Amish, Agribusiness, and The Atlantic

Archive Photo of the Day by Judy Andrus Toporcer.

To paraphrase Bono when he introduces “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on one of the best live albums ever — there’s been a lot of talk about this next article, maybe too much talk.

Much has been made of The Atlantic magazine’s very pointed online article claiming the Amish are being driven out of St. Lawrence County by big agribusiness.  You can read it here.

The author, Malcolm Burnley (credited as an editorial fellow, not all that much up the food chain from an intern) has come clean on the journalistically messy fact that he lived with and worked for his main source in the story, Heuvelton farmer Brian Bennett.  (He’s been interviewed many times on NCPR).

The Atlantic’s fact checkers have corrected a boatload of errors in the story, from calling Canton “DePeyster” to the claim that there’s something called “synthetic manure.”

The Watertown Daily Times published an article challenging and refuting pretty much the entire story.  It’s a very good rebuttal and speaks directly to the claims in the Atlantic (although I’m not sure why Christopher Robbins quoted his own managing editor, also a bit messy, journalistically).

Journalism expert and blogger Jim Romanesko even highlighted the whole affair.

The thing that’s interesting to me is how it reflects a changing sense of what we think of as farming.  Burnley was incorrect to write that big agribusiness has been moving into the region. But, as the WDT points out, farms HAVE grown up here – a handful of family dairy farms have transformed into major, huge operations, with thousands of animals, millions of gallons of manure, more than a dozen employees, and a fleet of farm vehicles.

In short, these farms are industrial scale on the pint-sized landscape of North Country fields.  They challenge our (often quaint) notion of what the family farm is.  They aren’t regulated nearly as closely as comparable “factories” in other industries.  Though, if you ask water quality experts what kind of farming they’re most concerned about, it’s the small, mom-and-pop dairy farms that aren’t regulated at all.

Agriculture is changing quickly  in the North Country, with a boom in small, diversified farms, including the Amish ones, along with the consolidation of many dairy farms into larger, agribusiness ones.  How they all get along is shifting, too.

And, the Amish community is always changing.  I asked the North Country’s leading expert on Amish culture – and a heavily quoted source in The Atlantic story, Karen Johnson-Weiner – what she thought of the article’s main thrust.  She said, “the context is not so dire as the author made it out to be.”  Amish families make decisions for many reasons, like the rest of us: because land may be costly in a place, but also because they can’t find land near the people who worship like them, or because they have 11 children and need to find enough land for all of them, or because there’s something new they’d like to be a part of somewhere else.  Yes, some Amish are moving out, but many are also moving in, and land prices only have something to do with it.  “It’s a complicated picture,” says Johnson-Weiner.

It’s too bad The Atlantic got it so wrong – they really did.  And it’s too bad the editors are standing by a main thesis that really doesn’t convey what’s happening in real life.  It’s too bad because there are fascinating, complicated issues at stake for St. Lawrence County, its agricultural community, and its economy.  There’s plenty of room for outsiders in that debate.  I would have loved to read what a journalist with a more open mind would have found here.




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23 Comments on “Amish, Agribusiness, and The Atlantic”

  1. Paul says:

    I guess it may not necessarily be the case here but Technical innovations are going to force farmers that are unwilling (or unable in this case) to adopt new technologies out of business. Hopefully the Amish can find niche markets that will allow them to survive.

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  2. mervel says:

    Its kind of like we only like dairy farmers if they are not successful. If you have a family dairy farm that thrives suddenly its somehow nefarious and “corporate”. We should be encouraging and supporting all of our dairy farms, both those that are large and those that are small and going into a niche market. The small 50 cow dairy farm probably is about gone its not economically viable for most families who wish to raise a family selling dairy.

    As far as the Amish go I think they will always have a struggle to provide space and farms for their children. When you have 10 kids and half of them are boys each generation has to come up with 4 or 5 new farms if the children wish to stay in the area and most do. Up here we don’t have all of the industry and non-farm work that they do in Ohio, but then again I think that is why we have Amish that we do, they did not want to be part of that commercialization, but wanted to be more traditional. So the issue is always going to be more land as they expand and grow. It is a problem of growth not of failure.

    But individual Amish farms I think are doing OK.

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  3. tootightmike says:

    The Amish in the North Country have proven themselves to be our most industrious neighbors. Farming here has been on the skids for thirty or forty years, and it’s truly inspiring to see farms back in production, barns being built, and things being raised, manufactured, and sold.
    A closer look at the facts on the ground may have revealed that some are being forced to move on because of land speculators. Take a look at the County tax maps and you’ll find villages like Canton and Potsdam to be surrounded by vacant land…vacant but not for sale..landowners waiting to make their million on a pie-in-the-sky sale that may never happen. In the mean time, the land lies idle, and no small, local entrepreneur, farmer, or businessman can afford to invest.

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  4. Paul says:

    The Amish are really doing amazingly well considering how they have chosen to live. But Mervel has a good point they now live in a pretty clean world compared to their ancestors and clean water and decent food are what have made lifespans increase. Even if you skip the vaccines and the other stuff when you are surrounded by a very hygienic world you benefit. You can’t count on childhood mortality and other mortality factors to keep the numbers in check. They are probably growing in numbers too quickly for their chosen lifestyle.

