Amish men enjoy growing barns

By David Kline *

Some time ago, the editor of a "Back to Nature" magazine asked me to write an article about traditional smallholder agriculture - the advantages as well as the disadvantages of such a life. I couldn't get that out of my head all summer because, to be honest, I couldn't think of a single disadvantage.

What do you learn, if you learn anything at all, from our way of farming? Is it an agriculture that protects the soil, water, air, flora and fauna, protects families and the community? Or to put it another way: Are we the keepers of creation? Do we live in harmony with God and nature?

Amish agriculture is a traditional form of agriculture that dates back to 18th century Europe, passed down from generation to generation, but continuously renewed and improved in the process. We Amish are not against modern technology per se, we just decided not to let it control us.

Amish agriculture is perhaps best seen through the eyes of a "stranger" who is not part of the Amish community, as many of the ways we work are immersed in us that we have practically forgotten why we work this way. For example, the crop rotation we do here in eastern Ohio is working so well that we no longer question it. In our four or five year turn, a field is cultivated with maize every fourth or fifth year. Here I should mention that the Amish farming I'm talking about is practiced in our communities in Ohio, northern Indiana, southern Michigan, and possibly southern Ontario. Other Amish congregations in other states work - with many similarities - possibly a little differently in the details.

In our crop rotation, oats follow corn. In the autumn after the oats are harvested, the stubble is plowed and wheat is sown. Legumes are then planted on the wheat in March or April. The sowing is done with a manual or a horn sowing machine. The ear larks are already nesting on the mostly frozen ground, but sowing frightens the breeding birds, and so we know where the nests are and can simply walk around them.

After the wheat has been harvested and threshed in July, the stubble is mowed and miraculously a meadow is created. In the next spring and summer, the grass is mown and dried into hay several times, and in the autumn the meadow is used as pasture. In a five-year crop rotation, a field is a hay meadow for two years in a row. In winter the ground is covered generously with straw-rich manure. In late winter or early spring, plowing is done and maize is sown again in May. The cycle starts all over again.

What chemicals do you have to buy and apply in order to get a decent corn harvest in such a field? None, except for the fungicides that the corn seeds are usually treated with before we buy them. The legumes are already a good source of nitrogen as they convert nitrogen in the air and make it usable for the soil. In addition, there are approx. 37.5 t per hectare, which in addition to the other plant food supplies 15 kg of nitrogen per ton. In short: we don't need artificial fertilizers. However, most Amish farmers apply 50 to 75 kg of low-nitrogen fertilizer, around 5-20-20, per hectare as starter plant food. But I also know many farmers who do not buy fertilizers for their maize, but still get an excellent harvest.

Insecticides are also not needed, because if the maize is followed by hay, there are no harmful insects. We have never used soil insecticides. Sometimes, when it is very wet, snails can become a problem in the corn seed. But the first tillage destroys their burrows, and by the time the slow animals have gathered for their second attack, the corn has grown so far that the snails can no longer harm it.

Soil cultivation not only makes short work of the snails, but also of the weeds. Most Amish farmers are not "pure" organic farmers, which means that they do use herbicides against weeds in maize. But compared to conventional corn farmers, Amish farmers use very few herbicides. One of my neighbors last used $ 11 worth of crop protection products - not per acre but on all of his corn. He only ever sprays the rows, he catches the weeds between the rows with the cultivator.

Most of us don't worry about a little bit of weeds or grass in the corn. Personally, I even think it's good, because sometimes several centimeters of rain come down in less than half an hour in summer thunderstorms - that's more than the most absorbent soil can handle, and then I'm happy when the couch grass holds the crumb.

Researchers at Oberlin College have found that the quality of our crumb is a result of the bottom cooking. Our traditionally tilled soil with horses absorbs more than seven times as much water as the unploughed soil in conventional agriculture.

Unplowed soil, which, however, requires enormous amounts of chemicals, is often touted by experts as a guarantor of evergreen fields. What the experts don't say, however, is that the evergreen fields will always be mute. The rice blackbird, the meadow lark, the song of the evening hammer in the twilight - that's over.

