February 01, 2010

Amish America has moved

We've moved!  Come visit at the new location, amishamerica.com.  All future posts will appear on the new site from now on, and all old content will be accessible there as well.

January 26, 2010

Blog changes, phone booths, and an Old Order Bernie Madoff?

The blog will be relatively quiet for the next few days, as we are working on a few changes here.  The blog platform will be switched from Typepad to Wordpress--which is a good thing, and something I've wanted to do for a long while. 

Wordpress seems to be a much more versatile platform (any Wordpress users out there concur?).  But, expect Amish America to remain a simple format, similar design, with access to all old posts, etc.  I'm excited about the change and will have more details to come. 

In the meantime, there are a few stories that have gotten my attention recently.  

Haiti Relief Auction

The Sarasota Amish and Mennonite auction broke all records this past weekend, quadrupling the typical take to net $400,000.  If you missed it, over the weekend I posted a bit on Amish involvement in relief programs

Amish phone booth
End of the line for phone booths

This interesting story about the decline of the phone booth in modern society got me thinking about Amish phone 'booths', or shanties, common in many communities as a way to have telephone access yet preserve the boundary between the world and the sanctuary of the home. 

An Old Order Bernie Madoff?

Also, Plain people in Lancaster County and elsewhere have been hit with what looks like could end up being their own version of a Bernie Madoff-esque scandal.  A Mennonite businessman in Lancaster County has apparently run an investment scheme which has left many investors in the Plain community high and dry.    

While some Amish are involved, most of the 1,500 investors are apparently Wenger, or 'Team' (named so for their use of horse-drawn transportation) Mennonites. This Lancaster Sunday News piece details the very unusual course this story has taken. 

The at-times very direct appeals of Sensenig to his investors ("Please do not go to the law!") would shock most with money in the game, yet in Old Order communities, instinctive communal trust and an aversion to lawsuits prevented many from attempting to extract their investments until it was apparently too late. 

On this point, I think this comment by Steve Nolt nails it:

"This is a classic example of an Old Order community relying on one another for advice and ideas," said Dr. Steve Nolt, a history professor at Goshen College in Indiana, and author or co-author of nine books on Amish and Mennonite culture. "Here's someone from your community who promises something good, and we know who he is, we know where he lives, we know he's not going to take off for the Bahamas with our money.

"There's a general level of trust," Nolt said. "That can be a real strength. Or a real weakness."

Strong relationships, especially as seen in Amish and other close-knit communities, can be powerful enough to create real advantages in business.  But when those bonds are exploited, a lot of people can be hurt--and when the culprit is someone deeply woven into your own community, the potential for damage is even greater.  With a possible $65 million in losses to investors, that seems to be the case here.  

I asked an Amish friend for input.  He shares:  "These kind of schemes have been around as long as I can remember.  What is different is that a plain person is the operator of the scheme rather than the victim."  He also mentions a few other schemes in which Amish have fallen victim, including a well-publicized pigeon breeding operation.  Another difference, he notes, is that "these usually don't make any ripples in the media but this time it has, because I think in part anyway, more plain people have been willing to talk about it."

...and Amish lawsuits?

The story is also remarkable for another reason:  an Amish lawsuit (or rather, suits).  Apparently two Amish investors have filed suit against Sensenig, mirroring a recent report of something similar possibly occurring in Ohio

Seeing legal action as a form of violence, Amish are averse to filing lawsuits, an act which is generally seen as grounds for excommunication.  The fact that a few Amish have brought legal action could be seen as a small erosion of this pacifist principle, on a limited and localized basis. 

One of the potential litigants described in the article, Leroy Fisher, was apparently a laborer who deposited his life savings with Sensenig.  Fisher's actions apparently caused "a backlash" within his community.  Fisher ended up dropping his suit after being repaid, but two others have gone forward.

But does this mean the Amish are likely to "change policy" and start using the courts en masse to protect their interests? 

Highly doubtful, but could be seen as more evidence of how closer ties to the world--stimulated at least in part by the culture-wide shift from agriculture to business--have introduced modern modes of thinking and resolving financial problems to Old Order society. 

But, that doesn't mean there definitely won't be a slow erosion of this principle over time.  As my friend puts it, "as the Plains move from farming to business,the necessity of lawsuits are becoming more of a reality."

January 23, 2010

How do the Amish help Haiti?

Haiti amish auction florida
Amish and Mennonites have been putting on annual auctions for the benefit of Haiti for many years now.  They take place in various locations across the nation, including communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Florida, and Illinois. 

Furniture, quilts and other items are auctioned off at these large events.  The Florida auction, held in Sarasota, is in fact taking place this weekend.  The photos you see here are from yesterday (credit to flahba; click for more on Amish in Florida).

