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LANCASTER COUNTY, Penn.—Among the historic Amish settlements in southeastern Pennsylvania, faith, fidelity, and long days working in green fields are the root of traditional farming.
Together, they support and nourish a community and culture steeped in biblical teachings.
In Lancaster County, west of Philadelphia, the Amish hold fast with many of the old ways. Their primary means of getting around is still horse and buggy, and they use herbal remedies for many common ailments.
The Amish of Lancaster County are also a humble and private people (many Amish do not like having their photograph taken or name publicized). Shunning pride and vanity, they experience a particular joy and satisfaction in living close to the earth, free of the stress and pressures of outside worldly entanglements.
Many Amish still speak a German dialect called “Pennsylvania Dutch,” living and conducting themselves in an uncomplicated manner.
Traditional clothing—long dresses, aprons, and bonnets for women; trousers, shirts, jackets, and hats for men—distinguishes them from the world of “the English,” the term used to denote non-Amish.
The peaceful simplicity of Amish life has its allure and also everyday challenges and economic realities interacting with the larger society around them.
Some small multi-generational farm owners, like Jesse Lapp, try to adapt to these influences through “agri-tourism” and diversification into the trades, while still passing their wisdom and traditional farming methods down from generation to generation.
“If you don’t pass on the techniques from one generation to the next, it gets lost,” said Lapp, 44, owner of Old Windmill Farm in Ronks, Pennsylvania, an unincorporated farming community 63 miles from Philadelphia.
“Farming is not a textbook,” said the farmer, who learned how to work the land from his father, who learned it from his father and those before him.
“You learn things from your parents, from experiences, what your parents struggled with. You learn from that.”
However, strictly organic farmers in Lancaster County, like Amos Miller, are confronted with government regulations they see as hostile to Christian values and personal choices in producing food.
Today, Miller, 45, is at the center of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lawsuit accusing him of violating federal food safety laws.
There have been financial penalties and threats of jail time over selling non-federally inspected and “erroneously labeled” milk and meat at Miller’s Organic Farm of Bird-In-Hand, Pennsylvania.
Miller views the case as government overreaches targeting small organic farms to regulate them out of existence.
“There are many farmers that would like to continue to be farmers,” Miller told The Epoch Times.
“It’s in our culture. We love farming. But the food system is so monopolized and regulated that we can’t be true farmers. You can’t make a living on the farm.”
The Amish in the United States consists of four primary groups: Beachy Amish, Amish Mennonites, New Order, and Old Order Amish whose forebears fled religious persecution in Europe during the early 18th century. They have different views regarding the use of modern technology.
“The Amish do not consider technology evil in itself, but they believe that technology if left untamed will undermine worthy traditions and accelerate assimilation into the surrounding society,” according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College on its Amish Studies website.
“Mass media technology, in particular, they fear, would introduce foreign values into their culture. By bringing greater mobility, cars would pull the community apart, eroding local ties.
“Horse-and-buggy transportation keeps the community anchored in its local geographical base.”
As a population, the Amish are among the fastest-growing in America, with more than 300,000 located in 32 states. More than 60 percent of the Amish live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana in local congregations called church districts.
In Lancaster County, the Amish population is approximately 45,000 adults and children.
Old Windmill is a fourth-generation family farm on 65 acres, raising about a dozen head of cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, and horses. The owner said he decided to expand into agri-tourism to supplement cash flow.
“Bigger farms is the way to make a living,” the owner told The Epoch Times. “Everything is mass produced. When my grandfather was farming, they had a chicken house. They had some eggs to sell. They had a tobacco barn right here.”
He said Old Windmill Farm left dairy farming as it became more labor intense and costly. His crops include rye, corn, alfalfa, and soybeans, rotating with the seasons. He uses an old hay baler drawn by four horses, a hay rake, and other gasoline-driven engines.
“We don’t have modern machines; we have machines manufactured maybe in the 50s. Some are antique machines as well,” he said.
A local metal fabricator makes parts to repair the machines when they break down.
“There are diversified farms” using more modern tools, the owner said. “We’re sort of die-hard” using older technology.
A typical day at Old Windmill Farm begins at dawn when the lights go on, and the roosters start crowing.
“If you’re a farmer in the Amish community, you get up around 4:30 or quarter of five,” he said.
“Most shops in the area are operating around 6 o’clock. It’s a 10-hour day. We’re still farmers in mindset. You get up early and make the best of the day.”
Early morning is an opportune time to begin the day with prayers and meditation, and everyone is different in that regard.
Lapp and his wife have four young daughters and three sons enrolled in a local public school. As a rule in Amish society, the children do not go to school past the 8th grade. Instead, they go to work helping in the family farm or business.
