Drifting Wonderfully Portrait of a Plain Farmer

Cultivating Questions

Concerning the Bio-Extensive Market Garden

by Anne & Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

A recurring question at our conference workshops and small group tours: how did we learn the bio-extensive practices we use for weed management? One reason we put together the new booklet of articles introduced in the Spring 2007 SFJ was to specifically address this question. The collection of eight essays emphasizes our learning curve, both trial-and-error and gaining practical advice from friends and neighbors. The progression of new and old holistic weed-the-soil strategy have evolved over the last 24 years.

To fill in the philosophical side of our learning curve, we decided to reprint in the column our very first submission to the Small Farmer’s Journal. We apologize to longtime subscribers of the Journal who may have already read “Drifting Wonderfully.” They will know how much we have drifted since it was published in the Fall 1984 issue.

For the new crop of CQ readers, we hope that this portrait of a plain farmer shows how our slow-tech approach to farming was influenced by firsthand experience with a culture finely tuned to the consequences of “progress” on agriculture.

There are many hundreds of Amish and Mennonite who subscribe to Small Farmer’s Journal. They are part of us, contributing to the mish-mash of our contemporary culture. They share with us our living experience on this earth. It has always pained me to see how the modern non-Amish look upon them as cultural oddities and curios. The self-righteous, condescending zoo-visitor attitude that many of “us” exhibit towards the Amish is disrespectful, insensitive, and borders on being a sort of racism. We have tried to be “careful” in our editing not to present articles which are demeaning to any race, religion, or culture. The article below is a sensitive, respectful picture of one man’s understanding of a culture within a culture, the Amish. It is because of the care and grace with which Mr. Nordell treats the subject, I elected to print this excellent work in hopes that it might shed light so that some of us might see how much we are all alike and that others would see how great the distance between values. It is my sincere wish that this material does not offend the privacy of anyone. Understanding is a healing force. LRM

Drifting Wonderfully: Portrait of a Plain Farmer

by Eric Nordell


Those of us privileged to have Amish friends and neighbors are no doubt struck by both the contentedness and precariousness that marks their lives. Both qualities are rooted in their faith in Christ, who calls them not only to bring His love in to the world, but also to separate themselves from worldly influence. It is in the Bible that the Amish find mandate for their rejection of worldliness, for uncut beards, plain clothes and coverings for women, for a cooperative and agrarian way of life.

The farm is central to their faith. The farm keeps the family separate from the outside world, children under scrutiny, everyone busy and distracted from temptations. While the Amish feel pressured to modernize by a competitive market, their church imposes restrictions on innovations which might tempt farmers to materialism, to “a life led too fast.” In this manner, religion requires farmers to tread carefully on “the narrow road” between changing too much and changing too little.

At the same time, their faith provides the Amish with a great sense of security, both spiritual and material. Preachers, who are farmers, instruct other farmers in humility, in the forgiveness and salvation found in Christ. The Bible is the source of many values taught in the home: brotherhood, community, cooperation, obedience, harmony, respect and so on. The plain church is democratic, decentralized and guarantees a right to a good living for those unable to provide for their own needs or for those who meet with disaster. The result is a people who have avoided, to a large degree, many of the ugly aspects of modern America – the fragmented family, alienation, identity crises, corruption, waste, greed. In religion then, there are roots for that mix of precariousness and contentedness that characterizes the Amish.

The scope of this documentary is small. One farmer. His family. His horses. His work. The people and things and sentiments which influence his life.

I came to know Jacob Herschberger through Raymond Smoker, an Amish-Mennonite respected among the plain people for his natural remedies and sharp horses. I first met Jake carrying the opposite end of thick pine beams at a barn raising in 1979. At the time, he was looking for help for the next summer. He hired me because Amish families recently settled in Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania were young, and older help in short supply, because we shared interests in organic farming and snappy horses, and I guess because I held up my end of the log. Jake is, perhaps, more curious, outgoing and imaginative than many of the plain farmers in the area. Being the “hired boy” was the arbitrary, but natural and comfortable boundary of my research. On Sunday, I accompanied Jake’s family to church and visiting.

Two sentences hang in my mind from that summer. They are not terribly profound or eloquent, but at the time (as they still do), they startled me. When I asked Jake what he prays about, he said “I pray that you can understand me.” At the close of the summer, he told me in a soft voice as I was departing, “Forgive me for all my shortcomings.” My prayers are the same.


