Ask an Amishman: How self-sufficient are the Amish?

When you read or watch something about the Amish, you might be told that they live separately from the world. It may be further implied or stated that the Amish are a self-sufficient people.

Likewise, some seem to assume Amish wake to days full of churning butter, cobbling shoes, and forging metal goods. Seeing an Amish person filling a cart in Wal-Mart can send these folks into shock.

In response to today’s question, John Stoltzfus addresses the realities of these assumptions. As John noted in a previous post, given Amish diversity, he will try to answer questions with a general approach.

How dependent are they on the outside world? Are they able to be completely self sufficient? 

John responds:

We are very dependent on the outside world, far from self-sufficient, all of us are intertwined and highly dependent of the infrastructure of the USA.  A partial list is below, however, not with any order in mind:

The Primaries (Infrastructure): Federal, State and Local Governments, Banking, Postal Service, Energy, Local Law Enforcement, Local Emergency Equipment & Personnel, Hospitals, etc.

The Secondaries (Raw Material Processing): Steel Processing & Manufacturing, Lumber & Building Materials, Appliance Manufacturing, Small & Large Engine Manufacturing, Housewares, Cloth, Sewing Machines, Glassware, Seed Supply, Hardware, Taxi Service, etc.

Where we are possibly self-sufficient is in producing sellable products from the above Secondaries, such as Farming Equipment, Clothing, Furniture, Carriages, Stoves, Pumps, etc.

We are definitely more apt to appear that way, because most of our manufacturing is small and local, and we can raise our own food and process that food to supply our families with enough to eat.

While “most” people may imagine the Amish as being self-sufficient, that isn’t more than a fantasy. The above list is only a partial list of the important aspects in our everyday lives (including all people) that keep our country going. If you take away any of the Primaries, subsequently most of the others will also eventually fail.


John Stoltzfus is a father of five and member of a Pennsylvania Old Order Amish community. John works in product design for a local farm supply company. In his spare time he creates computer-generated art, which you can view here.

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    1. Alice Aber


      Thank you for your input John!! It certainly puts a lot of things in perspective. I don’t believe anyone can be 100% self sufficient today but the Amish and many other modern day “homesteaders” certainly come a lot closer than most of us. I have always had a dream and keep moving slowly towards being more self sufficient. Obviously, I will never fully arrive at that goal, but I do hope to get close.

      I think most people do not realize just how reliant the Amish have become on the outside world. But it is the nature of the beast for survival. It has always seemed to me to be a contradiction in terms to say they are seperated from the world when most Amish communities in tourist areas particularly rely on the outside world to buy their goods and support their way of life. The gap of being seperate has certainly narrowed considerably over the years.

      Thanks again for your comments!!

      Blessings, Alice

      1. Nature of the beast

        It’s a good observation Alice, your comments on the nature of the beast. The stories coming out now on the Amish and the energy industry in PA/OH are an example of related phenomenon.

        I guess not all choose to take that tack though that may mean moving away and living a less materially well off life.

        I also think John’s second to last paragraph is key to this. When more and more Americans are dependent on others for nearly every basic need, even being able to provide for some of those basics (as even the most ‘plugged in’, non-farming Amish still do by having a garden and canning), creates the impression that they are relatively less dependent. And those of us who get our canned goods from a shelf in Kroger get to ooh and aah a little over it 🙂

    2. Culinary shortcuts

      I’ve seen Amish shoppers at the supermarket putting mixes and other convenience foods in their carts. I’ve even seen a mix for shoo-fly pie at a Mennonite bulk-food store in Berlin, OH.

    3. Lattice

      Thank you for your insight, John. Sometimes I think that worldly people confuse the terms “simple/simplicity” with “self-sufficiency.”

      Regardless, most people realize how much better equipped the Amish are at taking care of their own needs. I don’t think anybody would argue against that.

      1. Some Amish are more self-sufficient than others

        I haven’t asked John his opinion on this, but I’d think the more traditional the Amish group becomes, the closer to “self-sufficiency” you’d get…with less purchasing consumer goods and less reliance on conventional doctors, replaced by more traditional remedies and doctoring.

        But self-sufficiency is a myth even for the most conservative Amish. For example even the low Swartzentruber communities need an English-run cheese house to sell their grade B milk to (and as a market for the other products many of them sell).

        1. John


          Yes, I think your observation is right on. The area I think the Amish/Mennonites are possibly self sufficient is their education system and a helping hand if someone experiences any trouble, be it fire, sickness, mental, long term care, to name a few….

    4. Valerie

      In my county, the Amish Produce Auction has probably almost saved the Amish community because the Englishers come, supermarkets come, health food markets come, and I was told they would really be bad off at this point had that not developed so God did provide-one hand washes the other.

