My Thoughts About One of My Favorite Places--Northeastern Indiana's Amish Country

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Growing Tobacco

While vacationing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania recently, we were surprised to see that the Pennsylvania Amish grow tobacco. 

I’d never seen tobacco growing in the fields before. says this: “Tobacco, a labor-intensive crop which is ideal for large families, has always been part of the agricultural scene in Lancaster.  While prices vary from year to year, it tends to be an excellent cash crop.”  One local told us that they grow a green-leaved tobacco and a more yellow-leaved tobacco, but even though the practice isn’t prohibited, very few Amishmen smoke these days, “because of the health risks.” 

John Hostetler, author of Amish Society, says, “The Amish in Lancaster County started raising tobacco soon after the tobacco industry was established there, probably about 1838.  They, along with a group in Saint Mary’s County, Maryland, are the only Amish in the nation who grow tobacco.”  He goes on to say that for those Amishmen who do smoke, pipe or cigar smoking is the accepted practice, with cigarettes frowned upon.   

I looked online to find out more about growing tobacco. told me that tobacco grows just about anywhere with well-drained, slightly acidic soil, 3 to 4 months of frost-free weather, moderate rainfall, and plenty of sun., in their excellent article about Amish tobacco growers, explains what happens next:  “By harvest time in August and September, entire Amish families can be seen in the fields, cutting the stalks with shears, one at a time, down a row of plants. The leaves are allowed to lie in the sun to soften, but not for too long because the leaves can burn. The wilted plants are then speared onto a four-foot-long lath. Amish parents and their barefooted youngsters stack the laths, which carry about five plants each, onto a horse-drawn cart. They then haul the plants to the tobacco shed for curing.” said that the best curing happens in a building that is hot, humid, and well-ventilated—exactly like the conditions in the barns we saw.  It was easy to spot the tobacco barns, because of the side slats propped open to let the air circulate properly. outlines what happens in the barns:  “After about two months of letting the tobacco cure, around Thanksgiving the farmers take down the laths of tobacco, its leaves turned to a deep copper.  The crop is then moved to an earthen cellar for dampening.  A few days later, the laths are taken to a stripping room where the leaf is pulled from the stalk and packaged.  It takes one person about a week to strip an acre of tobacco.”

What is the future of tobacco farming in Amish Pennsylvania?  That's not entirely clear... says that one big advantage the Amish have had is their low labor costs by using their families to work the fields.  But many Amish youth are turning their backs on farming and starting up all kinds of entrepreneurial micro-enterprises instead.

“Tobacco farming among the Amish is clearly declining.  You see mostly the conservative Amish raising it, clinging to traditions,” says Donald B. Kraybill, who has authored six books on the Amish.  Kraybill believes the more progressive Amish have greater religious concerns about tobacco farming because of the health issues with smoking. “The more the Amish move into the world,” says Kraybill, “the less likely they will be to raise tobacco.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Fly Catcher

As my husband and I drove around the countryside in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania last week, at one point we slowed down to wait for an Amish farmer’s dairy herd to cross the road.  We didn’t mind the delay—it was the kind of thing we like best about country drives. 

Then we noticed that the cows were moving single file through a strange white box before crossing the road.  So after the cattle had all safely crossed over, we pulled over to talk to the farmer—and he seemed glad to take a few minutes to answer our questions.

It turns out that the box is something that this farmer had seen on another farm, and it worked so well that he made his own.  As the cows walk through the box, the strips of heavy plastic suspended inside slide over the cows and whisk the flies off their backs and sides.  And after the cows pass through the other end, most of the flies are trapped inside the box to die.

The farmer said the cows were more than willing to walk through the box and get rid of the pests that torment them so much, particularly in hot weather.  The strips couldn’t reach upwards to clear the flies off their stomachs, but no system is perfect!

