Is Amish life “earth-friendly”? How do Amish view and treat animals? How does the Bible influence Amish perspectives of nature? Do Amish people eat an “all-natural” diet?
Nature & The Environment in Amish Life is the new book by David McConnell and Marilyn Loveless. The authors investigate these and many other topics in great depth. One thing is clear: the answers to many of these questions are not cut-and-dry – and are sometimes not at all what you might expect.
In today’s Q-and-A, David and Marilyn answer questions on the Amish, nature, and the environment. They went above and beyond in responding to my questions in much detail. I hope you enjoy, and a special thanks to David and Marilyn.
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David McConnell & Marilyn Loveless on Nature & The Environment in Amish Life
Amish America: What does the book cover? Where did the idea come from, and how much Amish participation was there?
David McConnell & Marilyn Loveless: The book provides a comprehensive look at how the Amish think about nature and how they engage with the natural world at home, school, work, and recreation.
We wanted to get beyond the misconceptions many outsiders have (for example, that the Amish are organic prophets or that they all mistreat their animals) and present a more balanced and humanized view.
Overall, we found that their rural lifestyle provides the Amish with numerous opportunities to be outdoors, but that their “closeness to nature” takes place within a very specific cultural idiom that sees nature as a manifestation of God’s handiwork, created for the benefit of humans.
The idea for the book came during birding trips that David took with Amish friends while he was working on his previous book, An Amish Paradox. And Lyn got interested during a week in Arizona that she and David spent with an Amish family (dad, mom, and three teenagers) when David drove them west on a birding trip.
We had a lot of Amish participation—over 150 interviews with Amish in 12 states and 35 settlements and a survey of Amish and English residents in rural Ohio. The face-to-face conversations were by far the most interesting and fun part of the project! We also accompanied Amish friends or acquaintances to many outdoor events.
Amish America: When people ask if the Amish are environmentally-minded, what answer do you give?
David McConnell & Marilyn Loveless: We tell them that although many Amish practices appear to be, and sometimes are, “environmentally friendly,” they usually don’t have that intent. It’s the English who try to make the Amish into model environmental citizens.
The Amish believe that the natural world was created by God for human use. The Amish see no need to alter their behaviors to try to somehow protect the world they have been given, because God is in charge.
The Amish do pay attention to their natural surroundings, but they don’t subscribe to an environmental agenda. They usually don’t see that their behaviors have caused any problems. Although they mostly comply with regulations about manure management, food safety, and so forth, they generally regard them as unnecessary government overreach, costly and a waste of time.
The Amish we talked with were dismissive of the idea that we are experiencing an environmental crisis. They saw environmentalists as “tree-huggers” and “animal-rights activists” and felt they were guilty of worshipping the Creation rather than the Creator. Where natural resources are concerned, human needs should take precedence over preservation.
Which “Amish practices” are most ecologically-friendly?
The Amish are focused on their family and church district in almost all aspects of their lives, and they draw many of the resources they need from their local landscape. Their patterns of consumption are close-to-home and minimize the transport costs of goods and services that are typical of non-Amish consumers.
We found that Amish were much more likely than English to get their meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products from their own or neighboring farms. They had large gardens, canned and preserved food for later use, and often gathered and hunted wild foods and game. In these ways, the Amish were “locavores” in ways that most English were not.
The Amish also have a more ecologically-friendly transportation profile, in spite of increased van travel and public transport in recent years. Some of the more liberal Amish families may clock 2500 to 5000 or more miles per year, on average, in vans, but they still have a far lower transportation footprint than their English neighbors.
We also found that, compared to their English neighbors, Amish in liberal affiliations were more likely to use solar panels for some home energy needs—but usually not because of an environmental commitment to renewable energy. Rather, solar panels were one of the few methods permitted by the local Ordnung for generating electrical current for small tasks, like recharging batteries.
Which are least ecologically-friendly?