      In Holmes County they shop for everything in the supermarkets we do from what I noticed-I’ve taken Amish shopping before and they bought boxed cake mixes, etc. I don’t think I ever saw an Amish persons shopping cart without a big ol bag of potato chips-that must be a favorite.

    5. Alice Mary

      Amish inspiration

      I find the Amish way of life inspirational to me. I’ve taken some tiny “baby steps” toward self-sufficiency, thanks to them, yet my aging body is needing to be more reliant on others (doctors, physical therapists, pharmacists, etc.). However, Amish influence has helped me to slow down and smell the flowers (or manure?) more often, and stop running (or thinking ahead, almost constantly) and rest my tired brain!

      I hope they can maintain some modicum of self-sufficiency in the future (who else will be my inspiration?).

      Alice Mary

    6. Barb

      When the most recent economic downturn began, there was some discussion that the Amish weren’t being affected because they were “separate” from the world. While I personally disagreed with that thinking, I did check with an Amish friend and asked her thoughts on this idea.

      She said — “What do people think, that we just sell to each other? We are absolutely affected by the economic downturn. We sell to non-Amish — that’s how we get our money to live.” Specifically, in her case, her husband had been employed by an Amish builder who did roof framing for developments. When houses were no longer being built, he started doing remodels but that business lessened and he was eventually laid off. A friend of her’s husband worked for an Amish “shed and gazebo” builder. They totally stopped making gazebos. In Tourist Lancaster county, many of the Amish home businesses were affected by the decrease in tourists, and those who did come, spent less on souviners because of the higher cost of gas and lodging.

      The Amish are self sufficient is a myth, as are the statements “the Amish don’t believe in cars and electricity.” In the latter statements, it would be more accurate to say the Amish don’t own or drive cars (they will readily ride in them here) and the Amish generate their own electricity rather than being on public power.

    7. Annmarie

      When you read or watch something about the Amish, reference is often made to how they live separately from the world

      I always thought of this as a reference to their spiritual habits. They live in this world but are not of it. They definitely are much more self sufficient than the average American. They truly inspire me to try to achieve a certain level of simplicity. My family knows how much I admire the Amish way and will usually say ” do the Amish use that or need that?” I sometimes use this as a gage to whether I should make a purchase :). Generally, based on that rule of thumb, you will figure out you really do not need that item.

      1. Separate vs. self-sufficient

        I think you are right and the phrase “separate from the world” most often is referring to the spiritual or religious side Annmarie.

        But hearing someone described as separate from the world and then seeing a rural people who haven’t completely lost the ability to do things like can food and do manual tasks, it is easy to make the assumption that they are “separate” in everything else too and that is the leap I think some observers make. But as John’s examples show separate doesn’t mean anything like fully detached.

        If we look at it as reducing consumerism the average Amish are still probably doing a good bit better compared to the average American.

        1. Amish consumerism

          If we look at it as reducing consumerism the average Amish are still probably doing a good bit better compared to the average American.

          I just have to reply to your comment… You obviously have not seen the same Amish women shopping that I have.. They make my head spin.. They come in van loads of course.. we’re about 25ish miles from the Middlefield/Burton area.. they come to Mentor 4 & 5 van loads at a time. They hit Gabriel Brothers, Ollies, and Big Lots (Walmart & Kmart too)… They leave with so much stuff that most of the vans have horse trailers behind them to hold their goods.
          I’ll be the first to say to each their own.. but I laugh when I see them carrying out armloads of really wild patterns & colored comforters, sheet sets & the like.. They also like to buy Christmas geegaws and kitchen goods too.. I usually meet up with them in the kitchen wares departments.. hehe.. Im guilty of that one.

          I guess I dont personally see the Amish as being self-sufficient at all.. but I do see them as socially and religiously separate.. and still clinging to old ways in many things which could look like self-sufficiency on the surface.

    8. Carol


      I’ve wondered, too, about what I see a group of Amish women buying at the Salvation Army resale shop. Unless they’re buying up the wild prints to tear up for cleaning rags, it just doesn’t go along with the way they’re dressed in public !

      1. Mark - Holmes Co.

        Reading the previous two comments was interesting. We live in Holmes Co. and see women from the Geauga Co. community (MIddlefield) come down here to shop. They definitely have a different lifestyle & tastes from what we are used to. They favor brighter and flashier things than I see in most homes in our area.
        On bags of clothing from thrift stores, a lot of that gets cut into strips for carpet weaving or reused as comforter patches. We like carpets made of denim for our “wash house” doors and there are added bands of bright colors woven in. That’s my guess.

    9. jamie

      self sufficient

      how many amish use wood and coal for there heating needs and what is there choice of stoves they do use ? thankyou . j saldusky