A young farmer recently told me how happy he was last spring that two pairs of rice starling were nesting in one of his fields in which he was going to sow unploughed corn. At first he hesitated to spray the seeds with a pesticide, but then remembered the film that the salesman of the chemical company had shown: There it was said that unploughed soil improves the living conditions for the animals. It sprayed - and shortly afterwards the ricebirds disappeared. Since he did not hear the happy song of the birds in the neighboring fields either, he is fairly certain that the animals have perished.

Another disadvantage of ploughless tillage is the fact that it severely limits the farmer's options. If it rains too much or too little, both of which usually impair the effectiveness of the pesticide, or if there is a plague of worms or snails, the farmer cannot work the soil and has to use even more pesticides. I heard some time ago that in late spring and early summer every raindrop in the eastern corn belt contains particles of "lasso," a commonly used corn herbicide that may be carcinogenic. You should love your neighbor - and make him sick?

But agribusiness advocates call it progress. First and foremost, it's probably profit ... for the company. A board member of One Soil Conservation Service (SCS) said: "The Amish are too unscientific to understand correct soil management in all its complexities and should therefore learn to listen to outside advisors." The expert, who was trained at a university in which the vocabulary primarily consists of input, output, hectic eater, work is a burden, cash flow and profit, said the expert, who was trained at a university, where work is a burden, cash flow and profit: “No plowing is for everyone Fall easier than plowing. "

Now I have to make a confession: I like to plow for my parts. Just last year the SCS technician said in all seriousness that if I switch to the “plowless”, I no longer have to plow and my son or I could work in the factory and earn money instead. Between the lines that should mean that the additional income will improve our quality of life.

The thought is completely alien to me. Instead of working the land in the traditional way, which requires the help of almost all family members, should we send our sons to the factory to support dad's farming hobby? Shall we abandon nonviolent agriculture developed in Europe and refined in America by what Wendelly Berry calls "Generations of Experience"? Shall we abandon a type of agriculture that protects communities and the land that is ecologically and spiritually healthy? Should we give this up for an agriculture that causes enormous damage, culturally and ecologically?

Like I said, I love plowing. Plowing is more than turning the earth around. I can't really describe it - but when I plow I feel like I'm part of a whole. At the beginning of spring, it is my son and I, each with a team that “wants out” just as we do, who plow the soft earth; we feel its coolness, its structure. We are happy about the mountain pipit and the sandpipers eagerly pecking in the fresh, rich earth. And when we take a break for the horses and ourselves, my son tells me about the joys and drama of his teenage years.

Maybe I'm blind, but no matter how I look at it, plowing is not a drudgery. And I am convinced that if you work the soil carefully, erosion is not a problem either.

A few years ago, at the beginning of spring or actually in late winter, after a week of unusually warm weather, Dennis Weaver, our neighbor, could no longer resist the urge. He had to go out and plow. I noticed it by accident when on the way to the barn the smell of the freshly plowed earth rose to my nose. I stopped, smelled like a dog and just enjoyed it: the promise of spring.

If I didn't plow, I could cultivate my neighbor's 20 hectares in addition to my land and he would finally be “free” to work in the factory. I know I couldn't do it as excellently as he did, and I would miss the lush smell of his fertile soil. Worst of all: I would miss him.

We can learn a lot from the small-scale and diversified agriculture. If you work and manage like the Amish, you make the country more attractive to the animals. I'm pretty sure if we left our farm and the land was turned into a "nature reserve", both biodiversity and animal numbers would decrease.

If the fields are sown all the way to the roadside and the strip of fields is cleaned and sprayed, which even some Amish do, especially in regions with high land prices, this definitely has an impact on fauna and flora. In addition to the variety of fruits and the minimal use of pesticides, there should be some rampant fence strips in which numerous animals can live, from the cat thrush to the cottontail rabbit. Also forest edges with bushes and undergrowth, water drains, trees around the buildings, orchards, wild and cultivated flowers, perhaps a piece of fallow land - all of this offers animals shelter and habitat.

