For John Bontrager, of Emma, Ind., the easy money has run out.
Bontrager, who is Amish, worked at a factory in nearby Middlebury, building FEMA trailers. He was not unusual; more than half the Amish men in northern Indiana had factory jobs. But when the RV industry collapsed last year, he and many others lost the work that supported their families and, over the years, enabled this Amish community, the third-largest in the United States, to grow and prosper, according to Christian Science Monitor.
While some are seeking jobs at local furniture shops or in construction out of state, Bontrager has decided to return to the traditional Amish livelihood: farming.
In January, he ordered a greenhouse – 30 by 96 feet and covered with two layers of plastic. Family and neighbors helped put it up. In late winter he planted it with 7,000 strawberry plants, stuck into plastic pots stacked six high. He expects his greenhouse berries to appear a month before local field strawberries and to taste sweeter than California imports.
“I think it’s going to be a real hit,” he says, the sun pouring down on rows of young plants and two small sons making mischief at his feet.
Amish men across northern Indiana are going back to farming, driven by necessity and also by a conviction that this is their proper work. Some are growing strawberries or tomatoes in hooped greenhouses that have sprung up in the countryside. Others are raising milk goats. Many are planting large truck gardens, putting in onions or potatoes or other vegetables to sell at a produce auction that the Amish have started in order to attract wholesale buyers.
The Amish, who for religious reasons shun modern conveniences such as cars and electricity, began here as farmers more than a century ago. But as their numbers increased – Amish couples often have 10 or more children – land prices soared and farms became increasingly unattainable.
Other Amish communities have met this challenge by starting home-based industries like furnituremaking and metal fabricating.
“In just about every settlement across the country, there’s been a shift away from farming toward small businesses,” says historian Steven Nolt at Goshen College, an expert on the Amish. In Indiana, however, the Amish found ready work in factories, making recreational vehicles.
The RV industry was a mixed blessing. Its high wages enabled many young families to buy a few acres and build a home. All around Emma, a rural crossroads in northeastern Indiana, stand gleaming new houses with white vinyl siding and, often, a matching barn.
But factory jobs also brought unease. Amish men rubbed shoulders with non-Amish who swore and engaged in other un-Amish behavior. The money encouraged habits the Amish frown upon, “spending it too much on themselves, going out to dinner too much, taking long trips,” says Otto Graber, a dairy farmer from nearby Shipshewana.
Worse, factory jobs kept fathers away from their children.
For these and other reasons, many Amish see a silver lining in the RV slump. “It’s probably good for the community,” says Kenneth Otto, who works only a few days a month at his factory job. “It was really good for too long. We just took it for granted,” he says, and “It got (us) away from farming.”
The idea of going back to farming has long tugged at the Amish. Nine years ago, a group of them began a produce auction near Emma, hoping to create a market. By last year the auction had blossomed to almost 100 growers. This year, organizers expect twice that many.
“Most … say they’ve been dreaming about this ever since the produce auction started,” says LaVerne Miller, one of the founders. “But being they had a job, it was always ‘someday.’ ”
It won’t be easy. Miller and others have been holding meetings to instruct beginners in bee pollination, quality standards and other issues. They say it’s unlikely that large numbers of Amish will suddenly make their living growing vegetables.
“It’s not all easy money,” says Perry Miller, LaVerne’s father, who grew up on a farm. “It takes hard work and determination. But it’s a pretty good thing if you put all your heart into it.”
Bontrager now spends a lot more time at home with his wife and 11 children. Like many U.S. families, they have cut back. They’re baking their own bread, forgoing store-bought cereal and traveling less. “We’re just kind of struggling along,” he says.
He doesn’t know if the strawberries will turn out. He’d gladly work a few more years at the factory, to save up for more greenhouses. Yet he seems hopeful and confident, for now.
“In the Bible it says, ‘By the sweat of your brow you shall earn your bread,’ ” he says with conviction. “It’s more the easy-money way, going to the factory job.”
A part-time construction job sturdied Orva Fry’s financial foundation after he was laid off from an Indiana RV factory. It also kept the 41-year-old Amish father of two on steady spiritual ground.
Another way to make ends meet that Fry briefly considered – unemployment checks – went against his faith, which shuns all forms of government assistance, according to the Associated Press.
