"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.