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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Exploradio: Wooster Researchers Examine the Complexities of Amish Life in the 21st Century

The Amish are an anachronism in modern America.

They don’t own cars, they’re not on the grid, but researchers at the College of Wooster find that the Amish relationship with technology is more nuanced than it appears at first glance, and doesn’t always fit our stereotypes.

In this week’s Exploradio, we look at the complexities of Amish life in the 21st century.

The Inspiration for David McConnell’s latest book "Nature and the Environment in Amish Life," began with a birdwatching trip.

“One morning at 4 a.m.," he says, "I found myself picking up six Amish friends to go birding on the shores of Lake Erie."

David McConnell
David McConnell is a cultural anthropologist who teaches at the College of Wooster. He's co-author of "The Amish Paradox," and "Nature and the Environment in Amish Life."

He discovered that the Amish can be serious birders.

“We got up to the lake, and the Amish pulled out thousand dollar Swarovski spotting scopes, binoculars that were top of the line, and one of them had a battery powered, hand-held GPS unit that could map out our birding stops!”

McConnell teaches anthropology at the College of Wooster, and studies Northeast Ohio’s Amish community.

He says the Amish are embracing various degrees of technology, even cell phones.

It’s part of what he calls the Amish Paradox, which includes the question, “How can you achieve separation from the world if you can carry the world in your pocket?”

McConnell is focusing on how shifts in Amish work life are creating new challenges for the Plain people.

From farms to tables
The biggest driver of change, he says, is that they’re leaving the farm.

“The mechanization of American agriculture has created challenges for all small farmers, but especially for the Amish,” says McConnell.

wooden table
Homestead Furniture in Mt. Hope makes custom furniture for the non-Amish market, including what they call 'live edge' tables. The Amish-run business ships furniture to all 50 states.

Competition from mega-farms, and the skyrocketing price of farm land in Holmes County have forced the Amish into other fields.

Only around one-in-seven Amish men now make a living through farming, McConnell says, and new professions are altering traditional avoidance of the outside world.

“As the Amish move away from farming, their livelihoods have become more dependent on the tastes of non-Amish consumers.”

Furniture making is one example.

Ernest Hershberger is owner of Homestead Furniture in Mt. Hope.

A diesel engine powers the 40,000 sq. ft. facility where workers custom-make furniture for the non-Amish market.  It’s a model of modern efficiency, according to Hershberger.

“We’re in here with stop watches. We’re in here documenting every motion of every step that goes on, and then we carve away the waste.”

He calls it a biblical version of ‘lean manufacturing', “and so we have an extremely efficient shop that allows us to compete in today’s marketplace one piece at a time.”

High-end furniture-making is now a substantial part of the Amish economy.

Tech on the farm
Technology can also help the remaining Amish farmers stay competitive. 

Producing organic milk and produce has been one way Amish farmers in Holmes County have been able to compete with large-scale agriculture. More than 150 Amish farmers cultivate around 1,000 acres of certified organic cropland as part of the Green Field Farms organic co-op.

We meet 74-year-old Amish farmer and author David Kline on his son’s organic dairy farm.

He shows me the automated generator that powers the milking machines and chillers. “It’s self-starting and self-stopping," he says. "If the milk reaches a certain temperature, it starts on its own, and then shuts off on its own.”

The machine is part of what allows the farm to maintain strict organic standards and tap into that lucrative niche market.

Mechanization of the farm has been a gradual concession for Amish leaders, but Kline says for many Amish farmers it came too late. 

He says one conservative bishop confided to him that, “we limited too much technology on the farms, and the way they had to farm was so primitive, they just gave up.”

Deciding what's appropriate
Technology is popping up in other ways in Amish country. 

Kline says many Amish have installed solar panels, use computers at work, without the web; buggies sport hydraulic brakes and LED lights, and electric bikes are a common sight.

“We’re not anti-technology," says Kline. "We call what we use, appropriate technology.”

Amish girls
Amish girls working at a greenhouse decorate their bonnets with cut flowers.

Lyn Loveless is a retired professor at the College of Wooster and co-author of "Nature and the Environment in Amish Life."

She says the criteria for deciding whether a piece of technology is appropriate boils down to the question of, “does it enhance our ability to live as we in the Amish community choose to live, or does it damage it?”

She says the Amish are not stuck in the past, they’re just deliberate about deciding their future.

“As a community they’re able to say no,” to technology that interferes with family life or church cohesion.

The decision more than a century ago not to own cars has come to define the Amish, and with few TVs or noisy motors, David Kline relishes the quiet of Amish country.

Paraphrasing the prophet Elijah, he recommends a slower pace, “where God doesn’t have to shout, where He can whisper to us.”      

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct an incomplete sentence.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.