In The Desert Smells Like Rain Gary Nabhan writes about two oases in the Sonoran Desert: The first, in Arizona, has been converted into a bird sanctuary. In an attempt to make the oasis attractive to wildlife, the Indians who lived and farmed there were relocated. The result? The oasis died. The other oasis, located on the Mexican side of the border and cultivated by Papago Indians for a long time, is flourishing and thriving. An ornithologist counted twice as many birds there as in the bird sanctuary in Arizona.

Last week our family took stock of the nesting birds on our farm. This includes neither the rice blackbird, red thrush, meadow lark and sparrow in the fields, nor the vireos, tanagers, wood warbler and thrushes in the woods, or the ruffed swallows and whelks by the brook. We counted more than 1,800 chicks of 13 species within a radius of 60 m from the buildings. This includes a colony of 250 pairs of rock swallows under the eaves of the barn. And as Nabhan's Indian friend said: “The birds go where the people are. If people live and work somewhere, sow plants, water trees, then the birds live with them. They like these places because there is enough food and then they make friends with us. "

We manage the land the way we do because we want to feed and feed the whole community, not just the people, but the land and wildlife too. Since we Amish live and work independently of electricity, we are not directly contributing - I hope we are - to the destruction of hundreds of farms and communities in southeastern Ohio, where the Ohio Power Company uses the open pit mine to mine coal for their power plants on the Ohio River feeds. Not only do these plants destroy farmers, they also emit sulfur oxides, which contribute to the acid rain that kills the forests in the northeast and the lakes in the Adirondacks.

The Amish traditionally only have as much land as they can work with their family. Few farms have more than 30 hectares of arable fields, which is roughly the maximum that father and son can manage without any problems. If additional helpers are on hand, the farm is expanded, but then usually either with more cattle or special plants, such as vegetables. An additional field is rarely added.

According to Wes Jackson, "the convenience or inconvenience of working on the farm depends on the size - the size of the fields and the size of the harvest." I think the Amish have kept a manageable size because they are still working with the horse. The horse prevented unlimited expansion. Working with the horse not only limits the size of the farm, the horses also fit perfectly into family life. When we work with the horses, we take a break for lunch, I water and feed the horses and then the family has lunch together. And while the horses are resting, there is time for us to take a nap. And because God didn't create horses with headlights, we don't work at night either.

We have about 28 hectares of arable land, about four hectares more than the average farm in our community. We can't do more. At this size there is always something to do, but the work doesn't get over our heads either. Except maybe last July, when we were shortly before: It had rained a lot, that is, we couldn't cut the second grass for the hay, and when it stopped raining we had to harvest grain, thresh wheat, mow oats, all at once . Under normal conditions, however, the work is well distributed from spring to autumn.

Field work begins in March with plowing. This is a very leisurely job, during which the horses can slowly “get fit” again. And I have time for what the Quakers call "quiet time": time to listen to God and his creation, time to listen as spring unfolds. In Getting Along With Nature Wendell Berry writes: “A pleasant human sound is a sound that enables other sounds to be heard.” Plowing makes such a sound: the creaking of the horses' harness, the pounding of the lucerne roots, the song of the ear lark and the lisp of the mountain pipit. A wonderful time.

In April, the maize stubble is plowed up and the oats sown, the plate cabbage and the liverworts are the blooming heralds of spring.

In May we plant the corn, bring the cows and horses to pasture, enjoy the warblers and look for the first morels.

Strawberries, cakes and jam are available for the hay harvest in June. The migratory birds have finished their journey and summer can come.

The most hectic month on the farm is July: threshing, the second cut for the hay, clear apples, fresh honey, blueberries and the first grasshoppers.

In August you can feel the approach of autumn. The "singing" of the silo filling systems moves across the country. With the help of four neighbors, we fill our 3 x 12 m silo.

