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The original article can be found at The New York Times ( with picts and video)- http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/08/business/smallbusiness/08sbiz.html?_r=1
“Their whole intent is to not be caught up in the hustle and bustle of the modern world,” said John Swaffer, advertising manager at the Keim Lumber Company, a lumber mill in Charm, Ohio.
The Amish move into the world of commerce has been more out of necessity than desire. Over the last 16 years, the Amish population in the United States — mostly in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana — has nearly doubled, to 230,000, and the decreasing availability and increasing cost of farmland has forced many of these agrarian families, especially the younger generation, to gravitate to small business as their main source of income.
The businesses, which favor such Amish skills as furniture-making, quilting, construction work and cooking, have been remarkably successful. Despite a lack of even a high school education (the Amish leave school after the eighth grade), hundreds of Amish entrepreneurs have built profitable businesses based on the Amish values of high quality, integrity and hard work. A 2004 Goshen College study reported that the failure rate of Amish businesses is less than 5 percent, compared with a national small-business default rate that is far higher. (According to a federal study, only two-thirds of all small-business start-ups survive the first two years and fewer than half make it to four years.)
Doug Winbigler of Amish Originals Furniture Company, a retailer in Westerville, Ohio, has witnessed the Amish transition since he opened in 1992. “The change today is unbelievable,” said Mr. Winbigler, who is not Amish but buys his furniture from 75 Amish craftsmen in northern Ohio. “When we started, there was a hesitance because this was still a small industry and they wondered how we would treat them and represent them. They were concerned that they would be exploited. Today it has become more of a business and from a small-business angle, people are people. There are good and bad in every bunch.”
Many Amish have dealt with the collision of modern business technology and old world values by keeping their home and work lives completely separate. Though they still drive horses and buggies, remain off the power grid and wear simple, handmade clothing, some are using computers and power tools and talking on cellphones at their jobs.
Keim’s 120,000-square-foot showroom uses the latest computer technology and software. Given that the company’s general manager and most of its department managers are Amish, Keim had to go through a lengthy transition to get its workers to feel comfortable with the new technology.
“As a company, Keim didn’t want to violate the Amish principles,” Mr. Swaffer said. “Our owner, Bill Keim, shares the same principles, and there was a desire not to offend anyone. So it took a couple of years of education to get everybody on board.”
Mr. Troyer grew up on a farm without electricity, automobiles, telephones or television. His home is still without these modern conveniences but he is comfortable using a phone and computer at work. He does not drive but is willing to ride in a car. He acknowledges that some Amish churches grapple with collision of the old and the new and will not allow their members to use a phone or ride in a car, even at work. “Our community is a little more liberal,” Mr. Troyer said
In a culture that puts a premium on families staying at home and working together on the farm, young Amish are increasingly leaving to take jobs outside the home. In a community for which time stood still in the 19th century, such changes are significant.
For the Amish community in North America, the move from farming to small business is really a mini-industrial revolution,” said Donald B. Kraybill, a professor and senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. “This is the most important and consequential change they’ve experienced since they came to North America in the 18th century.”
Professor Kraybill, who co-wrote “Amish Enterprise: From Plow to Profits,” estimates that more than half of Amish households now earn their primary income from small business rather than farming and in some Amish settlements (there are more than 400 different settlements in North America), the percentage of households earning their income from nonfarming commerce is over 90 percent.
“It is a dramatic change,” Professor Kraybill said. “It impacts the family and exposes them to the concept of competition and the need to use technology to be able to compete effectively.”
Professor Kraybill said he did not have data on how Amish businesses were faring in this current economy. He said he had heard that some had laid off employees and cut back hours but he knew of no business that had closed in the last six months. “I doubt if many will,” he said, because “the church usually comes in and takes over failing businesses before they fail.”
Like other religions, the Amish have various degrees of orthodoxy. There are many different affiliations of Amish groups, from the heavily traditional Old Order to the more progressive Amish Mennonites. Each church district has its own rules about everything from dress to use of technology. Some continue to shun extensive contact with the modern world while others are more flexible and pragmatic about embracing new technologies. Generally, each Amish community has a bishop who can decide, with the community’s input, whether or not to accept changes.
Mr. Winbigler said he had learned in his 16 years in the Amish furniture business that doing business with the Amish is all about the relationships. Real friendships have formed, and Mr. Winbigler has been invited to Amish weddings, funerals and family gatherings. “We’ve seen the intimate side of the community and it has been wonderful. But as it becomes more of a business, you lose time for some of those special things.”
Inevitably, the shift toward business amounts to a tradeoff for the Amish. According to Professor Kraybill, the Amish are generally frugal, very astute businesspeople who can outbid non-Amish contractors because they are able to keep their costs low. Amish small-business owners do not pay Social Security taxes, for example, because of an exemption granted to them in 1965. The family cares for the elderly and the local church takes care of health care expenses. All this has enabled them to increase the wealth in their communities and sustain their preferred way of life.
But the Amish struggle with the impact on the family. “The family can’t work together the way they did on the farm,” Professor Kraybill said. “If there are three teenage sons, they may each be going off to a job somewhere else. The father may be going off to work as well.”
A version of this article appeared in print on January 8, 2009, on page B3 of the New York edition.
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