By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The number of Amish in the United States and Canada is on pace to double every 21.5 years and may reach 912,000 by 2050, according to an Ohio State University professor.
The population increase could benefit areas where the Amish live and would probably bring diversity to their communities, said Joseph F. Donnermeyer, a professor of rural sociology in OSU’s School of Environment and Natural Resources.
A census of horse-and-buggy-driving Amish completed last year found about 251,000 living in the United States and Ontario. Ontario is the only area in Canada with an Amish population. Ohio has the most Amish in the United States with 60,200, while Pennsylvania is second with 59,000 and Indiana third, with 45,000.
“(The population increase) is surprising because the Amish have made a transition out of agriculture, as 15 to 20 percent of the men farm,” Donnermeyer noted. “In every other society in the world that has made the transition from agriculture to industrial or more urban, there has been reduced fertility. That hasn’t happened with the Amish.”
About 90 percent of Amish sons and daughters are baptized and remain in the faith today, he said. In the 1800s, fewer than 50 percent were baptized.
“They have tight communities,” he explained. “It’s comfortable to remain Amish.”
The Amish are Anabaptists (which means one who baptizes again) known for their plain clothes and who eschew many modern conveniences such as electricity.
“Their clothes are a symbol of their separation from mainstream society,” Donnermeyer said. “The women wear head coverings and the men, a hat. The plain clothes are a symbol that individualism and consumerism are to be reduced.”
Other symbols of this separation include their language and that they have no church buildings and conduct services in private homes, he added. The Amish seek separation but not isolation, Donnermeyer noted.
An increased Amish population would benefit the economy of the rural counties in which they’re located, he explained.
“They’re likely to spend locally and they generate tax revenue through the tourist business,” he said. “They pay their fair share of taxes, though they don’t pay a lot of gas tax. Overall, they are very healthy for a rural area.”
A larger Amish population would also create more diversity within their communities, which could lead to various interpretations of what it means to live a simple life, Donnermeyer said. For example, some in a community may think it acceptable to use electricity as long as it comes from a solar panel and not through the local electric company.
Location is important to the Amish because they’re limited in how far they can travel, said R.D. Schrader, president of Schrader Real Estate & Auction Co., of Columbia City, Ind. In the past, his company has helped find property for Amish people coming from Pennsylvania to Indiana.
“Now, we’re helping more Amish looking to move out than move in,” he said. “They’re moving to Missouri or Kentucky. They’re looking for lower land values. In some of their communities, land has become pretty tight, so they’re looking for new locations.”
The Amish population is growing in places such as Kentucky and rural areas of New York, Donnermeyer noted.
“They’re moving to areas where land is affordable and they can lead their definition of a separate life,” he explained. “They’re looking for places where they can lead their lifestyle and afford to do so.”
In moving to a new area, one concern of the Amish is if the local government will try to enforce regulations they object to, such as the use of septic tanks, Donnermeyer said.
“This is a part of the ‘halo effect’ – they want to be separate from the world,” he noted. “Or, they’re stubborn Amish who think they should be exempt from all the rules. (The Amish) think they’re overzealous (local) officials, but they’re really just enforcing health and safety regulations.”
Local, state and federal conservation agencies are working with Amish people in areas of Indiana such as LaGrange County, where nearly half of the population is Amish.
“There may be a perception that the Amish aren’t interested in protecting the environment, but that’s not the case,” said Jill Reinhart, Indiana’s acting assistant state conservationist for farm bill programs. “We just have to learn to work with the Amish. Once we do that, we have success. It’s about building relationships.”
The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers cost-share programs and technical assistance to farmers, including the Amish, she said.
Some Amish do not want to accept money from the government, said Martin Franke, district manager for the LaGrange Soil and Water Conservation District.
“They understand stewardship. The earth is the Lord’s and they’re to take care of it,” he said. “But they don’t want to take what they see as welfare funds to do it.”
It is sometimes difficult to convince Amish farmers they need to change their practices, such as allowing cattle to roam free in streams, Franke said.
“We’ll tell them they should fence their cattle out of the streams,” he said. “They say, ‘I’ve got a stream that nature provides, it cools them off in the summer.’ We have to overcome arguments such as these.”
Conservation officials also have to overcome the concerns Amish have about working with the government, he added.
“You have to let them know they’re working with the person, not the government entity,” Franke said. “They want to do what’s right, but they want to do it on their own, without what they see as welfare.”