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Wooster Digital History Project

The Struggle with Modernity (Part 2): Acceptance & Compromise

Amish Windmill Water Pump

An Amish windmill water pump seen on the Yoder's Amish Home Tour. Small technological innovations like this can be found in more open Amish affiliations like the Old and New Order.

In their struggle with modernity, the Amish have to draw the appropriate line to protect themselves from complete assimilation into the outer world while still being open to constructive changes.1 Reaction to technology among affiliations vary. The more traditional Amish, like the Swartzentrubers, rely on small, low-tech, and labor-intensive operations. At the other end, those like the New Order Amish have LED lights, use automatic milkers, and advertise their business on the Internet.2,3

The Amish negotiate the adoption of new farm technology within the bounds of their church’s principles. Their choices are a balance between higher productivity and the preservation of their beliefs and values. The Amish built their own horse-drawn machinery when commercial suppliers switched to tractors. In the 1960s, some state health boards required dairy farms to cool milk in refrigerated bulk tanks. Some Amish farmers, in lieu of electricity, used diesel-powered refrigeration units. More traditional groups settled for selling Grade B milk to cheese plants, which did not require rapid cooling.4

Despite the major trend of increasing off-farm employment, at the dawn of the 21st century, thousands of Amish families still work in agriculture, by embracing alternatives to traditional farming. These have included cheese making, produce auctions, greenhouses, intensive grazing and organic farming. Ohio had no certified organic dairy farms in 1997, but a few years later, there were over a hundred, 90% of which were Amish and Old Order Mennonite.5

It can be misleading to label Amish farms as being invariably small-scale, organic, and sustainable. While they cannot completely avoid the path of industrial agriculture, Amish farming has retained the tradition of minimizing its environmental impact and external institutionalization.

Against many predictions6 about their downfall as a bygone people under the pressure of modernization, the Amish have found unique ‘Amish’ ways of adapting to the ever-changing world within the bounds of their core values. At the heart of the largest settlement in the world, the local Amish are thriving in their encounter with modernity.

1 Donald B. Kraybill and Marc Alan Olshan, eds., The Amish Struggle with Modernity (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994), vii-ix.
2 Donald B. Kraybill, Karen Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt, The Amish (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 13.
3 The Yoder's Amish Home Tour.
4 Donald B. Kraybill, Karen Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt, The Amish (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 7-279.
5 Ibid., 278-286.
6 Ibid., x.