We were surprised at the very high Amish use of natural gas in home heating and lighting, which significantly exceeded that of their English neighbors. While the conservative Swartzentruber households still heat primarily by wood, most other affiliations, including the Andy Weavers, have allowed access to natural gas for home heat.
We speculate that this is partly due to home size. Amish homes were significantly larger than English homes, and families tended to crank up their thermostats. Of course, Amish families also are larger than English families. This may help explain their high heating bills.
In our survey, 70 to 80 percent of non-Amish families reported recycling common materials, compared to much lower rates among Amish households. While 30-40 percent of Amish said they recycled metal and aluminum, for which recycling facilities pay, relatively few Amish families recycled paper, plastic, glass, and cardboard relative to English families.
In part, this may be due to the fact that many Amish do not have curbside pickup, and thus lack infrastructure for easy recycling. When asked, Amish often said that they reused plastic bags, but household recycling was not a strong behavioral pattern among our survey respondents.
How has Amish agriculture changed over time?
One important change that we discuss is the Amish adoption of artificial fertilizers and pesticides in the 1940s and 1950s. Chemical intensive farming was heavily promoted by agricultural extension agents at that time, and it fit with a cultural preference for neatness and straight, clean fields. Today, even the conservative Swartzentruber Amish will allow sprayers in the field.
However, there is a small, but growing, Amish organic dairy and produce movement, which started in Ohio in the 1990s, but has spread to other areas. In our book, we profile one Amish organic farming cooperative in Ohio named Green Field Farms, and we show how the co-op benefits from outsider perceptions that the Amish are wholesome and all-natural.
Technology use on Amish farms has also changed, but in an increasingly diverse manner. The conservative groups have largely held the line on new technologies, while farmers from liberal affiliations have expanded their herds, begun relying on seed consultants, and adopted many technologies that enable them to stay competitive in the Grade A milk market.
Another big change has been the rise among the Amish of poultry and hog farming using a confined feeding approach. Some of these poultry operations raise more than 30,000 birds at a time. Amish farms still don’t approximate the size and technology of industrial agricultural operations, but it does seem necessary to re-think the label “small-scale” as it applies to some Amish farms.
In what ways are the Amish involved in the wood products industry?
Wood is incredibly important to Amish communities. Many Amish are skilled carpenters and cabinet makers, but others work in less obvious parts of the wood products industry, such as on logging crews or in sawmills. In some Amish communities in the eastern U.S., 50 percent or more of families work in the area of forestry and wood products.
Most of the available timber in the eastern U.S. is on private land. Amish timber buyers travel widely to find potential woodlots and negotiate with landowners for rights to harvest their timber. Amish logging crews then cut the timber based on the contract with the landowner. While a few Amish still do horse logging, most Amish loggers use chainsaws and gasoline-powered heavy equipment, such as grapples, tractors, and log loaders, in the woods.
Traditional Amish loggers do a relatively heavy cut, taking every tree larger than a certain size (sometimes 12” in diameter, sometimes larger). Forests cut in this way take a long time to recover. Some Amish loggers harvest more conservatively, using best-management practices, to leave the forest relatively intact for hunting or for future harvests.
Furniture makers work largely from components, which come from a huge number of small shops throughout the settlement. Some shops make only chair legs; other specialize in table tops; others make drawers to set dimensions. Assembly shops then utilize these components to craft final products. Shops throughout the community have agreed on a standardized set of styles and stains, so consumers can be assured that pieces from different retailers will match.
In western Amish settlements, the wood products industry is totally different, because western conifer forests do not produce hardwoods. Most timber in the west is either in national forests or in huge private holdings of major timber companies like Weyerhauser. Amish mills cannot compete with big timber companies for access to logs. But some Amish cut pole-sized Douglas fir, and there is a local industry in rustic log furniture and fence poles in the Montana and Colorado Amish settlements.
How are the Amish involved with animals from a business or economic standpoint? How does the Amish view of animals differ from, or resemble, the “English” view?
