The Lessons of Amish Agriculture
To talk about Amish agriculture is to talk about traditional agriculture.
Its origins date back to Europe, yet innovations and improvements
have constantly been added along the way. The Amish are not necessarily
anti-technologists. We have simply chosen not to be controlled by
Amish farming has been handed down from parents to children for
so many generations that the reasons for doing so are almost forgotten.
For example, the rotations of our field crops work so well that
they're seldom questioned. This is a four or five year rotation
with corn in a given field every fourth or fifth year. The corn
is followed with oats. In the falls after the oats are harvested
the stubble is plowed and wheat sowed. This is then top-seeded the
following March or April with legume seeds using a hand-cranked
or horn type seeder, usually on frozen ground. This is also the
time we find the early nesting, horned lark's nest. The dropping
seeds cause enough disturbance to flush the incubating bird.
After the wheat is cut and threshed in July, the stubble is mowed,
and almost miraculously, the wheat field converts to a hay field.
The next spring and summer several cuttings of hay are made, and
then the hay field is pastured in the fall. During the winter the
old sod is liberally covered with strawy manure in late winter or
early spring the sod is plowed and in may planted again the corn,
and the rotation or cycle is completed.
From an ecological, angle, what has to be bought and added in the
form of chemicals to raise a crop of corn in a field like this?
Nothing, except the seed corn which is usually treated with a fungicide.
With the legumes converting free nitrogen to the soil from the air,
no extra fertilizer is needed.
Likewise no insecticides are needed in this field, because in corn
following hay there are not crop damaging insects. We have never
used a soil insecticide.
Most of us aren't too concerned if there are some weeds and grasses
in our corn. in fact, I want some there. Occasionally we get summer
thundershowers that dump several inches of rain in half an hour
or less, which is more than even the most absorbent soil can take.
it is during storms like this when we depend on a smattering of
quack grass and sod waterways to hold the top soil.
Preserving the topsoil can be attributed to the tilth of our soils.
Research at Oberlin college shows our traditional, horse-worked
farms absorb almost seven times more water before becoming saturated
than conventional, no-till farms.
At this time no-till farming with its dependence upon vast amounts
of chemicals is being touted as an answer to prayers. This method
is promised to give us green fields forever, but they fail to say
that these green fields will be strangely silent -gone will be the
bobolink, the meadowlarak and the sweet song of the vesper sparrow
in the gloaming.
By farming and living independent of the electrical grid, the amish
are not contributing, at least not directly, to the distruction
of hundreds of farms and communities in southeastern Ohio, where
the Ohio power plants spew out sulfur dioxides which are blamed
as paart of the acid rain soup which is killing forests and lakes
in the adirondacks.
Gary Nabhan wrote in the desert smells like rain about two sonoran
desert oases. The first one in Arizona is dying because the park
service turned it into a bird sanctuary and, in order to preserve
the naturalness, removed the Indians who farmed and lived there.
The other oasis across the border in Mexico is thriving because
it is being tended by a village of Papago Indians as it has been
for a long time. An ornithologist found twice as many species of
birds here than at the bird sanctuary in Arizona.
I think it is the way it is with small-scale diversified farming.
On this type of farm we enhance our place for wildlife rather than
being a setriment into a “wildlife area,” I'm positive
the numbers and species of wildlife would dwindle.
Last week our family did a survey of nesting birds around our farm
buildings. This doesn't include the bobolinks, redwings, meadowlarks
and sparrows in the fields, nor the vireos, tanagers, warblers and
thrushes in the woods, nor the rough-winged swallows and kingfishers
along the creek. Even though the nesting season is over, we still
thought we could get a fairly accurate count of young birds. We
came up with thirteen species and over 1800 young fledglings within
200 feet of our house. As Mr. Nabhan's Indian friend said, “that's
because those birds, they come where the people are. When the people
live and work in a place, plant their seeds, and water their trees,
the birds go live with them. They like those places, there's plenty
to eat, and that's when we are friends to them.”
