Rolling pastures dotted with grazing cows, fields of corn and classic buggies driven by Amish in hats and bonnets — these are the images that attract visitors to Lancaster County, home to more than 30,000 of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Visitors who also bring big money to the state — to the tune of nearly $1.8 billion a year. Which explains why the winning bumper sticker in a contest sponsored by Pennsylvania’s Tourism Office didn’t feature the Liberty Bell or the battlefield in Gettysburg — but rather, “I Break for Shoofly Pie,” an ode to the traditional Amish dessert.
But pictures can be deceiving, and the office of tourism — indeed the entire state — has reason to worry. The Amish, with their emphasis on family, hard work and simplicity, have drawn hordes of tourists but also an influx of residents, malls, roads and housing developments. The upshot? Swaths of farmland have been lost, and many Amish are now choosing to give up farming or are leaving the state to pursue quieter surrounding and cheaper land.
The irony, spelled out in research from Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University, couldn’t be more blunt: “The commercialization of the Amish lifestyle has grown tremendously in recent decades, so much so that it actually threatens the viability of the very tourism industry it created. … Stores catering to the tourists now sit on land that was once an Amish farm.”
Samuel Lapp, a former Amish farmer who lives near Intercourse, said a farm is “a nice place for boys to grow up,” but seeing others get jobs, make money and not have to work seven days a week convinced his sons to take another path.
“My sons didn’t want our farm and I’m not going to milk cows by myself,” said Lapp.
He sold his dairy and hog farm about 25 years ago and his children mostly work in construction, a lucrative industry in a county where the population has risen by more than 100,000 since 1990.
But the commercial and residential development that is generating construction jobs has also bumped up land prices. Donald Kraybill, who teaches at Elizabethtown College and is co-author of The Amish, said a 60-acre farm today costs around $1.2 million — not including livestock or equipment.
“The suburbanization of Lancaster County has put a huge burden on them,” he said of Amish families. “It’s too many babies and too few acres.”
The Amish first came to William Penn’s land in the mid-1700s seeking religious freedom, along with Quakers, Mennonites and Moravians. Known for their pacifism, plain clothes and selective use of technology, the Amish now have 472 communities spread as far as Canada and Montana, and their population has risen to 281,000 — a figure that is expected to double over the next two decades, as roughly 85 percent of those raised Amish choose to follow the faith as adults.
Pennsylvania has the largest Amish population in the U.S. — about 65,000. However, Elizabethtown’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies estimates the state lost hundreds of Amish families from 2008 to 2012.
Where are they headed? To western New York, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Tennessee, parts of the country where the Amish are much more isolated. Back in Lancaster, Kraybill said, they’re running businesses where they deal with non-Amish all day, where their kids interact with technology and where they speak English rather than Pennsylvania Dutch — all of which threatens their lifestyle.
“The big danger is that the Amish here become so assimilated they end up not being Amish,” Kraybill said.
The Amish Mennonite Tourist Information Center in Intercourse sits near the Kitchen Kettle Village, a sprawling collection of boutiques and sweet shops where tourists arrive by the busload to buy quilts, hex signs and pretzels. As he looked out the window at a traffic jam and smoothed the edges of a well-worn leather Bible, Lapp said he has no animosity toward the non-Amish who are profiting from the Pennsylvania Dutch Country image. But he’s quick to add, “They’re not really representative of us Plain people.”
Not everyone, though, is content to sit back and watch things change. Some are pushing back. Driving east on U.S. Route 30 from Lancaster, past outlet stores for Adidas and Pottery Barn and a sprawling mini-golf course, the landscape turns green as you come upon a farm where Amos Beiler raises vegetables for sale at his store, Bluegate Farm Home Grown Produce.
“We’re not leaving,” he said. “We like it here.”
Wearing a tattered straw hat and suspenders as he washed onions in an outdoor sink, Beiler explained the local government is trying to block development and suburbanization by zoning the area officially rural.
So far, the county’s Agricultural Preserve Board and Lancaster Farmland Trust have jointly protected more than 100,000 acres of farmland, according to Karen Dickerson, a spokeswoman for the Farmland Trust.
It’s a start — but one that comes a little late for the many Amish families who’ve already packed up in search of greener, cheaper pastures. And for the vacationers looking to break for shoofly pie? Well, they may have to follow the horse-drawn buggies south — and enjoy their pie with some Kentucky barbecue.
Chris Scinta is a writer, editor and frequent flyer based in Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter @Wordgrains.