Raising livestock has always been part of the Amish tradition, but as farming has declined, other kinds of animal husbandry have become an appealing alternative. These operations don’t need much land, and the business can be run from the home, often with the participation of the whole family. Animal breeding can also be very lucrative.
Dog raising has gone from a small sideline to a major occupation for Amish in communities across the U.S. Many raise AKC breeds, while others specialize in popular hybrid puppies that are appealing to the English market, like labradoodles or pomskies. Amish dog kennels have come under scrutiny in the past for focusing more on profit than on the welfare of the animals. Regulations have been tightened recently in many states, and Amish are becoming more attentive to English sensibilities in dog breeding.
Well-bred horses are also new to the animal breeding landscape. Amish breeders may specialize in draft horse, standard-breds, or trotters, making careful crosses to enhance favored traits. In the case of trotters, colts with racing potential are either sold or sent to trainers to groom them for the track. After their racing career is over, they often return to the Amish community, where they are in demand as “fancy” buggy horses. Horses have taken on a new role in more liberal Amish communities as sources of recreation, status, and investment.
Deer breeders use similar principles in their captive herds to produce young bucks with impressive antlers. Like fine stallions, bucks with outstanding headgear are widely sought after, and a buck with dramatic antlers can earn his owner a substantial income as a breeder, through the sale of semen straws or does bred to the buck. Two or three-year old “shooter” bucks are sold to high-fence hunting operations, where they are in demand by hunters who pay large sums for the chance to harvest a deer with a spectacular rack.
The Amish think of animals as elements of the natural world that have value and that can provide them with a good living. Animals are commodities; they are livestock. The Amish are generally unsentimental about animals because they do not have souls. In most cases, animals are handled humanely, since losing animals to poor treatment is bad business. But some Amish may cut corners, in order to keep expenses down.
Many Amish regard their animals with a certain affection. However, they are not given the coddling that many English, especially dog owners, lavish on their pets. And some Amish are critical of these occupational choices. Said one Amish man, “Is there an opportunity there? Absolutely. But I wouldn’t feel right. If we go back to our roots, this isn’t what we want.”
In what ways do the Amish engage in nature as a means of recreation?
The Amish are engaged in lots of outdoor recreation at home and in their travels, and their enjoyment takes on many forms: camping, volleyball, softball, hunting, gardening, stargazing, fishing, birding, foraging for edible plants, looking for sheds (deer antlers), and much more. Their travels and outdoor hobbies introduce them to a wide variety of landscapes and social settings that expand their cultural experiences with non-Amish lifestyles.
Amish recreational activities are often gendered, but one growing co-educational option among the Old Order Amish in Ohio and Indiana is recreational horseback riding. At one benefit trail ride, we watched in amazement as the Saddle-up Cowgirls, a group of 13-15 year-old girls, did a choreographed riding performance, four girls dressed in pink and four in blue, with matching leggings for their horses. Because girls typically ride in jeans or sweatpants under their dresses, however, concerns about modesty prevent some Amish groups from encouraging this hobby.
Many Amish in the more liberal affiliations are also writing about or drawing nature, and they are publishing their works in a growing number of Amish-edited subscription periodicals. These Amish nature writers draw from a cultural toolkit, which usually includes relating a personal experience in nature, presenting factual information about nature, and using nature to tell a morality tale or to celebrate God’s handiwork.
With the exception of well-known Amish author David Kline, however, Amish nature writers rarely venture into the territory of “environmental writing,” which explores the collision between humans and the natural world.
Could you tell us something about two popular pastimes, birding and hunting? How widespread are each of these? Are they seen more often in certain Amish communities, age groups, or genders (etc.)?
Hunting is a longstanding and widespread pastime, but it has changed a lot in recent years because of technological advances. Many Amish now hunt with state-of-the-art crossbows, and one man told us, “Trail cameras–just about every Amish hunter uses them.” It’s not uncommon for Amish to buy or lease land near their home only for hunting. Amish girls sometimes hunt with their families, but they usually stop once they marry.
