Did the Amish Get It Right After All?

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

There is an interesting development in mainstream U.S.A that just might have significant relevance for garden farming. Record numbers of people are acquiring pets. The dog and cat business is not at all depressed by the recession. (If you are wondering what all this has to do with the Amish, bear with me.) You see evidence of the trend everywhere, especially in advertisements where dogs are shown licking the cheeks of children— this in a society that has an almost manic dread of germs. Pets are the in-thing. Apparently our society is so enmeshed in its mechanical and electronic gadgetry that the human psyche is seeking solace in real life, as in the ancient loving connection that we have always enjoyed with animals.

The modern pet craze is not limited to cats and dogs but embraces many animals, especially horses. (Now you see how the Amish are going to get into this discussion.) Statistics say there are 6.9 million horses in the U.S. involved in various activities from racing, showing, pleasure riding, polo, police work, farming and ranching. The horse business or hobby adds about $112 billion to the GNP. Horses generate more money than the home furniture and fixtures business, and almost as much as the apparel and textile manufacturing industry. In other words, while we generally think of Old Dobbin as a step backward in time in agriculture, horses are very much a part of our modern economic and social lives today.

Why this is pertinent to garden farming becomes apparent from what happened a few months ago. At the time when the national banking fraternity was on its knees in Washington, begging for money, news all over the media reported that Hometown Heritage bank in Lancaster County, Pa., was having its best year ever. Hometown Heritage may be the only bank in the world, surely one of the few, that has drive-by window service designed to accommodate horses and buggies. Some 95% of the bank’s customers are Amish farmers. The banker, Bill O’Brien, says that he has not lost a penny on them in 20 years. They obviously don’t have auto loans to pay off and do not use credit cards. They might not need bank loans at all except to buy farmland, which especially in Lancaster County, has risen almost insanely in price. O’Brien says he is doing about a hundred million dollars worth of business in farm loans. To further make the point, an obscure law does not allow banks to bundle and sell mortgages on farms and homes that are not serviced by public electric utilities.

There is plenty in this situation for economists to contemplate, but what struck me the most was the fact that these farmers are buying farm land that can cost them ten thousand dollars per acre or sometimes more, and paying for it with horse farming. And because of their religion, the Amish do not accept farm subsidies that keep many “modern” farms “profitable.” Facing these facts, it is very difficult to see how economists or agribusiness experts can claim that farms using horses or mules for motive power are any more backward, or any less profitable, than farms using tractors.

If you study the great debate that raged in farm circles from about 1920 to 1950 over the economics of horses and mules vs. tractors, (a good recent book on the subject is Mule South To Tractor South, by George B. Ellenberg, Univ. of Alabama Press, 2007), you will learn that the experts never agreed. Both sides finally admitted that it didn’t matter anyway. There was a rising kind of younger farmer for whom tractors were just too alluring to resist. These farmers were going to use them, no matter how much more they cost than horses. Farmers who loved farming with horses wept while they watched trucks haul their teams off to the the rendering plant. They did not get rid of their horses because of the supposedly harder work involved but because they were afraid that if they did not switch, the farmers who did switch would eventually take all the land.

I grew up when horses were still the rule in farming. I had a runaway with a team and a wagon when I was 11 years old, so I know the dark side of it too. Because of the strange circumstances of my life, I worked on horse-powered farms again in my early twenties. I assure you: farm work is no harder or easier using horses than tractors. Each has its pluses and minuses physically. Mentally, farming with horses is more relaxed (they always start in the morning no matter how cold) except during a runaway. The horse farmer I worked for during those years, (1950s) was by no means Amish. He did have a big old tractor to plow his hilly acres. He used horses because he made money farming with horses. He was the best economics professor I never had. The way he farmed wasn’t what you’d find in articles in the leading farm magazines; it wasn’t very pretty. But it was a lot prettier than the Americans lined up at the employment offices today because they opted out of hard work in favor of the great American dream of ease and forty-hour weeks.

I do not speak as an uncompromising champion of horses. I actually prefer my 1950 WD Allis Chalmers which has cost me hardly $5000 total during all the years I have owned it. But that is not my point. I just wonder if we are not making a mistake by not taking seriously what the Amish are demonstrating to us. Given the facts of the matter, I don’t think it is naïve to suggest that young garden farmers take a closer look at horses, mules, even oxen for motive power on their little farms. Quite a few already are. Given the demonstrated yearning that humans have always shown for animal companionship, it seems entirely logical to me that young farmers just might lose their acquired attraction for the tractor one of these days to become horsemen and horsewomen again. The dollars and cents, the Amish will tell you, are on your side if you enjoy being at home and would rather work hard physically on occasion rather than pay for exercise at a fitness center.

With peak oil upon us, think of it this way. You may be able to grow enough extra grain or biomass to make ethanol for a tractor, but it will always be cheaper to grow the extra hay to feed a horse. You don’t have to distill the hay.
See also Gene’s An Ode To Horse Manure, And Other By-Products Called Waste
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: © Marianne Venegoni | Dreamstime.com
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
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Christi: Absolutely, that is a an essential part of the reason. Gene Logsdon

I just have to wonder if the fact that Lancaster County’s land is so productive and favorable BECAUSE of the way the Amish choose to farm, not the other way around?

EJ Quite a few Amish farms are certificd organic. Farming Magazine P.O. Box 85, Mt. Hope, Ohio 44660, is a good place to read about them. The magazine is put out by an Amish family that is organic. Actually, most traditional Amish farms are “almost” organic because traditional farming (before chemicals and huge tractors) was “almost” organic without knowing it. Organic Amish farmers (and organic non Amish farmers are right now making more money than conventional farmers per acre because of premiums for milk and grain that they are getting. Gene Logsdon

Would Amish farming work if done organically?
Or are large inputs necessary to keep yields/income up?