He said that there are chemicals and soaps available to treat dairy cattle for flies, but either they don’t work very well, or they are prohibitively expensive.  But this simple, organic, low-cost contraption does a great job at keeping some of God’s creatures a little more comfortable on at least one dairy farm in Amish Pennsylvania.

One more thing—we asked him a last question before we got back in our car:  “Are those camels we see in your field?!”  And he said that yes, he has a small herd of camels, which he actually milks!  Fancy that!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Visit to Lancaster County

My husband and I just got home from a trip to Amish Pennsylvania.  We wanted to compare it to the Amish Indiana that we visit so often, and where we plan to retire.  I took lots of photos (zoom is my friend when it comes to being unobtrusive!) and I think I’ll have lots to write about.  We explored both Mifflin County and Lancaster County while we were there.  I’ll write about the more-familiar Lancaster County first.

In many ways the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania are similar to those in Northern Indiana.  Their beliefs are similar, coming from the same roots in 17th-century Europe.

There were lots of cottage industries on the Amish farms.  As we drove through the countryside slowly enough to watch for homemade signs, we saw advertisements for soap, honey, cheese, all kinds of produce, baked goods, goat’s milk, quilts, furniture, and preserves, just to name a few.

The clothing styles were similar to norther Indiana—“plain,” as the Amish would describe it.  Sturdy, solid clothing, mostly black except for shirts and dresses, and both men and women kept their heads covered.  One difference was the women’s white prayer caps – they were heart-shaped, not square-ish like those in northern Indiana.

As in northern Indiana, farming is done without tractors.  The machinery is designed to be drawn by draft horses.  The horses were beautiful, and fascinating to watch as they worked in the fields. 

But there were differences that we noticed right away.

As my husband observed as soon as we began driving around—things looked older in Lancaster County!  The Indiana Amish arrived there from Ohio in the 1840s—but the Lancaster County Amish have been in these valleys since the mid-1700s, when William Penn invited them to come to Pennsylvania to find religious freedom instead of the persecution they suffered in Europe.  In the towns (especially Strasburg) and in the country, things looked like they have been there for a very long time.  Some of the cemeteries looked ancient compared to ours, and there were plaques for “bicentennial farms”—something you don’t see in the Midwest.

Unlike the black buggies found in northern Indiana, the buggies here are gray.  Some are closed, some are open, some have a flat bed in the back like a pickup truck.  But all the tops are the same shade of gray.

Other differences that I will write about another time: 

Firstly, the Amish here grow tobacco.  We talked to a local resident about it, and she said that although they grow tobacco as a cash crop, very few Amishmen smoke anymore, “because of the health risks.”

Although we saw lots of buggies, there were some differences in how the Amish in Lancaster County get around.  Bicycles are prohibited, but they have found alternatives that work for them that I haven’t seen in Northern Indiana.   

One more difference was the presence of lots of tall silos and the huge amounts of corn being grown to fill them.  Farms are large here, and nearly every farm is Amish.  In Northern Indiana, the presence of the RV factories means that many Amishmen live on small two- or three-acre plots, just big enough to have room to feed and house their buggy horses.  But in Lancaster County, I never saw so much corn—huge farms with cornfields stretching to the horizon!  As I’ve learned in recent years, only small amounts of Amish corn is grown to eat, or grind, or for seed—the rest becomes silage (winter feed) for the cattle.  We watched this process and talked to a farmer or two, and I’ll get back to that topic also.

More posts on our Lancaster County trip:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Just Back

Just back from a trip to Amish Pennsylvania - both Mifflin County and the better-known Lancaster County.  Lots of blogs coming up soon on this trip...

Fresh-baked hot pretzels are a specialty here, as are whoopie pies, both of which are also popular in Amish Indiana, and both of which I've written about before...

They grow corn here - endless huge fields of it, stretching to the horizon.  A lot of it is this type of corn - it's so tall!

The buggies are gray in Lancaster County, and one of three colors (black, yellow, white) in Mifflin County.

More soon...  I need to sit down and write some blog posts.