That Fry even pondered signing up for jobless benefits illustrates a marked shift in the nation’s third-largest Amish settlement, which is suffering steep unemployment following a decades-long shift from farming to factory work. Church and economic leaders say a growing number of the area’s 23,000 Amish are breaking with centuries of tradition and taking government help to stay afloat.
Fry chose not to take jobless benefits and was called back to work at the RV factory in March after working alongside his brother for three months repairing a fire-damaged home. But the community pressure to adhere to this tradition is easing amid the worst recession in decades.
Bishops who once might have censured those who sought public assistance are reluctantly looking the other way.
“We prefer to supply ourselves, but I told people that if they have no other option and no other way to make ends meet then they can take it,” said Paul Hochstetler, bishop of an Amish district east of Goshen.
The unemployment rate in the Elkhart-Goshen metropolitan area approached 19% in March – the most recent month for which data are available – in large part due to the misfortune of recreational vehicle factories that have laid off thousands of workers. It is the country’s fourth-highest unemployment rate and is up 13 points from March 2008, the largest increase in the U.S.
The Amish’s refusal to take assistance such as unemployment and welfare is shared by like-minded Anabaptist traditions that grew out of 16th century German sects that sought to separate themselves from the world, said John Farina, an associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. That would include Hutterians, the Church of the Brethren and the Church of the United Brethren.
It’s part of a simpler way of life for the Amish, a Christian denomination with about 227,000 members nationwide that uses bicycles or horse-drawn buggies instead of owning cars and avoids hooking up to the electrical grid because of a belief that doing so will lead to a dependence on the outside world.
“We want to be producers, to be an overall good to the community and to the nation and not be dependent upon the nation for our livelihood or for the federal or state governments to give us our livelihood,” said David Kline, an Amish minister from Mount Hope, Ohio, whose county hosts the nation’s largest Amish population.
For centuries, that has meant taking care of their own, supplying food, shelter and other necessities in times of need. Those who seek outside help can risk being forced to make public confessions in church or told to refrain from taking communion for six months, said Steven Nolt, a Goshen College history professor who has written several books on the Amish.
But tradition has had to bend as northern Indiana’s Amish continue to move away from their roots, becoming heavily reliant on a single industry.
A survey of 3,358 Amish heads of households living in Indiana’s Elkhart-LaGrange settlement in 2007 found that 53.3% earned their livings working in factories. In contrast, the economies of the nation’s largest Amish centers – the Holmes County area of Ohio and around Lancaster, Pa. – focus primarily on small shops, construction trades and, to a lesser extent, farming.
“When the RV industry shut down here as well as the mobile home industry, it hit them really hard,” said LeRoy Mast, director of Menno-Hof, a nonprofit information center in nearby Shipshewana that teaches visitors about the Amish and Mennonite.
“They can’t handle the 19% unemployment rate on their own because the needs are just so great.”
Hochstetler said it is impossible for his church district, where about half the 31 families had people employed in the RV industry, to make up the lost wages. The Amish who work in factories pay into the state unemployment system and are eligible to receive jobless benefits of $50 to $390 a week.
Even so, those benefits remain an uncomfortable subject.
Of more than two dozen Amish approached recently in Topeka, a town of 1,100 about 20 miles southeast of Goshen, only six would talk, and all were reluctant to be identified.
But each spoke of tough times. A dairy farmer is struggling with declining milk prices and the rising cost of hay. A father of three who lost his RV factory job in December said he had accepted jobless benefits to provide for his children but hadn’t told anyone outside his family.
“This is a situation that’s very difficult for everyone involved,” Nolt said. “In a society that’s relied so much on tradition, there isn’t a precedent.”
Lester Chupp, 62, an Amish deacon in Nappanee, says those who need unemployment should take it. He did so several times while working in an RV factory for 24 years. He now owns a furniture and crafts shop, where business is down 40%.
“Most people say they’re tightening their belts. Well, we don’t use belts, so I guess we can say we’re tightening up our suspenders and rolling up our sleeves and going to work,” Chupp said.
Hochstetler and other Amish leaders hope the area’s joblessness ultimately leads more Amish to return to their roots, opening woodworking shops or raising chickens or livestock to make extra money.
“I think it’s helped that we have slowed down and are not spending so much time at work,” Hochstetler said.