In Upstate New York, the Amish Struggle for Survival

After generations of prosperity and seclusion, the Swartzentrubers are losing territory to subsidized growers buying up St. Lawrence County.

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Reuters

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 of mugwort-weeding and hay-bailing - 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, new neighbors such as thousand-cow dairies and genetically modified starch producers have moved into 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," says 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 synthetic 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."

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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 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," says Jon Greenwood, owner of Greenwood Dairy in Depuyster. 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 says, 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.

Photo credit: Jason Reed/Reuters

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. 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."

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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 milk barn, squeezing two udders rhythmically into a pale.

"Hear that engine?" Miller asks, 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 says. 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.

"Prices hit hard, and they're going to complain about taxes just like we are," says Johnson-Weiner. "In that respect I think they're like their English neighbors, who also grieve about taxes." The Swartzentrubers do themselves no economic favors by refusing to carry social security numbers and photo IDs, complicating their access to bank loans that serve as lifelines for non-Amish farmers in down times.

But when I spoke with Brent Buchanan, the county's agriculture team leader for Cornell's Cooperative Extension, he said New York's regulations slant the game against the Amish. As Buchanan explained, tax exemptions go exclusively to farms selling over $10,000 in product. And while Swartzentruber farmers might grow a qualifying amount, they preserve more of their harvest for subsistence living, thus decreasing their nominal profit. "If they can't enjoy the same taxes as Englishmen, that's inherently not a sustainable business model," Buchanan says.

Bennett recalled a personal story about the encroachment of large agri-businesses in upstate New York. "A young Amish man, John Miller, came and sat down at my kitchen table pretty upset and almost on the verge of tears. Dr. Cruikshank, who owns a huge dairy CAFO in Lisbon, about 15 miles away, came into his community and saw a piece of land that the Amish were thinking about buying. The Amish should have picked it up for about $30,000 total. Dr. Cruickshank offered to pay $2,500 per acre, for that same 100-acre plot. A quarter-million," Bennett said, referring to a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, a high-volume and high-polluting facility that keeps animals closely confined indoors for months at a time. (When reached by phone twice, Robert Cruikshank declined to be interviewed for this article.)

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Sitting in his milk barn, the Amish farmer Dan Miller wore a straw hat ringed by a fly-halo, which he attempted to disperse with puffs of hot breath in between sentences. I asked Miller how the struggling economy that surrounds Heuvelton has affected his business. The nearby towns of Watertown, Ogdensburg, and Massena (where a GM parts-manufacturing plant closed in 2009), have become post-industrial blemishes with high foreclosure and unemployment.

"Oh yeah, we notice it," Miller tells me, smiling, before sharing that he had been robbed for the first time last year. A man pulled up to Miller's farm stand and drove off with jugs of maple syrup and a day's worth of profits stored in a tin can. "I didn't have the gun ready," Miller said, gently poking fun at the pacifism of the Amish, who refuse direct dealings with police and never retaliate violently. If Miller hid his frustration about the impact of larger farms, Johnson-Weiner described his silence as typical. "The Amish tend not to talk about English farmers on a personal level," she said.

Photo credit: Frank Polich/Reuters

Severed access to land has forced some Swartzentrubers to seek lives beyond agriculture. Inus Yoder, a young carpenter in Heuvelton, spoke on his rose-colored porch. Yoder started his business in 2007, on the cusp of recession, but has managed to maintain steady profits by selling half his furnished product to Canada, mostly wooden tables and lawn décor. "Sales are picking up now," Yoder added optimistically.

But if value-added businesses--furniture making, quilting, and harness repair--represent the Swartzentrubers' future, this invariably demands a shift of well-worn faith. "Farming, especially for the more conservative Amish, is considered the ideal Christian occupation," Johnson-Weiner said. "They are farming in ways that we don't farm anymore, but in ways that our great grandparents would have been familiar with. ... The values that one can pass on to one's children in farming are important and very spiritual to the Amish."

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Bone-dry conditions and invasive pests were enough to worry about in St. Lawrence County this summer. In June, thousands of inch-long caterpillars, known as armyworms, began devouring sapling stalks and the nascent cereal crop. Then July brought a pitiful inch of rain, as the region baked in the worst nationwide drought in 50 years.

"Each of the past 13 years I've made hay, it's taken two full days after cutting, before it's dry enough to bail and bundle it," Bennett told me. "But because it's so brutally hot and dry, you can cut hay at 10 o'clock in the morning, and bail it at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. It's that dry."

If this year's wheat fields - less glowing and more parched than usual - project a dismal outlook on the future of family farming in this region, the drought hasn't depressed Bennett. Despite losing half his cucumber and squash harvest, he heard that Cruikshank's dairy faired far worse, and was rumored to have sold some 1,800 cows in August. "With these losses, they're eventually going to have to start selling land at normal prices again," Bennett said.

A new chapter in the nomadic history of the Swartzentrubers might be unfolding. "Migration has always been a mechanism by which the Amish sought to solve problems," Johnson-Weiner wrote in St. Lawrence County's Swartzentruber Amish: The Plainest of the Plain People, the definitive book on the Swartzentrubers. Not unlike the original schism that brought the Swartzentrubers to St. Lawrence County, when they broke away from the Amish civilization in Holmes County, Ohio, the latest exodus may unfold methodically. "I see people leaving, but I don't see the settlement disappearing, no more than Holmes County has disappeared," Johnson-Weiner said. "I just hope the Amish can hold on for as long as possible. But it's getting difficult."

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

  • Malcolm Burnley does story research for The Atlantic.