfields to feed on the sweet nectar of the clover blossoms. Mixed hayfields tend to mature later than alfalfa/orchard grass (Medicago sativa/Dactylis glomerata) hayfields now so common in industrial farming. Thus the late-nesting bobolinks have much better nesting success in the clover/mixed hayfields (Kline 1990), and indeed, bobolinks are observed much more frequently on Amish farms than non-Amish farms.

    Some Amish still grow heirloom varieties of open-pollinated field corn (usually raised for millers who grind it into corn meal for human use), but the majority of Amish farmers plant hybrid varieties of field and sweet corn. Interestingly, what we have found is that even though the seed corn is purchased, they prefer to buy from small family-owned seed corn companies such as Yoder's, Doebler's and Rupp instead of buying from the giant seed corporations. As a result, Amish farmers are helping to preserve genetic diversity of maize.

    Amish farmers also watch the weed plants on their land as indicators of soil deficiencies. Sorrel (Rumex acetocella or R. acetosa; sauer ronga to the Amish) is one plant that indicates a soil with low pH. Often sorrel is seen along field's edges where no lime was spread recently. Quack grass (Agropyron repens) as persistent pesky alien grass, thrives on soils deficient in calcium. Even pest insects such as alfalfa weevil (Hypera postica) are more of a problem when the soil nutrients are out of balance (Phelan et al. 1995; Phelan et al. 1997). As the Amish say, "das unzunt Tier hut die Lice" (the unthrifty animal has the lice).

    While the majority of Amish enjoy wild fruits such as black and red raspberries (Rubus spp.) and elderberries (Sambucus canadensis, hulla berrha), many odd corners and some fencerows on their farms are left to grow wild and free for the pleasure of their families and the neighbors. Of course, these brambles then provide food and shelter for a host of wild things (Kline 1990). When their children pick blackberries in late July the fencerows still ring with birdsong. Gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) scold, common yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) and house wrens ((Troglodytes aedon) zank hahne) sing, so do the song and field sparrows (Melospiza melodia, schp=E4tzli and Spizella pusilla). In the heat of the Dog Days of August a myriad of insects buzz, chirp and rasp, adding to the joy of the time and season.


Flexible Farm Management

    Social systems that promote sustainability must have either a low level of system perturbations or some type of regulating mechanism (E.P. Odum 1962) to provide for flexibility (Moore 1996). It is also expected that such systems provide means for characterizing (Conkin 1954; 1957) and accessing local knowledge (Geertz 1993; Brush 1996) including strategies to maintain biodiversity (Moran 1996, Orlove 1996) and to respond appropriately to abnormal system fluxuations. The role of a flexible farm management system is to maintain natural cycles on the farm through understanding these cycles. Unexpected events such as a hard frost, a dearth of honeybees, or a leaf virus may set in motion a series of events that push the system out of equilibrium.

    Rotations can be varied somewhat. For example, the winter of 1995-96 damaged the spelts crop so some farmers plowed under the spelts in the spring and grew a second year of corn there instead. Also to be factored in was the fact that corn was somewhat in short supply from the previous year. It is the possible to grow three years of hay if the combination of legumes seems appropriate. There are approximately 10 parcels per farm with an equal number of subplots as defined by the farmers. Usually subplots were defined through combining soil and drainage types with physical land features such as "nob of the hill". Manure applications in the late winter/early spring are applied according to subplots by easing the lever on the manure spreader. Several corn varieties are always planted because it is important to have both silage corn and feed corn. The faster maturing varieties such as 90 day corn are usually planted around the outside of a corn plot so that it will mature in September before the longer varieties so that household labor will be more evenly distributed. Some long-eared varieties of corn are hand picked and corn is stacked in shocks.

    Families normally do the shock spelts harvesting together (involves cutting and bindering the grain, then shocking it). Oats, wheat and barley are harvested by threshing rings usually consisting of 4-6 neighbors sharing a threshing machine. The order of which farm to harvest first depends on which farm's grains mature first. The silo filling rings consist of as many as 8 to 15 different farmers helping a person put corn silage into the silo. The rings are slightly overlapping so that the membership of the rings of adjacent farms vary slightly. Coordinating the silo filling schedule, therefore, is quite challenging. One has to take into account not only the crop maturing status of immediate neighbors's corn but also a large group of farms many of which are outside one's own ring. This scheduling must also avoid double-booking someone to attend the silo filling of two different farms at the same time. Membership in threshing and silo rings also changes over time according to the needs of individual farms. Tasks in production as well as the communal meals afterwards are age and gender specific. Women help harvest spelts and can do oat threshing and hay baling but not silo filling because there is heavy lifting involved.