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

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Recreational Vehicles and the Amish

Campers, trailers, future motor homes—acres of them.  I could have taken these photos in dozens of places all over Amish Indiana… Elkhart County is known as the RV (Recreational Vehicle) capital of the world!

The big names are Thor and Forest River, but there are many smaller manufacturers and subsidiaries, and they are everywhere—Grand Design, Jayco, Dutchman Manufacturing, Gulfstream Coach, DRV, Heartland, Keystone, Newmar, Nexus, Renegade, Winnebago, and many more.

The statistics are staggering. According to WFYI TV News in Indianapolis, more than 80% of the nation’s RVs are made in northern Indiana, and Elkhart County alone makes one out of every two RVs on the road today.   

Profits have been good for seven years in a row...  The RVIA website says that in 2016, there were 430,000 RVs manufactured nationwide, and in 2017 the number soared to 504,000.  Forest River alone employs 11,000 Hoosiers just in Elkhart and LaGrange counties.   

So, do the horse-and-buggy Amish buy recreational vehicles?  No—but they make them.  In fact, in this area, a majority of the Amish men of working age are employed in the RV industry.  The wages are high, since there is a chronic shortage of labor in this area.  The Amish population is increasing rapidly, but not as fast as the need for workers.  One Amishman we know who has worked in the RV industry for several years told us that the typical wages are maybe $45-$50,000 a year—but piecework can double that.  There are signing bonuses, and the factories have put policies in place to make their companies more Amish-friendly, like no Saturday shifts. 

So, there is a lot of money in Amish Indiana these days!  I’m no economist, but I have noticed a few results of this:
  • The price of land is very high, as is the price of housing.  This is particularly true for anyplace that is “Amish-friendly”—which is to say, at least an acre of land, and zoned to allow a buggy horse or two.  Many “English” homes in the countryside are being bought up by Amish families as the homes become available.  Middlebury, where we live, used to have just a few Amish homes, but that is changing fast.
  • Many young men start out in the RV factories, and then when they get married, they have a nice nest egg.  Some choose the RV factory as a long-term way of life—not everyone is cut out to be a farmer!—and others take that nest egg and buy a farm or start a business.  
  • Businesses other than the RV factories are finding it more and more difficult to compete for workers.  There are “Help Wanted” signs on nearly every business in the county.
  • The standard of living tends to be quite a bit higher here than in other Amish settlements.  Buggies are being sold with more and more custom options and upgrades—and the wait can be several years for one.  Younger men are buying speed boats, pontoon boats, and other recreational items allowed by the church.  Middle-aged and older Amish couples travel all over the country.  There are many beautiful new Amish homes (like the one pictured below) with in-floor heating, walk-in freezers, high ceilings, open floor plans, beautiful custom kitchens, lots of picture windows, and a large meeting room for church services.  (A garage door opens into the meeting room in many homes, so buggies can be brought in and washed there.)  Amish families here can afford to live much more comfortably than their parents and grandparents did. 

All of this could change quickly if the RV industry takes a dive, as it did in 2008-2009...  Not just the Amish sector, but the English sector would be hit hard.  In Middlebury where we live, many “English” families have big, beautiful houses paid for by RV executive or sales rep jobs. 

The recreational vehicle industry is booming now—breaking records—but we’ll see what happens long-term.

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