As Lancaster County changes, so does business in Amish community
Lancaster County is strongly identified with its Amish residents and, as it turns out, that bond goes both ways.
Roughly 6,400 Amish families live in the county, according to Donald Kraybill, distinguished college professor and senior fellow in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. Despite rising property prices, only about 400 families have left in the past 12 years. “A trickle” is how he describes it, and even that has slowed in the past few years.
The ones who go generally want to farm and seek rural areas where land is cheaper, about two-thirds of them in other states, he says. But the bigger story he sees is the many who choose to stay and adjust to the changing environment by taking up increasingly non-agricultural occupations.
“They are extremely industrious, extremely entrepreneurial,” he says. The shift from agriculture started about 35 years ago, he says, and accelerated over time. Today, more than two-thirds of the Amish households in Lancaster County don't receive their primary income from farming.
Instead, Kraybill says, they're working in construction and manufacturing and many, many small businesses.
“Many times, the same family may be farming but also have two or three sideline enterprises, where a teenage boy might be raising pets or the mother might have a small fabric shop,” he says. The culture works as an informal but effective program in entrepreneurship, with children starting to work alongside family members at a young age and then, after finishing their formal education in eighth grade, starting full-time work.
“They work hard and they have low overhead, they're very strong competitors,” says Kraybill. “They've made a huge contribution to the economy and the stability of Lancaster County, and I think that will continue to increase.”
Grant Brown, franchise owner of Interstate All Battery Center in Manheim Township, has seen that, because the Amish community represents a big part of his business. He works with them on everything from household lighting to tool rebuilding, and while he believes that farming is still their first priority, he says they're “very creative in developing supplemental income through various business opportunities such as woodworking, metal working, repair, maintenance, welding and carriage-building.”
Kraybill thinks the occupational shift would have happened regardless of tourism, but, he says, having flocks of tourists in the area did smooth the transition by providing an easy market for some products, such as furniture and crafts.
Joseph Harasta, professor of communication studies at Kutztown University, presented a slightly different perspective in a paper released earlier this year titled, “The Amish — A People of Preservation and Profitability.”
Focusing on Lancaster County, Harasta acknowledged the reciprocal relationship the Amish have with tourism, saying, “Nearly all interviewed Amish merchants accepted their lives as business owners selling goods directly to consumers.” But, he says, some also mentioned fear that so much interaction with the broader society would erode the Amish family structure, and he sees the patterns becoming problems in the long run.
“The area is becoming a victim of its success — too many people not finding what they are looking for because there are too many people looking for something that is no longer there,” he says.
Up close and personal
Kathleen Frankford doesn't see that happening. She's president of the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau, and she notes both that the preponderance of Amish are staying here and “adjusting to the economic climate” and that Lancaster County has high repeat visitation rates.
A study the bureau conducted earlier this year found that tourists are generally looking for more interactive and educational experiences these days, wanting to be participants instead of spectators. Frankford says she has seen Lancaster respond with more in-home or on-farm offerings in the past few years.
“A lot of our Amish attractions are offering opportunities for people to come in and interact with the Amish,” she says. But it's not just them. Visitors also want close contact with other locals, too, “to get a feel and a flavor for the area and what's unique about it.”
For instance, she says, the bureau has been seeing a lot of interest in walkable towns and villages like Lititz, Strasburg and Intercourse, where visitors can park and shop and “just wander and talk to locals and shop owners.”
What she calls “the Amish component” is still a cornerstone of Lancaster County's brand, Frankford says, setting the area apart from other destinations. But, as Lancaster County continues to develop, a growing list of other attractions including outdoor activities, wineries and breweries and fine dining gives them additional reasons to visit.
“I think a lot of people who live in this area probably don't realize how special this destination is,” Frankford says.