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Amish farmers take the progressive road

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A new Amish settlement has sprung up near Delhi, Iowa. Now, signs that read "Share the Road" are posted along rural county roads. (Clay Masters/Iowa Public Radio)
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Reporter, Iowa Public Radio
Clay Masters reports for Iowa Public Radio. He previously reported for Harvest Public Media while based at NET Nebraska.

This year’s drought has damaged crops, but it hasn’t hurt the price of farmland. In Iowa, prices are up almost 8 percent just since March. That’s forcing a lot of small farmers to make some tough decisions, including Amish farmers in that state who are breaking tradition so they can afford to stay on the land.

Amish farmer John Henry Yoder recently moved his family about 20 miles from Edgewater to Delhi, in eastern Iowa, because of a Bishop's rule about how much time could be spent working off the farm. His move – along with about 20 other Amish families – resulted in a new Amish settlement.

In addition to organic oats, corn and alfalfa, Yoder sells organic eggs and goat’s milk. To make ends meet, two of his 15 kids have a thriving construction business. Yoder said putting limits on what they can do for work just wasn’t feasible.

“The idea behind it was so that more of the Amish, more of the folks stay on the farm,” Yoder said. “That was a good idea. I think that’s the place to raise your family. But as time goes on things change and not everybody sees it in that perspective.”

To keep his family on the farm, he’d have to get bigger, and with the way he farms, he said, he can’t afford to pay the $6,000 to $8,000 it costs for an acre of land. So he banded together with a few other Amish families to buy about more than 100 acres near Delhi.

The value of agriculture land in Iowa is skyrocketing. Last year it jumped 32 percent in one year, and the rise is continuing at a slower pace this year. That makes it tough for small and mid-sized farmers to expand. 

Scott Cole, who’s in his 20s, farms 600 acres of corn and soybeans with his dad in the same area as the new Amish community. He admits that without the land in his family, he’d have a hard time being a farmer these days.

“It’d be about impossible, I hate to say it,” Cole said.

Cole said his family farm is small compared to other farms in the area that have upward of 20,000 acres. And while he welcomes the Amish as “great neighbors,” he noted that this is a new form of competitor.

The Amish population in North America has been doubling every 18 to 20 years since 1950 and today numbers about 275,000, according to researcher Donald Kraybill. The growth rate is driven by sizable families and sizeable retention. About 85 percent of Amish young people join the Amish community when they grow up.
 

“Those guys have more of an alliance together so they can put their money together to buy ground,” he said. “Whereas a lot of us nowadays are individual farmers where it’s tough for one person to put money together to buy ground.”

The Amish have become more progressive just to compete in the marketplace. Donald Kraybill, who researches Amish life at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, said some Amish may use tractors or hire someone to drive them for construction work.

Kraybill said in the middle of the 20th century more than 90 percent of Amish households relied on agriculture for their primary income. But come the turn of the century, Kraybill said, there were just too many babies and too few acres.

“It would cost typically $2 million for an Amish couple to set up a farming operation with 50 to 60 acres,” Kraybill said. “All of those pressures pushed the Amish toward other occupational ventures.”

As for Amish farmer John Henry Yoder, he said he wants to expand his farm… but he’s got bigger problems.

“I think I should do, just having some family time, with high cost of living and a family to support sometimes we get a little sidetracked by thinking we got to keep working and working,” Yoder said.