Dr. Randall James, of Ohio State University, published a notworthy set of findings upon comparing the farming methods of the Amish in America with those of modern American farmers. In short, he found that the Amish are doing just fine…using 500 year-old methods. In fact the so-called “advantages” of modern farming are not all that they are made up to be.
Comparisons of the budgets for the two systems found that on a per acre basis, returned to labor management (net return above all costs except labor and management) was consistently higher in the Amish farming systems. Return to labor management for the Amish farming system was estimated to be $126/acre for small grains, $233/acre for alfalfa hay, and $65/acre for corn. Compared to return of only $28/acre for small grains, $124/acre for alfalfa and a loss of $9/acre for corn, using conventional farming practices.
Operator labor/acre was consistently higher on Amish farms compared to non-Amish farms. On Amish farms approximately 12, 25 and 17 hours of labor/acre were required for small grains, alfalfa hay and corn respectively. Non-Amish farms required approximately 3.5, 6.5 and 3.6 hours of labor/acre respectively for the same crops. However, the Amish farm far less acres. The typical Amish farm rotation of 15 acres of small grain, 15 acres of corn and 20 acres of alfalfa hay would have an estimated total labor requirement of only 920 hours/year. In most cases, this labor requirement can easily be met in an Amish family by the operator and older children. In contrast the 1000 acres of corn on which the non-Amish budget is based would require 3600 hours. This large time requirement often necessitates hiring labor and return to the farm operator is reduced by the total cost of the hired labor.
Which system is ultimately viewed as “better” is a value laden question, heavily dependent on individual goals. Most of U.S. agriculture gave up farming with horses at least a generation ago and it is easy to view the Amish as an anachronism, a part of our rural past. However, it is interesting to note that while farm numbers nationally are declining, the Amish continue to establish new successful farming communities.
You can call the Amish crazy, weird, etc.. but if the goal is to build strong families, maintain a religious heritage, work productively and provide for one’s needs, there’s no one beating them. When will we learn?