“We learn to make a living with our hands,” the Old Windmill farm owner said. “The Amish are very competitive in general, having good products and good milk to sell and having good products in general. It’s a way of making a living without having to go to college.
“I’m also a [stone] mason by trade. I have to work down toward Philadelphia for more high-end work.”
He said he dreamed of becoming a stonemason in his youth. He likes to work with natural stone, building retaining and landscaping walls.
“If you work with stone or masonry and with your hands, there’s lots of pride in that. Working with the fields and keeping them as free of weeds as possible,” he said.
He speaks of pride in terms of the satisfaction of a well-done job. The Amish take pride in everything they do—making clothes, building furniture, or baking pies.
“We put energy into it. We put pride into it. The little, precise things make a difference,” he said.
Although the high standards of craftsmanship may come with a higher price tag in the store or market, he said local goods made with Amish hands are worth the expense.
“You teach your children to do their best on the farm or in the shop. To put pride into a thing, it makes all the difference in the world if your children can attain that,” he said.
Lapp said the challenge facing the Amish today is whether to diversify commercially, incorporating more technology while responding to a changing economy. More Amish now use computers, email, and cell phones in their daily lives.
He considers the federal case against Miller an indication of the government encroaching on traditional small farming.
“It’s in a sense more [government] management. It’s keeping tabs on the smaller farms too.”
“It could be a lot worse, for sure,” noted Miller, who was recently slapped with an $85,000 penalty for contempt in federal court over his alleged noncompliance with USDA food safety laws.
The government initially sought $300,000 in fines, “so they get paid for harassing us,” Miller said.
“I’m concerned. The regulations are a burden. You can’t be true farmers,” he said.
The 4,000 members who purchase his unpasteurized milk, fresh meat, and poultry pay a one-time $35 fee.
“We take it back to the natural way of farming. The members love our products because of that mindset,” Miller said.
“We’re not here to be money collectors. We want the right to farm.”
Miller believes “if God wanted pasteurized milk, He would have put a pasteurizer on the dairy cow. We’ve completely intervened as humans and made things unhealthy.”
Product quality, and safety, begin to suffer when animals are confined in a poor environment with little sunlight and access to clean, natural feed hay, he said.
“If they’re on an unnatural diet—if they’re just fed corn and soybeans—that’s completely unnatural. But if you take that back to where God has put the animal out in the pasture, roaming around, in the sunshine, and you don’t use chemicals or harsh fertilizers on the soil, it actually is an extreme benefit and medicine in the raw milk from the cattle out on pasture.”
Miller’s troubles began in 2016 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) identified listeria in raw milk at Miller’s farm.
Listeria is a disease-causing bacteria in harvested, packaged, or processed food, whose flu-like symptoms can last for days or weeks.
The FDA reported two people became sick with listeriosis after allegedly consuming milk from Miller’s farm, and one of them died.
Miller argues there was never any clear link between his milk and the cited instances of contamination and illness by the government.
“Our members concluded that preservative-free is the best,” Miller told The Epoch Times.
“If you use preservatives on the meat, how can the body break it down? It’s so preserved the body can’t break it down, and the body starves to death because the body isn’t getting true value in preservatives.”
A USDA investigation resulted in the government seizing more than 3,000 pounds of Miller’s meat and poultry from his 55-acre property in 2019.
On April 4, 2019, U.S. Attorney William McSwain announced a civil lawsuit to prevent Miller’s farm from “continuing to violate federal food safety laws.”
Miller’s case drew the support of his members and the public, garnering thousands of dollars through various online fund-raisers.
“My grandfather took a stand in the 1950s and 60s against sending his children past the eighth grade,” Miller said.
“He went to jail for that. He stood strong in faith. His goal was to keep children on the farm. He could teach them on the farm—keep them away from worldly views. He set a great example. My goal is to do the same.
“It’s hard to make a living and deal with the modern ways the government promotes.”
Miller said the USDA wants him to devise an intervention plan to bring him into compliance. He disagrees in principle and faith.
“They want us to get a license to comply with all the rules and regulations. We feel it is the wrong direction. They can change it all and pick on a farm and see something wrong and pull the license. You’re out,” Miller said.
An agency spokesman told The Epoch Times, the “USDA does not comment on ongoing litigation.”
Next to his faith, organic farming travels close to biblical teachings, said Miller, who regards the land as a gift and blessing.
As a steward of the land, he considers organic food healthier since it does not have chemicals and preservatives in processed food.
“We believe in staying intact with nature. That’s very important. You get closer to creation with farming,” Miller said.
“I still think the old-fashioned way is the best. Horse farming is ideal. Horses take no gasoline, and they create fertilizer for the soil. A true farmer believes in feeding the microbes in the soil. If we don’t have any microbes, we are done with producing food for our nation.”
