No 44: Amish Questions

When we talk about the contradictions in cultures, Mose leans forward and smiles, his eyebrows bobbing. Copy of P1140109He’s interested in the rest of the world, too, what we know, how we might help. We walk around his farm, past the chicken barn and the housing for his thirty dairy cows that are intensively grazed using new pasture management ideas that came from New Zealand. In some ways, it’s a very traditional method: shepherds used to move fences and manage their flocks and pastures actively. Such grazing requires large inputs of skill and knowledge, and improves grass yields and cattle health, increases organic matter in the soil, up half a percent over a decade, so sequestering carbon too.

There’s a new milking parlour, too, to increase labour efficiency: it is solar-powered. Six Belgian horses stamp in the yard, chestnut in colour with a white blaze on their foreheads, and tan manes and tails. There are other new practices: solar telephone booths for the business, a dog-breeding operation for the pet industry, and composting of chicken waste for the maize fields.

This question of innovation is often perplexing for outsiders. A seemingly unchanging culture that on the inside changes. The Amish are clear: they innovate, but on their terms. And only if new technologies and practices help to build social capital. Modern society is good at pulling things and people apart, separating family, work and play, destroying social relationships.

But the Amish engage in both resistance and negotiation, and in turn will ask tough questions: why do the civilised people deposit their elderly in bleak retirement homes, why do they move house so often and lose touch with family and friends, why do home-owners sit on ride-on lawn mowers and then drive to the gym?

Perhaps we should ask such questions of ourselves.