Jake’s uncle Benny takes a particular pleasure in certain facts. He recalls that in the forties, Amish children, then attending the public schools, are given a mathematics problem which proves farmers make ten times as much money using tractors as using horses. In the fifties, professors at the agricultural college predict that, since horse drawn equipment is no longer manufactured and the competitiveness of the market requires larger and larger economies of sale, the Amish will be extinct by 1970. “Today,” uncle Benny laughs, “the English farmers sell out and the Amish keep on going. Wonder how they’ll figure that!”

When cars begin to raise the dust on the dirt roads of Lancaster County, Amish bishops and preachers meet in their barns. They ban the cars. The tractors roll on the land after the First World War, and they ban them, too. Public schools begin to consolidate. Bishops, fearing children will see radio and television in the classrooms and will be forced to study science, appeal to the state, which finally grants them the right to educate the children themselves. Each church district builds a one-room school.

In a barn full of curing hay, a dissenting hand is raised in the musty air. A farmer says he will trim his beard. Another will plow his fields with a tractor, put rubber wheels on his wagon. They will drive cars. These dissenting voices lead to censure, or in some cases, the splintering of the church. New congregations are formed. They are called New Order Amish, Amish-Mennonites, Team Mennonites, Black-Bumper Mennonites, and so on. The Old Order Amish make the fewest concessions to men’s desires. They carefully and strictly instruct their young, their close-knit community a surveillance system unto itself. For those who fancy straying, there is always the fear of being “shunned” in the back of the mind. This practice of shunning in its severity distinguishes the Old Order from many of its plain church neighbors.

Telephone and power lines cut across the rolling farmland. They pass by Amish farmhouses. No wires run to these kitchens or barns. The plain farmers will not plug into a circuitry which nets the countryside and links it to a greater, hidden and less responsible source of power. While lamps flicker gently in the Amish homes and barns, a farmer loses his cornfields to a nuclear plant, or hydroelectric dams.

On Sundays, horse-and-buggies crowd the breakdown lanes of highways near Smoketown. The roads lead north to Lancaster and Harrisburg and south to Baltimore, to smaller towns such as Bird-in-Hand, Morgantown, Blue Ball, Quarryville, and even smaller towns with names like Nine Points, the Buck, Wakefield, Drumore, Chestnut Level, and Peach Bottom.

They are dairymen, mostly, milking twenty or thirty or forty head of black and white Holstein cows. With soaring prices of land and costs of farming, more and more Amish build chicken houses and piggeries, or raise such labor-intensive crops as tobacco, tomatoes, cucumber. Others, lured by hourly wages and a workday circumscribed by the clock, go to the factories. Industry, tourism, suburban sprawl creep in between the farms. The high price of real estate and the lack of available farmland force Amish to move to the valleys, northwest and northeast of Lancaster, or out of state to Maryland, Michigan, Delaware, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri and Canada. But the farmers are reluctant to leave family, community and the fertile, yielding land.

Young families move from Smoketown to Peach Bottom. Land is cheaper there in the river hills of the Susquehanna. Some families leave Smoketown, Jake says, because they do not want their children in company with Amish “wild ones” bred, he believes, by a mix of too much commercialism and too many people living too closely together. They are conservative Amish, plainest among the plain.

On the Goshen Mill Road, running off the 272, Jake farms eighty acres in corn, alfalfa and mixed grasses, with another twenty acres in pasture and woodland. He milks thirty cows, raises his own heifers, stables seven work horses, three driving horses and a mule. Jake and Annie are in their midtwenties. They live, along with their three young children, in the new half of the large, white, shutterless house which they built for themselves. In the original half of the house lives Annie’s parents, Chris and Jemima, and her sister Melinda.

Four years ago, when Annie and her brother Benny are both married within the same month, Chris rents his farm in Smoketown to Benny and buys the land in Peach Bottom from old man Cummins. He rents the farm to Jake. It does not pay for both of them to work the farm, so Chris joins the carpenters. He receives top wages, four dollars an hour.

Three months before the families move from Smoketown to Peach Bottom, Jake renovates the barn, expanding the dairy and stables. He breaks up the old floor with a pneumatic hammer in the mornings, pours concrete in the afternoons, hauls manure in the evenings, and sleeps nights in the milkhouse. Sometimes he wanders over the farm imagining what crops he will plant, which way the fields will lie. He sifts the dark Chester loam between his fingers.

Eli Stoltzfus owns a neighboring farm. He leaves for the weekend to visit relatives in the valleys. His nephew Davie will do the milking and chores while he is gone.

