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Amish farmers become progressive to compete

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A long line of 18-wheelers idle at a big ethanol plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Scott Cole, who’s in his 20s, hops into the cab of his truck after checking in at the plant. He farms 600 acres of corn and soybeans with his dad in Delaware County, Iowa. He admits, without the land in his family, he’d have a hard time being a farmer these days.

“It’d be about impossible. I hate to say it,” Cole says.

That’s because land values out here in farm country are skyrocketing. Last year they jumped 32 percent, and they are still on the rise, though at a slower pace. That makes it tough for small and mid-sized farmers to expand. Cole’s family farm is tiny compared to other farms in the area that have upwards of 20,000 acres. Now, a group of Amish has moved into Delaware County and Cole says they’re great neighbors — but a new form of competitor.

“Those guys have more of an alliance together so they can put their money together to buy ground,” Cole says. “Whereas a lot of us nowadays are individual farmers where it’s tough for one person to put money together to buy ground.”

The Amish have become more progressive just to compete in the marketplace. They may use tractors or hire someone to drive them for construction work.

A group of 20 Amish families moved here because of a Bishop’s rule at their former settlement that men can only work two days a week off the farm. One of those who moved is John Henry Yoder. In addition to organic oats, corn and alfalfa, Yoder sells organic eggs and goat’s milk. To make ends meet, two of his 15 kids have a thriving construction business. Yoder says putting limits on what they can do for work just wasn’t feasible.

“The idea behind it was so that more of the Amish, more of the folks stay on the farm,” Yoder says. “That was a good idea. I think that’s the place to raise your family. But as time goes on things change and not everybody sees it in that perspective.”

To keep his family on the farm, he’d have to get bigger, and with the way he farms, he says he can’t afford to pay the $6,000-$8,000 it costs for an acre of land.

So the Amish have to find other ways to thrive. Donald Kraybill researches Amish life at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He says in the mid-20th century more than 90 percent of Amish households relied on agriculture for their primary income. But come the turn of the century, there were just too many babies and too few acres.

“It would cost typically $2 million for an Amish couple to set up a farming operation with 50-60 acres,” Kraybill says. “So all of those pressures pushed the Amish towards other occupational ventures.”

Adds Iowa State agricultural economist Mike Duffy: “The problems of the Amish are the problems of beginning farmers are the problems of medium sized farmers.”

He says as technology moves forward you need less labor on the farm. While Duffy doesn’t think we’ll see a farmland bubble burst, he says land values will slow down more like a tire that’s hit a nail.

As for Amish farmer John Henry Yoder, he says he wants to expand his farm — but he’s got bigger problems.

“Just having some family time — with high cost of living and a family to support — sometimes we get a little sidetracked by thinking we gotta keep working and working,” Yoder says.

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