The Ohio auction happens in Holmes County, at the auction house at Mount Hope, with a number of auctioneers working in different venues on the expansive grounds.  Lots of food too of course.  While at the Ohio auction a few years back I tried a Haitian recipe cooked by a Mennonite group that had done relief work in the country.  Rice, slightly spicy, I think there might have been bananas or plantains in there, I can't quite recall.

Amish auctioneers haiti

Amish often work closely with Mennonite Central Committee, an organization which provides aid to poverty-stricken areas around the world, as well as with the Mennonite Disaster Service.  Since Amish tend not to have formal outreach programs of their own, those Amish who wish to aid the needy further afield often channel their energies through these organizations, formally operated by their spiritual cousins.  

Donald Kraybill writes on Amish involvement with the Mennonite Central Committee in The Riddle of Amish Culture:

One year some 1,200 Amish, in a four-day period, participated in a meat canning project for refugees in Bosnia.  A mobile canner moves from area to area, utilizing local labor and donated beef.  Sometimes the Amish purchase the beef and then provide the labor for canning it.  "We could just buy the meat and send it there," said one bishop, "but there's much more satisfaction in helping to do something directly."

Haiti amish auction

Amish also frequently donate time and labor to help out in disaster-stricken areas, for example in helping to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, as well as following earlier hurricanes Hugo and Camille.

Kraybill notes:

In all of these ways, the Amish extend a hand of friendship and care beyond their ethnic borders, and in the process, they are replenishing their own pool of social capital.  For whether it is preparing for auctions, quilting for relief, packing clothes for the needy, or building homes for the homeless, they are doing it together--chattering away, telling stories, building community.  This pattern of civic service and philanthropy is much different from the lone volunteer who extends a hand on a civic project or the philanthropist who writes a check in isolation.  As they serve the needy, the Amish also build community.  

Haiti amish auction tent

I imagine this year's auctions will have a strengthened sense of purpose in the aftermath of the earthquake.  With aftershocks occurring and expected to continue, the situation in the poorest Western Hemisphere nation remains bleak. 

If you would like to make a donation to one of the organizations mentioned here, try these links to the Mennonite Central Committee, and the Mennonite Disaster Service.  Though they partner together, MDS works primarily in the US and Canada, with MCC being the lead organization for international relief.  Therefore, donations intended for Haiti would be best sent to MCC.

January 21, 2010

Wintry weather in southern Indiana

Amish farm snow
Orange County, Indiana Amish farm photo courtesy of Cindy Seigle.

January 20, 2010

An opinion on 'puppy mills' from a Lancaster local

Commercial dog breeders (also frequently described as 'puppy mills') have been in the news a lot lately.  Recent changes in Pennsylvania law has made it difficult for breeders to operate, thus forcing many to begin to get out of the business.  Opponents, most visibly in the form of activists such as Bill Smith of Main Line Animal Rescue, have made headlines with their sometimes dramatic efforts to shut down dog breeding operations.  

Activists maintain that conditions in the typical breeding operation are often inhumane.  Media coverage of breeders caught running substandard operations has lent strength to the cause, and in recent months and years, opponents have stepped up pressure. 

Plain breeders, and in particular Amish and Mennonites in the Lancaster County area, have been high on the list of those targeted.  Though Smith, for example, says in a recent news article that “he's not out to ruin the lives of kennel owners. He just wants to improve the lives of their dogs,” some feel he and others seek to bring an effective end to the industry.   

I asked a friend and Lancaster local (who is not a dog breeder or farmer himself, but with close ties in the community) to share some thoughts on the recent developments and the controversy surrounding dog breeding.  Here are his comments:

The idea that Amish and Mennonites are at the forefront of this business is absurd and fallacious, for 3 reasons.

First of all, puppy mills were in operation at least 50 years before Amish and Mennonite  farmers began raising dogs, and those were in more wretched and deplorable conditions than any dog operations today.

Secondly, there are at least 4 times as many non-Amish/Mennonite dog operations in the US as there are Amish- or Mennonite-operated ones.

Finally, the enormous amount of slaughter animals or byproducts thereof required to produce the dog food needed to feed these carnivores for the most part comes from factory farms.  Operations methods for these farms were mostly developed in institutions of agricultural higher learning.  They were not developed on family farms by simple farmers.

Another point is this:  In capitalist America, if there is a demand for something, including puppies, the product will come from somewhere.  In this case it will be the Midwest, Mexico and Canada, as in fact is already the case.

With all this being said, I also agree that conditions in kennels should be improved. However, chasing Lancaster County breeders out of business will not increase the welfare of dogs one iota.  Still, all things considered, it will be best if Lancaster County farmers find other livelihoods, as in fact most of the breeders in Lancaster are doing.  
It's disheartening to see, again and again, the typical American way of getting an agenda filled. You promote your cause, press your viewpoints, and exploit any exposure and media attention you can garner, painting halos and wings on yourself as you go. Then you trash and demonize your opponents, turning them into villains and monsters without regard for truth or commonsense. Paste horns, forked tails, and hooves, along with evil hisses anywhere you possibly can.  Cram a staw hat on them horns and you got the caricature of a puppy miller.

