The Mad Agriculture Journal
June 01, 2020
Every weekend my wife Hannah and I go to the Amish market in Pennsylvania for fresh-baked donuts—the best in our town. We eat our donuts and wander the aisles of booths selling jars of pickled and fermented vegetables, meats, cheeses, and produce. But on one Saturday, passing a produce stand, Hannah turned to me and said, “What are oranges doing here?”
It was a good question. Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, I had seen Amish farms. They were easy to spot. The buggy, the clothesline, and the absence of electrical wires were tell-tale signs. I had seen the teams of men baling hay by hand, pyramidal mounds dotting fields, unlike the round or rectangular ones created by larger farm machinery. These were sights I had become used to in the Pennsylvania piedmont, but I never once saw an Amish farm with an orange tree.
The sight of citrus fruit that morning, piled high behind a man in a straw hat and long grey beard, pierced through our preconceived notions of where we were and what we were doing.
Our understanding of who the Amish were and what it meant to shop local was challenged. It had always been my understanding—as I had been taught in the fourth grade—that the Amish were subsistence farmers, living on food that they had grown on their own land. Knowing that this fruit could not have been grown in the Northeast in the dead of winter, my vision of the Amish was shattered. The whole market experience began to feel like a scam. I began to wonder if I was seeing the “real thing” or a clever gimmick. At the same time, I wondered if it was any better to shop at the Amish market than the supermarket.
To try to answer these questions and sort out these feelings, I got in touch with Brian Snyder the director of the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) at The Ohio State University and former executive director for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). After years of working in sustainable agriculture in the states with the top two highest Amish populations, if anyone could help answer these questions, it was him. We talked on the phone as he drove to his own small farm in central Pennsylvania.
“There is as much diversity among the Amish as there is among the non-Amish. They have a diverse range of farming practices from organic to industrial and everywhere in between. What they grow and what they buy to sell later are not parts of their religious conviction,” said Snyder. There is a general misconception that the Amish are one homogeneous group. Ultimately, the Amish are subject to the same market forces as everyone else, and their responses to those forces, as seen in their agricultural practices and foodways, are just as variable as “the English,” what they call the non-Amish.
Snyder explained to me that to answer my question about whether or not I was shopping local depended on the definition of local I was using. He said, “On average, every dollar that enters the Amish community, changes hands seven times within the community before leaving it.” The goal is to keep money as local as possible. Local here, does not necessarily mean geographically, but socially and economically. For the Amish, getting money into the community is only a first step. Keeping money in the community, by buying and selling within it, ensures their long-term viability.
The oranges we see may not have been grown geographically close, but they arrived at the market through short supply chains that are socially and economically close. Put differently, not everything sold by the Amish is grown on Pennsylvania farmland (our donuts and coffee are no exception), but the transactions which brought these items to this market have strengthened community bonds. If the fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat, and baked goods at this market are not necessarily produced locally—no less sustainably—the social proximity of their supply chains means that an infrastructure exists that could be used to foster more local, and sustainable production. There is more than one dimension to creating a long-lasting local food movement, and attention to the diversity of dimensions, especially the building of community bonds, will no doubt lead to more vibrant, sustainable food practices.
The Amish do not have a perfect food system, and they should not be romanticized as some sort of ideal primitive, agrarian culture. Between over-fertilization contributing to nutrient runoff and the mistreatment of animals, as many of their critics point out, the Amish model of farming would perhaps do more harm than good if it were universally adopted. Still, their emphasis on social and economic proximity offer us alternative ways to consider how we reach a sustainable future for agriculture. Like the horse-and-buggy shows us, there is more than one way to get where we are going.