Saturday, October 18, 2008

Why the Amish Aren't a Role Model

I've done a fair amount of posting on the Amish, much of it based on Donald Kraybill's work. They seem, as a commenter on an earlier post said, to be a possible model for an alternative agriculture. Possibly, but I respectfully disagree.

There are many attractive aspects to the Amish way of life. The tight-knit community, the sharing of burdens, the evocation of a slower, more peaceful way of life, a way of life close to that which I experienced before 1951 (when we convert from horses to a tractor).

But the key to the Amish is they want to be "off-the-grid", not of "this world", outside the market economy. Their way of life is part and parcel of their religion, which ironically gives them advantages in competing with capitalistic, free market-oriented farmers. Consider:
  • no health insurance. They do cooperate with modern medicine; see this article in the Smithsonian magazine about a doctor and the genetic diseases to which Amish and Mennonites are susceptible due to in-breeding. If memory serves, they paid for the treatment of the children wounded in the schoolhouse shooting.
  • no social security. They rely on the close-knit community and the large families to take care of the children
  • no college tuition. They don't go to college.
  • no real estate loans. Their new settlements pay cash for land.
  • no utility bills (except kerosene) No cable, no electricity. Well water and septic tanks.
All this is in addition to the better known self-sufficiency in food, shelter, and clothing.

So, based on these facts, the Amish can afford to farm small, farm solar (in Pollan's new phraseology.) They simply don't need the cash flow of a big, industrialized farm. I remain to be convinced there's a "middle way" (to re-use a term from the early '50's for a different purpose) between John Phipps and the Amish.

My mantra: the way you farm, the way you live, and the way you eat are all intertwined.

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