I remember how it felt so twisted to watch the spectacle of a member of the rock group Poison, along with other celebrities, many of whom made millions glorifying sex, drugs, and violence, come to Lancaster and shout slogans at simple hardworking families who in their own minds were doing nothing more than trying to pay off the family farms. Admittedly, watching bearded and simple farmers raise puppies in a commercial context is distasteful and offensive to urban sensitivities. But those Hollywood celebrities sure looked funny with their wings and halos. Something is not quite right here and I doubted if it helped the cause of the dogs, at least not in a lot of Lancaster minds, both plain and mainstream.
Further this is typical thought and opinion, both plain and mainstream, in rural areas such as Lancaster.   The consensus is that some kennels at least could stand improvement and that the activists are mostly urban extremists who do not understand the realities of rural life.  The fact remains that livelihoods are being given up because of disturbed urban sensitivities.

January 19, 2010

Lancaster long ago?

Lancaster farm old styleNot really, but on picnik.com, a nice user-friendly site that allows you to edit photos, I came up with this old-timey rendition of a shot I took last year of a Lancaster County farm.  I kind of like it.  Or, maybe I don't.  Still trying to decide. 

I usually don't like to spend a lot of time touching up photos, but there are some pretty neat effects on the site, and I was in a bit of a non-writing mood today...
More words to come tomorrow (and actually, we'll have a guest post from a Lancaster local, so maybe this shot is an appropriate preview after all).

January 18, 2010

Blue Monday..?

Amish barefoot boy
Apparently this is the "most depressive day of the year", due to bad weather and Christmas debt and a whole host of other reasons researchers tell us we should be feeling lousy today.

For what it's worth, I think this little guy has the right idea.  How many more days til bare feet are back again? (fewer for many Amish than for me, in any case)  

Thanks to reader Roni for the photo.

January 17, 2010

Raber's Almanac

Raber's Almanac

A while back I wrote a post on Raber's Almanac, an annual guide used by the Amish.  

The Almanac includes an extensive listing of Amish church districts and their ministers.  It also includes a Scripture and hymn schedule for church service as well as some folk wisdom and even a dab of astrology, which I examined in the original post.

The other day I came across a nice piece on the Almanac which you might find interesting, from Mennonite Weekly Review.  

In it, one learns that the almanac has been printed since 1930 in its German version, and since 1970 in its English version.  Also, at one time Hutterite ministers were listed as well, along with Old Colony Mennonite congregations in Latin America, though this seems to no longer be the case*.  

Apparently the content differences between the German and the English versions can be significant as well--with a light inspirational poem in the English version replaced by a theological essay in the German edition, for example. 

(*Just double-checked, and found a single page listing names of ministers of Old Colony Mennonite communities in the 2008 Almanac, so I assume this is the case with the most recent edition.  Hutterite ministers are not listed, however).

January 15, 2010

Burning rubber in an Old Order Mennonite buggy

Old order mennonite buggy
Ruth at Body, Soul, and Spirit shares the above photo and others in a recent post about a trip through an Old Order Mennonite-inhabited region in Canada. 

Notice the wheels, or rather tires on this carriage.  Stephen Scott explains in Plain Buggies: Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren Horse-Drawn Transportation that rubber tires are common for the larger Mennonite groups in Waterloo County, Ontario, but that some smaller groups do not permit their use.  In fact, you'll notice that in other photos on Ruth's blog, the carriages pictured have the usual spoked wheels. 

Scott also notes that rubber tires are common among most of the Old Order Mennonites in Virginia.   

January 14, 2010

Amish on the radio

In an unusual appearance for an Amishman, Amos Miller, whose Lancaster County farm was featured last week in a BusinessWeek profile, has done an interview for a Portland, Oregon radio station. 

The interview is interesting on a number of levels:  the business philosophies shared by Amos ("bigger business is not always better",
"we're really losing knowledge of how to do things") the discussion of small farming and the food we eat, and of course, the fact that an Amishman--even a business owner--took the uncommon step of appearing on a radio program.  I imagine the fact that it took place well away from Amish ears, on the West Coast, may have made it easier for Amos to do.

Beyond 50 host Daniel Davis seems to sympathize with the idea that technology can cause a disconnect in relationships. 
Among other things, Amos discusses how Amish maintain relationships without the help of Facebook, and also explains the boundaries Amish place on technology: "I can't imagine having the telephone ring while you're eating a good meal."

On visiting the city: "I'm glad when I'm there, but I'm really glad when I can get back out."

Amos teams with Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation, who helps promote his and other small farms, on the interview.  You can listen to the podcast here.

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