In Lititz, Pennsylvania, a quiet farming community about 13 miles from Bird-in-Hand, Jesse Stoltzfus said the reality for many Amish now is “we all can’t be farmers.”
“So, if the father isn’t home as much, it’s not as much a community as it was years back. We all have jobs,” said Stoltzfus, 32, sporting the traditional bowl-shaped Amish haircut and long beard signifying he is married.
He and his wife have three young children. Stoltzfus dons the same simple clothing style other male Amish congregation members wear: black pants and jacket, a bright straw hat with a black headband.
Stoltzfus raises 400 chickens on 16 acres. He wants to do more with animals rather than grow produce because of the water supply. He works at a nearby farm selling farm seed, fertilizer, and animal nutrition.
“I’m still connected with agriculture,” said Stoltzfus. “I want to work at home. That’s my goal. I’m gravitating toward that.”
Stoltzfus said that every Amish community member chooses whether or not to join the local church and get baptized, or to raise children like any other family.
Most children join a youth group when they turn 16 to search for a future spouse. However, some young people may choose to experience life in the outside world of the English, but that percentage is low, he said.
“I’m going to say everyone at that certain age—whether you’re Amish or not—needs to figure out certain things, whether to join a church or not,” Stoltzfus said.
“Technically, they don’t leave. They still dress Amish and have the Amish haircut and all that for the most part.”
Stoltzfus said the Amish way of life offers stability and a sense of belonging that only exists to a different degree among outsiders.
“I had wonderful parents. The most powerful thing to keep someone in the family is unity and peace. For most, it’s unity and togetherness in the family and community. That’s hard to find anywhere else.”
The COVID-19 pandemic made people more aware of the importance of good nutrition, he said.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to know where their food came from. “So, they will support their local farmers as much as they can. I think that’s great,” Stoltzfus told The Epoch Times.
On traditional farming, Stoltzfus said the outside pressure to modernize is felt within the Amish community. More small farmers are now moving toward regenerative agriculture and raising their food.
“People are becoming more aware of the harm conventional farming is doing. All Amish farming equipment is horse-drawn, but limiting in some respects,” Stoltzfus said.
“A farm will be more sustainable if you share equipment. It will be more resilient. If you don’t share equipment, that’s where the challenge comes in financially.”
“With tourism, if you want to make a living on a smaller scale, you can—better than many places because we can get more pounds per acre. A better yield than a lot of places,” Stoltzfus said.
He said he supports Miller in his legal battle with the federal government.
“I respect him for what he’s doing. He will open it up for the community if he sticks to his beliefs. He’s opening the gateway for all of us. In my opinion, what he’s doing is not illegal.”
When COVID-19 swept across the country in 2020, Lancaster County’s Amish community was not immune to the virus. The owner of Old Windmill Farm said there were deaths associated with the coronavirus.
The religious enclave became one of the first to achieve “herd immunity,” according to news outlets.
Most Amish in Lancaster County chose not to get a vaccine, the farm owner said.
In Ronks, a local welding shop owner expressed his mixed feelings on the government’s handling of the pandemic.
“Honestly, when that pandemic hit, I trust to say the majority of our people sort of hit panic mode,” he said.
“All of a sudden, we were faced with a pandemic. I was like, ‘This is the real thing. We need to take care of this and keep our social distancing.”
The shop owner said the local church suspended Sunday services, which raised questions about how and when to reopen.
“The bishop of our church came around and said we were going to have church—this was after the pandemic hit.
“We skipped church a few times in this district. And then, we decided to have church again, and they left it up to each individual whether to shake hands,” the shop owner said.
“I went to church that morning and decided I wouldn’t shake hands. Some people were shaking [hands], some people weren’t. These little children came around and looked up at me and wanted to shake my hand. I held my hand back.
“I regret that to this day.”
The Old Windmill Farm owner said the virus helped unite the Amish community and strengthen their faith.
“The Amish are very cautious—as all Christian groups are. The Bible talks about what’s to come. We’re always cautious about things coming up—cautious about the COVID thing. Cautious about the vaccines. We’re always cautious about things against the Bible and our faith,” he said.
Today the question is the degree to which the Amish wish to have contact with the larger society of the English.
The farm owner said many adults would prefer to remain faithful to the past and adapt as they must.
“Most Amish kids are uncomfortable with the outside world because they’re not exposed to it,” he said.
For Miller, it’s a matter of keeping traditional organic farming central to the Amish way of life free of an intrusive federal government.
“The government giving us a hard time united us as a community. It made us stronger—together. The goal of Amish leaders is to keep families on the farm. That keeps the community together. It brings us closer to nature. That’s an important thing in our community,” Miller said.
“Sometimes, when you go through a trial, it puts you in a better relationship with God. I feel this has put me in a better relationship with God. God does things for a reason.”
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