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Age-old Amish experience a 21st century boom

August 25, 2010

ELIZABETHVILLE, Penn.

Paul “Chubby” Chubb cranks up the engine of his big Dodge pickup and sets off on his daily rounds, running errands for the Amish, taking them shopping, delivering goods and making friends along the way.

“People like them here,” Chubby, 82, said of the Amish. “If people have a bad word, they are to blame.”

Chubby figures there are about eight people in the area who do what he does — driving the Amish around for a fee, called “taxis” in the local parlance. A day riding around the Lykens Valley with Chubby provides rare glimpses of Amish life.

This rural hamlet is a microcosm of an Amish population boom that has soared nationally by 84 percent, from 1992 to 2008. The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College reports that the population has been doubling every 20 years because of large family sizes and a retention rate of around 90 percent.

While more Amish residents move out of Pennsylvania than those who move in, the state’s Amish population nonetheless leapt by nearly 82 percent in that same period, according to revised figures from the Young Center.

The study estimates that Pennsylvania now has 59,500 Amish residents, up from 56,500 two years ago and only 32,700 in 1992. That works out to a 4.3 percent increase in the last year. The center estimates the national Amish population to total 240,000.

The study measures people who meet two key criteria for being Amish — they have to use a horse and buggy for transportation, and they have to speak Pennsylvania German. That leaves out some more liberal groups, like Mennonites, who drive cars.

While the notion of a pastoral population of farmers living off the land is ingrained in popular culture, only about 40 percent of the Amish make their living by farming, according to Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center at Elizabethtown.

The other 60 percent work in construction, building sheds, or other trades.

That sounded about right to a 29-year-old Amish roofer who grabbed a snack at Koppy's, a convenience store and gas station in the middle of Elizabethville.  In keeping with Amish custom, he declined to allow his name to be used in the newspaper.

The man said he had never been a farmer, and lives on a half-acre property near town with his family — “three beautiful girls, four including my wife.”

“This is the way I grew up,” he said of his job, “My dad was a carpenter.”

Chubby’s first mission of the day is to drive an Amish farmer several miles to a lumber store to pick up a big box of screws and other supplies. The farmer, 32, and a father of five, is building an extension on his barn for his Holstein herd, which grazes on the 120-acre farm.

The conversation centers on crops and the weather. Chubby notes that the corn along the rural road is beginning to look brown. The young farmer reports, with some hope, that there’s a 30 percent chance of rain on this day.

The farmer says he’s happy to be in Lykens Valley, where his family moved in 1990 in part because there are no “gawking tourists trying to take my picture all the time.”

Kraybill, in his book called The Riddle of Amish Culture, explains the photo ban this way: “The well-known Amish taboo against personal photographs is legitimated by a biblical command: ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image or likeness of anything.’”

Chubby, who knows every turn and bump in the rural lanes and roads, said he can think of only two “English” farmers left in the valley. “It’s a tough way to make a living,” the young farmer said.

Local Amish estimate that good farmland went for about $1,000 an acre when the Amish influx began in 1978. Today, good farmland would is closer to $6,000 per acre — still cheaper than Lancaster County, the picturesque Amish heartland and tourist Mecca.

The Amish influx has been a mixed blessing, said life-long resident Robin Straub, who owns an insurance agency in Elizabethville. The Amish will preserve the area’s agricultural character, he said, which is good. But the Amish also don’t pay worker's compensation, which gives them an unfair advantage over “English” contractors, he said.

In nearby Upper Paxton Township, local officials say they benefit from the Amish who pay public school taxes, even though they send their children to Amish one-room school houses.

“If they used our schools, we would have to invest more in the schools,” said Thomas Shaffer, vice chairman of the township supervisors. Pressed to think of any downside to the increasing Amish population, Shaffer could think of just one: The metal rims of the Amish buggies can leave ruts in the asphalt roads during hot weather, and they must be repaired.

Chubby stops for a chat with an Amish woman who runs a bakery business, shipping some of her work to Philadelphia markets. All kinds of bread and pies are cooked with propane fuel and mixed with a compressed air mixer.

As she talks, her household laundry sways in the hot breeze over the heads of two steers destined to become part of the family's food supply.

“There are a lot that have another business besides farming,” she said. “Farming is not as profitable as it was at one time.”

Later he pays a social visit on an Amish farmer who also runs a small welding business in one of his barns. So why are so many Amish doing other things?

“They need more money to live and farming does not pay now,” the man said, blaming years of low milk prices as part of the problem.

A housewife a short distance away said farms are usually inherited by the oldest son, leaving his siblings to find other work. The woman's husband is a machinist, she said, and likes his job.

But, she added, “we would love to farm.”

David Warner writes for “The Patriot-News” in Harrisburg, Penn.

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