Wes Jackson has often said, “the pleasantness or unpleasantness
of farm work depends upon scale-upon the size of the field and the
size of the crop.” the Amish have maintained what I like to
think is a proper scale, largely by staying with the horse. The
horse has restricted unlimited expansion. Not only does working
with horses limit farm size, they're ideally suited to family life.
With horses you unhitch at noon to water and feed the teams, and
then the family eats what we still call dinner. While the teams
rest, there is usually time for a short nap. Another fringe benefit
is that God didn't create the horse with headlights, so we don't
work nights. I haven't heard of any of our neighbors calling the
extension service's 800-stress hotline.
We have seventy tillable acres which is more than the average farm
in our community. We couldn't take care of more. With this size
farm, there is usually something to do, yet we are never overwhelmed
by work either.
Under normal conditions, the work is spread out from spring to
fall. The fieldwork begins in March with the plowing of sod. This
is leisurely work, giving the horses plenty of time to become conditioned.
This is our “quiet time,” a time to listen to god and
his creation as we are a part of the unfolding of spring.
April is for plowing corn stalks and sowing oats, spring beauties
and lovely hepatica.
In May, glorious May, we plant the corn, turn the cows and horses
out to pasture and revel in warblers and morel mushrooms.
Hay making is in June, along with strawberries, shortcakes, pies
and jams. The bird migration is over, and summer settles in.
Life and work on the farm peaks in July: threshing, second cutting
hay, transparent apples, new honey, black berries and the first
August already hints of autumn and silo filling. The whine of the
fillers is heard throughout the land. we fill our ten by forty silo
with the help of four neighbors.
Sowing wheat and macintosh apples mean the month of September.
October is corn harvest and cider making and loving the colors
and a serenity only October can offer. As the month draws to a close
so does the fieldwork.
A lot of what you may consider recreation we get on our own farm.
The year is a never-ending adventure. This year we had four firsts:
our first Kentucky warbler for the farm; our first ever luna and
imperial moths; and after waiting for over thirty years, I saw my
first giant swallowtail butterfly.
Probably the greatest difference between Amish and conventional
agriculture is the community life or support we have. Outside of
the two years away from home when I was drafted, I've never lived
anywhere else. But it is easy to see that in non-Amish farming communities
the farmer that farms traditionally is often considered an eccentric,
a person too stubborn to adapt. Around here the conventional farmer
is the unconventional one.
Eight years ago I had an accident which required surgery and a
week in hospital. My wife tells me the first words I told her in
the recovery room were, “get me out of here. The wheat has
to be cut.” Of course she couldn't, and I need not have worried
because we had neighbors.
While my dad bindered the wheat, the neighbors shocked as fast
as he cut. When his team tired, my brother brought his four-horse
team, and by support-time the 12 acre field was cut and shocked.
This year the neighbor that was first to help us last year needed
help. Since a bout of pneumonia a month ago, he hasn't been able
to do much. So last Thursday six teams and mowers cut eleven acres
of alfalfa hay. Then on saturday afternoon with four teams and wagons
and two hay loaders and fifteen men and about as many boys, we had
the hay in his barn in less than two hours.
Actually we spent almost as much time afterwards sitting in a circle
beneath the maple tree with cool drinks and fresh cookies, listening
as one of the neighbors told of his recent trip. He and a friend
visited draft horse breeders in Illinois, Iowa and eastern Nebraska,
and what a story he to tell of nice horses and nice people, of the
worst erosion he had ever seen from those Iowa hills following eight
inches of rain, and how those Iowa farmers rained invective down
on our president. “ach,” he said, “all they want
is more government handouts.”
I couldn't help but think of my young friend we got married last
September, and then bought his dad's machinery and livestock and
rented a farm. He really worked on that debt, milking by hand, selling
grade b milk, tending a good group of sows, cultivating corn twice,
some three times with no herbicides. As he and his wife are now
nearing the end of their first year of farming, most of their debts
are paid off. He didn't tell me this, because he's much too humble,
but he did say to me while threshing, “you know, farming is
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