Standing in the silo Saturday morning, Davie pitches the silage down the stairwell chute. The rhythm of the work is mesmerizing and Davie decides to put down enough silage for the weekend. When he finishes, he realizes he has blocked up the chute so he cannot get out. He climbs to the top of the silo. From there he can see the fields spread out below him. Hay wagons crawl slowly along field lanes to the barns. A few buggies move over the hilly roads. Boys race tractors on an English farm on the ridge. Davie can see the traffic on the highway and boats on the Susquehanna. He yells to his wife to clear the silage away. His voice carries on the southerly breezes, so heavy with moisture they break like waves over the land. Farmers, driving their teams in the fields, lift their heads. They see Davie two hundred feet in the air, flapping his arms. It is a curious vision. The farmers come running and gather beneath the silo, murmuring and then laughing.


Jake’s face is at once broad along the forehead and tapered at the chin. It is a thin, but soft face with long brows. His blue eyes are both kind and meditative or quick, roaming, mischievous like a child’s, his lips forever breaking into a grin.

Jake prefers the old straw hat, battered and weathered, the top torn loose and flapping like a stovepipe, to the new. He is comfortable in the patched black pants, suspendered low, large caricatures of his spirited motion. Jake is hung loosely and leanly together. He contracts and expands and directs his light frame with amazing force, the kind learnt from a childhood of lifting machinery and taming horses, working levers and raising beams. Jake’s are good-sized hands, large when filled by a child’s worried palm and small when lifting the Belgian’s hoof. In spite of all the work outside, Jake’s skin is light like a schoolboy’s.

The work horses stand in the shadows of the forebay under the barn. They rub their necks against the doorjambs. Jake throws the harness on the horses. Buckling the leather, he talks in whispers to their backsides. “Ah, you, Jessie. If your head wasn’t where your stomach is supposed to be, you wouldn’t be so foundered all the time. Now you, muley, what will we call you? Cully? Because I think we’ll have some fun with you in the cultivator this summer? Hasn’t that stone worked out of your hoof yet, Lea? We’ll put some lard on the hairline, then.” Jake slips the bridles on, snaps the checklines. He slides open the white weatherboard door, and the horses, excited by the sight of daylight, step out on the road. He drives the two teams of three behind the barn and along the alfalfa field. His bare feet run lively over the asphalt and rock and loose soil. The young, tan-colored mule kicks in her harness.

The two-bottom plow sits with its jaws bit deep into the moist earth. Jake leads the horses into the tilled ground and hitches them in front of the plow. The mule looks back with glistening eyes, her large ears making question marks in the air. She swings her rear out. Jake smiles at the mule and wobbles his head in mimicry. Unable to coax her back into place, he puts his hind-end against hers, plants his feet, and being the more ornery of the two, pushes her over, hooks the traces, springs away, and dances in front of the mule, flapping his ears with his hands.

The horses make their way across the length of the field, one team of three followed by another team of three, followed by the plow cutting cleanly into the land, Jake is absorbed with the movement of the horses. His knees, his pants, elbows, shoulders give and rise with the plow. Gently, his hands pull on the lines, the leather easing through the palms. Jake stands atop the plow moving slowly through the rye like a lobsterman at the tiller with silent wake, two waves curling parallel behind.

At the end of the field as he turns the long procession wide, the mule kicks, catching her leg over the traces. Jake sits in the rye. Chewing on a stem, he wonders how to reach the trace that lies between the kicking mule and the horse beside. “My uncle, he once had a kicker,” he says. “He’d just lie down under the mule and let the mule kick over his head.” He laughs at the idea of it, and the fear of it, then wriggles under the mule, unhooks the trace, slides it around the mule’s hoof, hooks it again, backs out on all fours, and lets the breath escape through his teeth.

The heat lies in the rye and on the horses’ backs. Sweat rolls off their bellies. Their ribs heave, pushing the heavy air through their gaping nostrils. Jake unhitches and drives the plow team back to the forebay. The stallions scream from their box stall as they will when a buggy passes on the road or the colts are first let out in the morning. Jake slides the door shut. With a jerk, he pulls the checklines through the harnesses, leaving them coiled on the floor. He slips the sweaty bridles off the horses as they crowd the water trough. Using a cut-out Clorox bottle, he scoops the horse’s oats, then pitches hay down from the loft above.

Jake slips into the kitchen and touches Annie on the shoulder. She is nursing the baby while working over the stove. Sitting at the head of the table, he curls the boys’ hands into their laps where they sit on the bench to his side. Bowing their heads, the family prays in silence. After eating and praying again, Jake pulls the boys leg-first onto his knees and bounces them and sings to them and tickles them silly.