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  5. Walker says:

    Paul, I think the Amish are doing well because of how they have chosen to live. They work hard and they’re frugal– they don’t waste their money on consumer garbage that the rest of us find essential.

    Mervel’s right, though, about the large families. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future.

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  6. Will Doolittle says:

    The unusual thing about this case is not that the out-of-town writer for a national publication got the story wrong, but that the wrongness of the article was exposed. This is more likely to happen now in the Internet age, just as plagiarism is much more likely to be caught, and that’s great. There used to be a NY Times reporter who covered the Adirondacks in the ’80s and we used to laugh about how every story of hers was wrong, including in the details like what lake is in the middle of Lake Placid, how to spell local names, etc. Even the Times would probably be a little bit more accountable now.

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  7. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    The Amish have spread out into areas more than 30 miles from their “base” of 15-20 years ago. They have re-activated a number of small family farms that had gone out of business. If not for them, the meadows and pastures on these places would have turned into buck brush.

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  8. Paul says:

    Walker, yes, but my point was that they would have much more productive farms if they used some of the modern techniques that they don’t employ. Perhaps there isn’t more of a market for their goods but they obviously could produce more if they wanted to. If they are satisfied by how they are doing, can afford to raise their families and give them a decent future then they can keep doing it just the way they are. More power to them.

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  9. David Sommerstein says:

    Will, that’s a great point. It’s nothing new for the parachuting journalist to have preconceived notions, drop down, and get wrong what’s happening on the ground. In that way, it’s a “good news” story (at least, the story after the story). And the WDT did a great job tracking it down.

    One thing that’s a bit different is, from what I gather, Burnley was essentially trained and heavily influenced by one of his sources, and didn’t disclose that relationship at all.

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  10. Walker says:

    “…they would have much more productive farms if they used some of the modern techniques that they don’t employ.”

    Those modern techniques cost big money, requiring big loans. The Amish rarely take out loans for anything other than buying their farm, and they almost never get foreclosed. I’d call that pretty productive farming. (NPR: A Mortgage Banker In Amish Country)

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  11. Mervel says:

    Yes. Their whole lifestyle, from how they farm to how they live to how they worship is spiritual. Spiritually they made a decision to not use many modern farming techniques. God has blessed this decision, they are still here practicing this way of life the same way they essentially practiced it 150 years ago. Without the internet, without phones, without most electricity etc, they are known to the world, so this itself is a testament to their life and faith.

    They would not be Amish if they adopted modern techniques, they are not in this to be monetarily successful farmers.

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  12. Paul says:

    So you think they are on a sustainable path for the future? I hope so. If they can cope with population growth in their community they could stay productive but it will be a challenge. We have not adopted these more modern productive (as in more food per acre) means of farming for fun. We have done it because we have to.

    Look since 1800 life expectancy has risen from about 30 years to about 75 years (or higher in some countries). The reason for that rise is simple, many people now have access to clean water and decent nutrition. You don’t even need to factor in population growth to see that the world needs more and more productive farms. Now that we are trying to use the agricultural space we now have for growing not only food but fuel the pressure will become enormous. Couple this with a changing climate and you have to do even more with less. The Amish are not immune from these pressures.

    As my oldest son used to call them when we saw them on the road the “armish”, I wish them luck.

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  13. Mervel says:

    No they are not immune from these pressures.

    I think they have proven to be adaptable however within their chosen lifestyle.

    For example you may see more Amish in the North Country making less and less of their disposable income from farming if land pressures are just too much and more from manufactured housing, lumber milling, furniture manufacture etc.

    But make no mistake, from my interactions, it is a hard life, hunger is a reality. Given their family size and stated income most amish would qualify for most government assistance benefits in NYS, family health plus, food stamps, wic, heap, etc. But they don’t take it as it would go against their beliefs. So our definition of success and theirs is entirely different. They can survive on much smaller farms than others can, but they have a whole different standard of need and farm differently.

    Sure if you want to make income from row crops or production dairy to provide your family with a ranch house, a couple of cars, health insurance modern items (phones etc) and pay for college for your kids you can’t do it on 150 acres.

    However if you have a community of people who support each other, don’t need college or even school beyond 8th grade and don’t need a car or gas, grow a good portion of your own food, make most of your own clothing, you have a whole different standard. Plus you have much much lower labor costs for whatever you do.

    I think they will certainly survive it is just a matter of what they end up doing, they have faced far far greater challenges.

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  14. Paul says:

    Like I said above they do have the advantage of being surrounded by a first world population. If they were in a developing county, basically getting on the same way, their quality of life would be much lower.

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  15. Mervel says:

    No doubt. I mean if they get sick they still go to a real hospital with real doctors. In some of these developing countries they would not stand out as unique, many people do not have indoor plumbing or electricity in the world today.

