Learning Old Ways

Agronomy specialist studies Amish to understand cultural differences (Source: Exclaimer — University of Missouri Extension, Vol. 23, No. 2 April/May 1995)

Agronomy specialist studies Amish to understand cultural differences (Source: Exclaimer — University of Missouri Extension, Vol. 23, No. 2 April/May 1995)

When Agronomy Specialist Oscar Ingram set out to learn more about the Amish culture, he did so with the idea that University Extension could offer the Amish people valuable education information. What he has found is that the Amish also have something to offer mainstream farmers.

As he visited Amish communities in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio, Ingram found that Amish farmers manage to make a comfortable living o?n small farms while operating in the same price structure as other farmers.

"We can all use the good things they do," said Ingram, who is working to establish relationships with local Amish farmers.

Ingram learned about the Amish culture and values through a University Extension diversity externship, designed to help extension professionals learn more about the variety of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, educational and experiential backgrounds of Missouri’s people.

In Missouri, there are about 4,000 Amish citizens, and that number is growing at a rate of 3.5 percent per year, making it o?ne of the fastest growing segments of the population, according to Joel Hartman, a University of Missouri-Columbia associate professor of rural sociology, who studies the Amish.

The oldest Amish communities were established in the early 1950s, attracted to Missouri by the availability of prime agricultural land and cheaper land prices, compared with Amish communities in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Since the early 1980s, the number of Missouri’s Amish communities has grown steadily. "Conservative Amish find rural Missouri attractive for its social and geographic isolation from influences that would pull young people away," Hartman said.

One of Missouri’s larger Amish communities is near Seymour in Webster County, where Ingram is headquartered. "The Amish are not a group that we have worked with extensively," Ingram said. "Extension can help them do a better job. The internship helped me to better understand the people to work with them."

Ingram found that Amish communities are centered o?n sustainability. They are not driven to earn a great deal of money. "They live o?n $7,000 to $8,000 a year," Ingram said, "and they don’t take part in government farm programs.

"These people are ingenious. If they get into another business, they do it to stay in farming."

Many Amish farmers supplement their income with side enterprises. O?ne farmer earned $2,500 o?n a half acre he planted in potatoes that he marketed o?n the farm as new potatoes. His costs, Ingram said, were low because he planted them by hand and used a horse-drawn plow to harvest them.

Ingram was intrigued by their use of modern farm equipment. He asked o?ne farmer, Amish author David Klein, why he cut hay using horses and an auxiliary engine instead of his tractor. Klein said he could talk to the horses and hear the birds when the horses rested.

"They don’t let technology rule them; they adjust technology to their needs," Ingram said.

Understanding their values, Ingram said, has helped as he begins to build an extension clientele among the Amish.

Building those contacts will be slow. "You have to build trust, and they have to see you have something they can use."

Word of extension is getting out. Recently, a local Amish farmer contacted Ingram about recommendations o?n growing a particular forage. Shortly after, Ingram received a call from another Amish farmer, an indirect result of his work with the first o?ne.

"I think they’ll pass the word around that extension can help them," Ingram said.

Ingram also is getting questions from traditional farmers who want to know what the Amish are doing to be sustainable and successful. "There are several innovative things that we can adapt, " Ingram said. O?n o?ne of his Amish farm visits, he discovered that what he thought were haystacks actually were stacked bales protected by loose hay.

"It’s a mutual learning experience that will help me do a better job in my community," Ingram said.

Source: Exclaimer (University of Missouri Extension) Vol. 23, No. 2 April/May 1995