Reuters

The number of Amish people in the U.S. has doubled in the last 20 years, and the sect is spreading across the United States.

The Amish—known for their horse-and-buggy way of life—may seem like they would be overwhelmed by the rushing changes in technology and culture.

But according to a new census, the Amish are growing faster than ever. There are nearly 251,000 Amish people in America and Canada, according to Ohio State University researchers. That's more than double the estimated population in 1989 of about 100,000. Researchers estimate the population will double again to half a million within about 21 years.

Much of the growth has to do with the fact that more Amish children are staying with the religion and starting their own high-fertility families. "Some people would claim 90 percent of daughters and sons get baptized Amish and start families," says lead researcher Joseph Donnermeyer, a professor of rural sociology at OSU. He says this number has been increasing steadily since WWII.

The Amish live in small groups of 20 or 30 families known as settlements, and Donnermeyer's team has shown the number of these settlements to be growing quickly. In 1990, there were 179 settlements in the U.S. By 2012, Donnermeyer and his colleagues counted 456, including a handful in Canada.

As the number of settlements has grown, so has their geographic reach. The Amish have traditionally lived in places like Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (population 26,270), or Holmes County, Ohio (population 17,654). Now,they are spreading to other parts of the country, from New York to Missouri and Wyoming. Montana now has four settlements, and Nebraska has three. A few have popped up in Oklahoma and there's even one in South Dakota. Donnermeyer says the move to the West and the plains states is only just starting.

But the strongest growth is on the east coast. "There are five settlements in Maine that are all less than 12 years old," Donnermeyer says. "There are 47 in New York, and 18 have been founded since 2009. New York is now the hotspot." He says most of that growth is happening upstate, where property values have fallen dramatically.

But it's not just lower prices causing this geographic scattering. Donnermeyer says that changing agricultural economics are also driving a lot of Amish to new territory. As farmers leave their farms or sell them off, sparsely populated rural areas become prime real estate for the Amish. Buyouts of dairy farmers in Wisconsin and tobacco farmers in Kentucky by industrial agriculture outfits cleared the way for booms in those states' Amish populations. Wisconsin had 17 Amish settlements before 1990. Now it's home to 46. Kentucky's seen its Amish settlements more than double to 34 since then.

Because the Amish prefer settlements of only a few dozen families, the total population's sheer growth has also hastened this spread. There are now Amish settlements in 30 states. "As the older communities get bigger because of this population boom, there's been a greater and greater emphasis on finding new places to start new settlements," says Donnermeyer.

And that's pushed the Amish into somewhat unexpected locations. Donnermeyer points to one settlement that's established itself in rural Wyoming, about an hour-and-a-half's buggy ride to the nearest town.

"It's 15 miles north of Devils Tower. You know, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind," Donnermeyer says, referring to the rustic setting of the 1977 alien movie. It's an interesting parallel: this is the first Amish settlement to develop in Wyoming, an alien culture in a strange new land. But they won't be alien for long. Donnermeyer says another settlement is currently forming in the state.

Photo credit: Frank Polic/Reuters

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