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  16. Walker says:

    Paul, I think their quality of life is not all that dependent on the first world around them. Like their buggy makers, a lot of their trade is with their own people. This is how life was years ago, and it worked well. It would still work pretty well if we didn’t imagine that we need so much stuff.

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  17. Sunshine says:

    Wow, this was quite the article.
    I’m not sure what the author’s point of view is (was) but I found it difficult to believe that the Atlantic Monthly would publish a piece with so few facts and interviews.
    Seems as if the aura of that movie ‘Witness’ took over.
    Amish are not all that much different than the ‘English.’
    They range from being quite wonderful to being quite awful.
    Police typically don’t get involved except in extreme cases…and, sadly, we have seen that happen.
    Re the price of land, $2,500 for an acre is unbelievably inexpensive. Check other areas. Sure, land sold for $1,000 an acre years ago and a lot of folks came here and bought land and farms and began a different lifestyle from which they were raised…ie your station manager.
    But, as mentioned by another respondee, there is a lot of fallow land around with people holding on for a higher price…it is good to be a dreamer…but realism trumps. See St. Lawrence County’s unemployment rate. Check out the population number for the last 50 years.
    Many Amish move here because of the low cost of living.
    Some Amish move away…for a variety of reasons.
    I have some concerns with/for/about the Amish:
    One is the low visibility of Amish buggies at dusk, dawn and night.
    Another is how rutted paved roads which are heavily traveled by the Amish (in buggies) become due to the metal wheels on their modes of transportation.
    Health care and often the lack thereof.
    Inbreeding causing birth defects.
    Use of pesticides and herbicides and other potentially harmful chemicals on their farms and gardens.
    The Amish are a good addition to the North Country. They provide us with many useful products as well as a life well emulating.
    Just don’t glamorize or demonize them.
    Really, they are only human.

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  18. Paul says:

    Walker, that may be true. I was thinking more from a hygienic or infectious disease perspective than a economic perspective but you raise a good point. It seems to me that they do a pretty brisk amount of business with non-Amish. I was sent recently by a forester to an Amish mill as a place to sell some logs that I was considering cutting. I would have bet that much of the furniture and other things they make are mostly sold to the non-Amish, but maybe I have it wrong.

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  19. erb says:

    Sunshine, I really like you comment. It is easy to romanticize the Amish and not treat them as any other North Country residents.

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  20. Paul says:

    I have read that some Amish communities love to gamble. Strange since I was under the impression that they were opposed to gambling. I think this is what allows them to opt out of the mandates of the affordable care act. Insurance is seen as a form of gambling which is not allowed by their religion. I guess maybe other religions could also opt out? I think gambling is prohibited in Islam. Anybody have any insight here?

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  21. Walker says:

    Paul, there’s a pretty good discussion of Amish and Muslim faiths in relation to the ACA here.

    As to the Amish loving gambling, I think you’re getting it from a hoax source. The “Uncyclopedia” is a (fairly juvenile) humorous version of Wikipedia; their article on the Amish claims that they love gambling. In fact, they prohibit gambling.

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  22. Rancid Crabtree says:

    If you’ll read the Atlantic article and the comments following it you’ll see my response to that trash. IT was a travesty and insulting. I would hope NCPR would suspend any further use of Brian Bennett as a source or commentator. Further, some of you should really get to know the Amish instead of coming up with these strange ideas that they are starving and that they suffer from birth defects from inbreeding. So yourself a favor and see just how many Autistic Amish kids there are, or rather aren’t. What are we eating that they aren’t that’s messing our kids up?

    And specifically to Sunshine, would you be so kind as to point out to me a paved road that is rutted from Amish use. I live in the heart of SLC Amish country and in many years here traveling these roads I have never, ever seen any roads rutted from Amish use. I think you are likely confusing the break up of paved roads caused by weather and heavy trucks and tractors and blaming the Amish. The Amish also use very few chemicals int heir farming, mostly because they are expensive. If you can provide something other than anecdotal proof to the contrary, please do. The buggy issue was solved by the NYS Legislature some years back and applies not just to Amish, but other users of horse drawn vehicles, riders, farm equipment, etc. The Legislature correctly put the majority of the responsibility on the driver of the car. A properly marked and lighted buggy will be seen by a driver exercising due care. Accidents still happen, true, but most are the fault of the driver of the car, not the buggy.

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  23. Sunshine says:

    To Rancid Crabtree,
    Try driving on the road to Rensselaer Falls off of Rt 11 before going into DeKalb Junction…rut city…narrow ruts caused by Amish vehicles.
    Birth defects…well…I worked in a doctor’s office in Heuvelton a few years ago and many Amish used her services. I saw some pretty scary Amish, birth defects as well as poor hygiene.
    The Amish do use chemicals. I’ve asked…and I’ve seen them…open containers on a shelf in a shed off of Rt. 11 beyond DeKalb Junction where baskets and home made goods are sold.
    The problem with the buggies are they all of them are not lighted…only some are. Many up my way just have a reflective strip on the back of the buggy.
    FYI: I know many fine Amish people. I’ve done business both personal and professional with the Amish.
    I stand by my earlier comments.

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