September is all about McIntosh apples and wheat sowing.

In October the corn is harvested and cider is made. I love the colors and the silence that only this one month offers. When it comes to an end, the field work slowly comes to an end.

The year is an everlasting adventure. What is leisure time for many is part of our daily life.This year we celebrated four “firsts” on our farm: our first Kentucky warbler, our first peacock moth and our first emperor moth. And after thirty years of waiting, I finally saw the first Big Swallowtail!

Smallholder agriculture is a feast for the eyes. From spring to autumn the colors of the fields change over and over again. I like to look at our courtyard the way an artist would look at his painting - colors, shapes, not an inch of blank canvas. The "bare" spots on our farm, like the cows' beaten tracks, are covered with manure in November to prevent erosion. I spread it with the manure spreader, which works well as a mulcher. Now the land is ready for the rain and storms of winter.

The biggest difference between the way the Amish live and industrial agriculture is community. A small example: When we had harvested the wheat in early summer (we mow about half of a five-hectare field in one day), the whole family went to put up the sheaves after the evening milking. It was a clear, cool June evening. Perfect. Tim, our 18 year old son and I each took over one row, my wife Elsie and our ten year old son Michael another. Two of our daughters, sixteen-year-old Kristine and twelve-year-old Ann, took the fourth row and Emily, the youngest, carried the water jug. Row by row we work our way forward, the girls giggled, Michael enthusiastically told me about something he was working on in the workshop. When we reached the crest of the hill, we all paused and watched the sun first disappear behind a purple cloud and then sink into the horizon. The whistle of a prairie runner wafted towards us from the south. Tim didn't say to anyone in particular: “Working in the fields with the family is just fun!” He spoke to us all from the heart. Then we heard voices from the next hill and saw three of our neighbors coming towards us from the other end of the field, also setting up the sheaves. One of our girls excitedly exclaimed, “Seven rows at a time. It's a super pace. ”Soon all the sheaves were set up and we all went back to the house, rewarded and with ice cream and clinked into the night.

The security that caring neighbors give us is one reason we love our way of farming so much. Eight years ago I had an accident, had an operation and stayed in the hospital for a week. My wife later told me that my first words in the recovery room were, “Get me out of here. We have to bring in the wheat. ”Of course she couldn't - but I didn't have to worry either, because we have our neighbors.

My father mowed the wheat and the neighbors put up the sheaves. When our team was tired, my brother brought his team of four and by dinner time the first five hectares were ready.

This year our neighbor, who had helped us so much, needed help himself. He hasn't been able to do much since pneumonia struck him in July. That's why we went out last Thursday with six teams and mowers and mowed his four and a half hectares of alfalfa. On Sunday afternoon we were four teams and wagons, two hay loaders, 15 men and as many boys: the hay was in the barn within two hours. For almost as long afterwards we sat in the shade of the maple trees, drank and ate and listened to what one of the neighbors reported about a trip to the west. He and a friend had visited draft horse breeders in Illinois, Iowa, and eastern Nebraska. And what he had to tell - about good horses, kind people, about the worst landslides he had ever seen in the Iowa hills after 8 inches of rain, and about the farmers in Iowa who berated our president. "Oh," said the neighbor, "all they want is more money from the government."

I thought of a young friend who got married last September, bought the machines and cattle from his father and leased the farm. He and his wife worked hard to pay off their debts. Milking by hand, selling milk, looking after the sows, working the maize twice, sometimes three times, without herbicides. The first year on your own farm is almost over - and you have paid off most of your debts. He didn't tell me that himself, he's far too modest for that. But while we were threshing, he said, “You know what? Agriculture is good work. "

* David Kline is an Amish farmer from Fredericksburg, Ohio. He is the bishop of his community, writer, and co-editor of Farming Magazine - People, Land and Community.

The article is taken from his book "Great Possessions"
ISBN: 0-86547-471-0
North Point Press,
San Francisco, 1990.
236 pages, paperback