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Planting communities: York County Amish settlement could be harbinger for new approach to migration

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Take a drive through the rolling hills of southeastern York County these days, and you might see a sight that people normally associate with the Lancaster side of the Susquehanna River: An Amish horse-and-buggy clop-clopping its way down a rural road. 

If you had happened to be in the area in the spring of 2016, you might have stumbled upon an old-fashioned barn raising.

That’s because there’s a new Amish community near Glen Rock, founded last year by families from the Lancaster settlement.

There had been a few Amish families in southeast York County before, but they would return to Lancaster County to worship, crossing the Norman Wood Bridge. This, by contrast, is a true “daughter settlement.”

The Amish say it’s taken hold and is flourishing. There are more than a dozen households, totaling more than 70 people. There are three ministers, so the settlement can hold church services.

Lancaster’s Amish have founded daughter settlements before. What makes this one different is that it’s a trial run for what scholars of the Amish say is a new idea: A program of well-planned and possibly community-supported migration to help ease population pressure and land scarcity.

Up to now, Amish migration from the Lancaster settlement has been “ad hoc,” said Steven Nolt, senior scholar at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. Historically, “there hasn’t been a communitywide planned strategy” for outmigration.

“We’ve never really had that piece before,” he said. “That could potentially be a game-changer.”

One Amishman who had a hand in the Glen Rock project calls it “planting communities.”

LNP recently met with him, Nolt and Don Kraybill, senior fellow emeritus at the Young Center, to talk about it.

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An Amish buggy warning sign in southern York County.

Population pressure

In 1970, the population of the Lancaster Amish settlement was around 8,000. Today, it’s an estimated 37,000.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s the largest in North America, according to the Young Center. And for a society centered around farming in a region facing intense development pressure, it’s problematic.

These days, Lancaster County land can fetch $25,000 per acre or more, said Bill O’Brien.

He’s chief lending officer of the Bank of Bird-in-Hand, a small local bank that caters to the Plain sect community.

O’Brien said he’s seen prices above $30,000 an acre. As a rule, he said, if you’re paying more than $10,000 an acre, you’ve exceeded a farm’s income-earning potential.

Over the past generation, spurred by necessity, many local Amish have shifted into construction and manufacturing occupations. Families have gotten somewhat smaller. But the population pressure continues to intensify.

Elsewhere, there are less settled areas where farmland is cheaper. But migration is a touchy topic within Lancaster’s Amish community.

Daughter settlements aren’t hindered, but as Nolt noted, they’ve been “ad hoc,” expected to make their own way. And that exposes them to risks that can lead to failure.

There may be unexpected startup costs. Migrants may have less access to the Amish’s staple tools, such as buggies or hydraulic pumps, Kraybill said.

Would-be dairy farmers may discover there isn’t an accessible market for their milk. They may clash with township officials over zoning or other ordinances.

Internal disputes may arise over how conservative to be, impairing the harmony needed in a small, close-knit community.

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A group of Amish men frame a barn near Glen Rock, York County, in this March 2016 photo. 

Risk reduction

What can would-be settlers do? What’s needed, the Amishman involved in the Glen Rock settlement said, is a program consciously designed to reduce risk.

He believes settlements need a minimum of five to 10 families. Then, those families need to sit down and reach agreement on the character they want the new settlement to have.

They may lean more or less conservative, but they all have to be on the same page. And the more they can figure out practical matters ahead of time, the better.

Only then should they start looking at possible locations, he said.

It’s tempting to put the search for land first and foremost, but it’s a mistake, he said. It needs to be “culture first, real estate second.”

When the discussion does turn to land, one potential advantage of a more systematic approach could be a greater awareness of the broader rural real estate market.

Untapped areas could be researched, and if daughter settlements could be established more regularly, spreading demand out over more areas, that would reduce the chance of creating localized real estate price spikes.

Brian Parrish, a Realtor with Bennett Williams in York County, represented the selling side in one of the Glen Rock transactions.

York County farmland is going for around $7,000 to $10,000 an acre, he said. As O’Brien noted, that is still low enough for farming to be financially viable.

O’Brien and Parrish both emphasized that a particular property’s price depends on many factors, including soil productivity, easements, infrastructure and so on.

As an Amish community gets established, talking over plans with township officials ahead of time can head off problems and minimize conflicts over zoning, building codes and the like. That’s been a priority for the organizers of the Glen Rock settlement, who have been helping out as go-betweens.

It’s been appreciated, said Loren Riebling, manager of York County’s Manheim Township, and “it absolutely makes things go much more smoothly.”

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A new farmstead built off Lineboro Road near Glen Rock.

The big picture

Ben Riehl is a Lancaster County Amishman who owns a market stand at The Markets at Shrewsbury, near Glen Rock.

The Lancaster Amish know about the hopes for the Glen Rock settlement, and they are interested in seeing how it goes, he said.

The settlement is only a step toward the “planting communities” idea. In time, the model could include more planning in advance, and perhaps even a committee within the Lancaster settlement offering financial and logistical support to daughter communities.

Old Order horse-and-buggy Mennonites have been able to offer such support to their daughter communities, Kraybill said, and it’s been effective: Failed settlements are rare.

But that support is offered through Old Order Mennonites’ centralized conference structure. In the Lancaster Amish settlement, Nolt said, congregations are largely autonomous, so a settlement support system would have to be created from scratch.

Moreover, he said, up to now, the choice to move has been seen as a family or personal decision. It would be a break from tradition for church leaders to start taking a more active role, and deference to tradition is a powerful and important norm.

There are Amish settlements in Ohio and Michigan where migration is seen differently, Nolt said. There, the idea of starting new settlements has a theological component, that of expanding the Amish culture’s “witness to the world,” he said.

Nolt thinks the idea of a support committee is a good one, if it can be implemented. New settlements are typically started by young families, so having additional financial and logistical support could make a big difference.

The Young Center publishes annual Amish population updates and tracks the formation of new Plain Sect settlements. Nolt and Kraybill said they’ll be keeping an eye on how the initiative fares over the next few years.

“I think it potentially could be really significant,” Nolt said.

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A new Amish schoolhouse under construction off Rockville Road near Glen Rock.