For the Amish, Big Agribusiness Is Destroying a Way of Life

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In upstate New York, small farmers are being squeezed out by thousand-cow dairies and genetically modified crop producers. The buggy-driving members of a traditional sect may be hit hardest of all. 

amish2.jpgReuters

At first glance, the Swartzentruber Amish of St. Lawrence County, New York, look to be self-reliant stewards of a bucolic and unchanging landscape. Although their daily chores demand Olympic stamina -- regiments weeding mugwort and baling hay -- the Swartzentrubers still pause and wave politely to 18-wheelers passing through the county, which stretches from the Adirondacks to the suburbs of Montreal.

But over the last decade, neighbors such as thousand-cow dairies and genetically modified starch producers have expanded throughout the region*, vying with Amish farm stands selling strawberries, night crawlers, and maple syrup.

The scenario facing the Swartzentrubers, who account for the second-fastest-growing Amish settlement in New York, could spell caution for any locavore or family business frustrated by economic shifts. After generations of relative prosperity and seclusion, the Swartzentrubers and their horse-drawn ploughs are losing territory to subsidized growers buying up St. Lawrence County's clay-loam soil.

"They are not shy about saying that they can't compete with large agribusinesses," said Karen Johnson-Weiner, a lecturer of Amish studies at SUNY-Potsdam University, who has studied the group for 30 years. Over the course of her research, the county has transformed into a $100 million farming sector, as a sulfurous odor of liquid manure has settled in, as if to circumscribe the Swartzentrubers*. "It's getting harder for young people to find farms in the area. People are having to move further afield because there is more competition for farmland."

For Amish fathers, who are expected to pass down land to each of their 10 to 15 children, acquiring new land is an escalating burden. When they first arrived upstate by Greyhound bus in 1974, the Swartzentrubers -- considered the most conservative of more than 100 Amish sects nationwide -- rejuvenated thousands of idle acres, making way for general stores and, eventually, a cheese factory. But the continuous farmland they purchased in bulk 30 years ago is now prized by corn and soybean growers, who are attracted by high commodities prices and often willing to pay three or four times the market rate.

"Land goes in cycles; it's supply and demand," said Jon Greenwood, owner of Greenwood Dairy in Canton*. Greenwood had just 70 cows when he began in 1978. He now owns 1,200, though he maintains he refuses federal subsidies. "I'm the exception to the rule around here," Greenwood said, acknowledging the subsidies' depressing impact on the Amish market. "I remember when local farmers were complaining that the Amish were driving up land prices," added Greenwood, with a tone of irony.

In fact, Greenwood recalled how the Amish sect was initially met with chagrin in St. Lawrence County. Locals lobbied for provisions requiring black buggies to wear orange triangles at nighttime, and many residents remain skeptical of the Swartzentrubers' private, patriarchal society. While some progressive Amish groups in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and West Virginia have accepted modest conveniences--including running water, chainsaws, and factory jobs--the Swartzenrubers still occupy the technological fringe.

In its effort to separate itself from modern, secular life, the group objects to light-colored fabrics, linoleum floors, and telephone calls. Except for emergencies, like buggy-to-bumper collisions, Swartzentrubers avoid hospitals in favor of traditional remedies: chamomile tea, pumpkin seeds for treating prostates, and copper bracelets for arthritis. (The Swartzentrubers are one of a select few groups exempt from the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act, objecting with "religious conscience.")

If the sect's territorial struggles are a bellwether for wider regional change, Brian Bennett is paying close attention. I first met Bennett as a college freshman when I spent a few weeks working on his farm through the program WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), trading labor for food and board.* He is a non-Amish biodynamic farmer who has spent 14 years in Heuvelton growing native vegetables and raising heritage breeds on 110 acres, like Cornish Cross chickens and Tamworth hogs. Bennett, 54, plants his seeds by moon cycle, enjoys spreading Wendell Berry quotes as much as compost, and grows a beard that's bushier than those of most Amish. Like his Swartzentruber neighbors, he has felt a financial pinch on account of industrial growers moving into the region, paying exorbitant prices for plots.

"My little farm, which is worth $45,000 is now assessed at $90,000," Bennett says, explaining how large dairies and cereal growers are bidding up the market price for land in the county, thereby hiking all property values in the area. The result trickles down to Bennett, who receives a reverse windfall of taxes without reaping any benefits of property inflation, because he has no intention of selling his land. "Over the last few years, my taxes have almost doubled," Bennett says, estimating he now pays about $4,000 in taxes on income of about $10,000. "I've been told by people that growing food is the stupidest thing I could do."

***

Exhausting his personal lament, Bennett turned to the Swartzentrubers' economic condition. "Well, you know, the Amish have been dumpster diving," Bennett told me bluntly in his kitchen, turning to his wife Anne for validation. As Bennett explained, Amish in the area have been gathering discarded bananas and canned meat outside the local Aldi's supermarket, supplementing their traditional bean stews with expired-but-not-spoiled inventory.

Bennett later modified his first statement -- fishing for discarded cans of meat, he conceded, isn't quite the same as dumpster diving -- but he stood behind his assertion that these are lean times for the Swartzentrubers. "Money is extremely tight. There are Amish right on this road who tell me their gardens are struggling, worried about feed and food costs."

To bolster his case, Bennett -- who, like all non-Amish Americans, is colloquially called an "Englishman" by his Amish neighbors -- drove me down the single-lane highway adjacent to his farm, past stalks of sweet corn, to an Amish dairy owned by Dan Miller. Clothes were hanging, strung out on a 50-foot wire as we drove up Dan Miller's driveway, and Amish children scampered toward our vehicle in black dresses and white bonnets. They giddily pointed to a shed out back, where their burly father was sitting on a bucket in his barn, squeezing milk rhythmically into a pail.*

"Hear that engine?" Miller asked, when I inquired about his bottom line. We paused to listen to the hum of his cooling tank purring overhead. "That runs on gas," he said. Miller admitted being hurt by a gyrating commodities market during the downturn. An average Swartzentruber family consumes upwards of 300 gallons of kerosene a year, which has jumped in price by 50 percent for upper-New York residents since 2007. At the same time, dairy prices dipped, while feed and fuel costs rose, dampening Miller's income.

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Malcolm Burnley does story research for The Atlantic.

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