Thanks Philip. I remember an old green 2 cylinder Johnny poppers that had a big lever which raised and lowered the corn cultivators. It took all a boy’s strength to lift the cultivator gangs with that man-killer. When I look back on those first tractors, I am amazed at how we embraced them since they were harder to operate than a team. Your grandfather was right, but wisdom rarely wins out in combat with a piston engine. Gene Logsdon

Gene, love your posts. My grandfather was a stubborn old German who refused to use a tractor. When he died in the late 1950s, he was still using teams to do everything on the farm from plowing his fields to mowing his hay to cultivating his corn. He never learned how to drive a car and he once threatened to sell the farm when his boys–my father and brothers–went to a vacuum line to milk the cows just around WWII. Stripping out the teats by hand was just fine in his opinion, thank you very much.

I have a small farmette in Connecticut– just 12 acres now–the remnants of his place, what had been an 80 acre dairy farm.

I have immeasurably benefited from your wisdom and writing. I do a little farming on the side now–all with old mid century green 2 cylinder tractors older than me–but I hated each and every thing about it as a kid; I was pulled into it because of the beauty of the land after college (not ag business!). My dad died very young so all of the accumulated wisdom that he had was lost. Anyway, I’ve benefited from the full range of your ideas over the years. Thanks and keep the wonderful books and columns coming!


Granny Miller, Bless you. You say it all right. The art crowd that critices Andrew do so, I think, because they have never known what it is really like to live a rural life. And they don’t think we rural people are smart enough to recognize the difference between a Wyeth painting and Currier and Ives. How coincidental too that you mention draft horses in the same comment with Andrew Wyeth. It was an essay I wrote about the draft horse he painted that finally turned him to accept me and invite me to come to see him. Amazing grace. Gene Logsdon

We thought about draft ponies & oxen here.
But decided against draft animal power.
A tractor doesn’t cost us anything when its not working.
Not to mention the tractor never got out of the fence and went visiting down at the local Dairy Queen.

Gene –
You have my sincere sympathies for the loss of your friend.
When I was an undergraduate (Art Major)I was chastised by my professors for my admiration of him.
Many in the visual arts did not appreciate Mr. Wyeth’s genius or gift.

Even though Andrew Wyeth was my favorite 20th century American artist,I never really understood his work until I married a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer & moved to his 5th generation farm.
Mr. Wyeth was a national treasure.

Kyle, I wouldn’t argue with you. I think nuclear war is more of a danger than global warming.
Joan Richmond: thanks. Andrew Wyeth is my favorite artist and as a person whom I was lucky enough to know personally and to write about a lot, he was also one of my favorite people. Gene Logsdon

It seems as though I think “end of an era” a lot lately — Gene I just wanted to offer condolences on the death of Andrew Wyeth. Know you’re a friend of the family. 😦

Hey Gene,
With all the bad news these days, it’s great to read your posts about the way life ought to be.

A small detail, but I have to respectfully disagree with the widely held idea that “Peak Oil” will be the catalyst to re-ruralize America. The evidence and precedents are (IMO) stronger that peak oil and global warming are think tank scams to make nuclear power “marketable” and push for more centralized government, more taxation and more urbanization. Add to that programs like NAIS and the locking up of good rural land by our government, foreign investors and NGOs like the Nature Conservancy, and I think most folks are going to have a heck of a time “affording” to follow the Amish path.

– I do hope I’m wrong, and have my heavily earmarked copy of “Small Scale Grain Raising” just in case!

Okay, interesting to hear pet services are still going strong. We have two cats ourselves and upgraded their food a while ago (human grade food prep) and take them to to vet, etc. but personally have no use for the other services. Better that folks have pets (of whatever size) than go jetting about the world or spending all day surfing the ‘net, for sure!


We’ve got a friend working at a pet boarding facility in the area, and they’ve had a drastic enough downturn in business that he’s gone from running hiring and payroll to running the entire branch (because they’ve laid off enough management to need one person to do all of it now). I have a feeling most of their customers were the middle-class-trying-to-be-upper-middle-class that are getting a lot of the foreclosures right now. Additionally I worked at a veterinary hospital a year ago that was already seeing a lot of patients needing to be adopted because their owners were getting foreclosed and having to move into apartments that didn’t allow pets.

Then again there are the folks who would’ve had kids if it weren’t for the economy, and now they’re sticking with pets instead.

Nice piece but one BIG thing to keep in mind- the Lancaster County Amish are farming some of the richest, most productive farmland on this earth.
There are few other places on earth where the topsoil is deeper, the climate as favorable and the rain as regular as Lancaster County Pennsylvania. It is a crime to build developments on it!
One smaller point- the Amish are running/supplying many of the Puppy mills as they dump badly cared for and badly bred dogs onto inexperienced dog owners …. dead puppies are reportedly used as compost on the fields.

Heather, pet foods, pet cemeteries, pet clothes, pet sitters (I know someone who makes a good second income pet sitting) pet funerals, all this seems to be on an upswing, so I just don’t know. I suppose it is like everything else. Poorer people cut back, richer people don’t. Maybe the pet food market is doing alright because poor people are eating it. Gene

Thanks, Heather, for typo. Fixed. -Dave

Interesting to hear about the Amish in PA and in general how horse farmers are doing well. Thank you!

I’m curious about the pets though. We’ve been hearing stories of people giving up their pets because they can’t afford to feed and care for them. So apparently more people are getting pets than are giving them up?

Minor typo — last sentence of the fourth paragraph, I believe the second “that” should be “than”.

Thank you again for sharing your wit and wisdom!

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