Birding has caught on in many Amish communities in the past couple of decades, and parents may promote it as a healthy pastime for their sons who they see as too focused on competitive sports or “running around” with peers. Amish birders tend to go “all out” when they are in the field, and they’ve gained a reputation among non-Amish birders for spotting and reporting rarities at a very high rate. But few Amish women are birders.
Hunting and birding are definitely seen more often in certain age groups and communities than others. The younger men tend to do the big-game hunting trips out West; in Rexford, Montana, we were told that young Amish men often move there just to pursue their hunting passion. For a variety of reasons, birding got started in the Holmes County settlement and remains very strong there, but birding hotlines run by Amish are also popping up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
What are some of the differences across the different Holmes County Amish groups, regarding their practices and attitudes towards nature and the environment?
When we surveyed Amish and English in rural Ohio about their attitudes toward environmental issues, we found that Amish from the Andy Weaver, Old Order, and New Order affiliations all demonstrated a relative skepticism toward environmental issues. In contrast, English respondents were, on average, more environmentally concerned.
For example, all Amish groups tended to disagree that the human population was reaching a limit; they felt that the earth had plenty of resources, and they tended to disagree that the needs of other species should be considered in human decisions. On such matters, the underlying belief system among different Amish affiliations is rather similar.
However, we also discovered a spectrum of practices that followed the “conservative to liberal” gradient. In general, the more conservative groups do not travel as widely or freely for recreational purposes, and they are less conversant with global environmental issues. They are much more likely to have remained in farming, and their interactions with nature are far less mediated by technology. They are likely to have larger gardens, can more food, and in general have a more self-sufficient home economy.
Our study made it clear that the most conservative Amish do, in fact, practice a lifestyle that is local, relatively energy efficient, and low in consumption. This is the “ecological” ideal that the non-Amish imagine; however, it is based not on concern about earth’s resources, but on an Ordnung that strictly emphasizes separateness, tradition, and pre-technological ways of living.
Members of more liberal affiliations are much more likely to pursue nature-based occupations that cater to the desires and the purchasing power of non-Amish society. Some of their practices are difficult to distinguish from their non-Amish neighbors. They travel more, have higher consumption rates, and engage in more frequent interactions with the English world.
Overall, we were amazed by the wide diversity of practices that we found among Amish in different affiliations and settlements across the U.S.
What surprising or unexpected insights or discoveries did you have while researching and writing the book?
We encountered dozens of surprises but here are a few that stand out:
Some Amish consume a lot of commercial vitamin and mineral supplements! And they often use scientific language to justify their use of “natural” medicines.
Most Amish children maintain daily and direct contact with animals and nature and have thus far likely escaped the more negative effects of a sedentary, media-saturated lifestyle.
The Amish are very observant of natural phenomena but generally interpret them in ways that fit with their biblical framework, such as the idea that snakes are the embodiment of the devil, or that more frequent strong storms might presage the “end times” of Revelation.
The large majority of Amish do not accept the science around climate change, regarding it as a hoax, despite their close observations of the natural world.
Many Amish farms in the Midwest have come under increased scrutiny by regulatory agencies for their roles in contributing to watershed pollution, but there are some encouraging examples of Amish cooperation with local government agencies to combat agricultural runoff.
In general, the Amish we talked with were not very familiar with native wild plants and, with a few exceptions, didn’t know plants outside their garden very well.
Most Amish are suspicious of science, because they worry it will take them into territory that will challenge their biblical beliefs. But they use the fruits of science all the time, though they do so selectively.
The Amish world is very interconnected: people everywhere know people everywhere. Personal networks are very active and strong between communities across the U.S.
Nature & The Environment in Amish Life is available at Amazon among other places.
UPDATE: We have a winner for the book giveaway. I drew a number at random using random.org. The winner is comment #37, Maureen. Congrats Maureen, just email me where you’d like to have the book sent. Thanks to the authors and everyone who participated, and I hope you’ll check out the book.