Jake spends the breezy spring afternoon, ripe for preparing the soil, galloping over the farm on one of the young stallions. A cowboy with a black hat. He herds the neighbor’s heifers into the field where the lumber company had broken down the fence, then races to help the hired boy untangle the horses and harrow turned inside-out by a green colt that snapped his bit in terror, then races back to herd the heifers escaped once again. Jake is not concerned with the lost time, just happy to feel the smoothness of the young stallion’s gallop underneath, dreaming of how this horse will grow.

After supper, Jake and Annie head for the barn. They leave the baby Sarah in the express wagon at the one end of the dairy, her eyes big with cows. At the other end of the dairy, the flat evening light silhouettes their movement: sliding in between the stanchioned cows with milkers in hand, sweeping the tubes up to the vacuum line overhead, stooping and attaching the machines, skipping across the gutter again, removing the milker from the next cow and dumping the steaming milk into the portable station, and then repeating the well-rehearsed choreography which somehow reconciles man, machine and beast. Each squatting beside a cow, Jake and Annie talk quietly of a recent barn-raising, and who to visit this Whitsuntide. In the long, meditative silences, Jake’s mind tends to daydream over future projects: constructing a machine to sprout oats for cattle feed; laying a massive foundation for composting large quantities of manures behind the barn; adapting a chisel plow to pull with horses; building a house underground; designing a perpetual motion machine. He wonders if such free thinking is dangerous if it will finally drive him crazy, but persuades himself otherwise. He thinks imagination is beneficial for the mind, and likens it to the life organic farming brings to the soil. “Imagination, why, it’s bacteria for the brain!”

While Annie readies the children for bed, Jake forks down corn silage for the morning. The gas lantern makes a dance of his kaleidoscoping shadows on the concrete walls. Silage rattles in the chute before landing with a muffled thud in the cart below. And the words of the hymn Jake sings heads where pigeons flutter in the soft green light of the silo’s dome.


Ed Martin sells for Fertrell, Organic Feed & Fertilizer Company. He does not hesitate to enter Jake’s home and pull the pencil from behind his ear and the paper scraps from grain bags out of his back pocket on which he has scribbled Jake’s bills and sit and refigure and refigure the bills, all the while saying how busy he is and when he started the business, he did not think it would get so big and pretty soon if it gets any bigger, he will have to get proper bills made up and a system for filing them and maybe even hire a secretary, but he just cannot seem to get around to doing it. He preaches freely while he figures:

“Footwashing? Why cleaning the disciples’ feet after a dusty day of walking is just the natural meaning. You’ve got to look deeper, to the most spiritual meaning. Not everyone has the gift to see the spiritual side of things. The foot washing is washing away your sins. That’s what it means. We have foot washing twice a year in the plainer churches. Along with communion. It’s easy to share a cup of wine with your brothers. You can do it and still hate your brother, but conscience ought to convict you. Now you can’t kneel down and wash your brother’s feet if you don’t honestly love him.”

Ed wears blue jeans, a small derby hat, elastic suspenders which cross in the back, a plain-colored shirt, the sleeves rolled up so they tighten the short muscles in his arms. They are the work clothes of his church. His voice booms. He likes to draw out his words for effect, arrange and rearrange his sentences to give them scriptural weight. It is the same voice for talking about the acidity of the soil and the destiny of souls. He says, “The land is a blessed gift from the Lord in all its natural perfection and nurturance. It’s a crime for man to tamper with this God-given wonder with his man-made poisons.”

Ed backs his truck up the ramp to the barn where he unloads the bags of organic fertilizer on his back. He kneels on a bale of oat hay and cranks a long auger into the alfalfa hay stacked high in the barn loft. He puts the samples in plastic bags for testing. The oat hay touches off a sequence of memories in his head of days before the balers and combines made waste of the farmer’s crops. He remembers collecting bags of chaff from the old threshing machines which filled bins bigger than those for the grain. The chaff was used for roughage to keep the horses through the winter. Corn was put up in shocks, the good shocks chopped up for cow feed and the twisted, fallen ones spread out on the fields in the spring to dry, then fed to the horses, what they did not eat going for bedding. He believes the corn fodder raised the butterfat in the cows’ milk. He says, “Back in those days, a herd averaging 9,000 lbs. was doing good. If a man had a cow who would give 13 or 14,000 lbs. in a year, that was something to talk about. That’s the kind of cow you’d talk about after church on Sunday. Or even before church, a cow like that. Today, a herd averaging 14 or 15,000 lbs., that’s a pretty common farmer.”

Perhaps what weighs most heavily on Ed’s mind is the busy life the machines have brought in. He thinks of the machines pushing the man harder and harder in the fields, and the men pushing the cows harder and harder in the barns. He remembers as a boy the family sitting on the porch during that last half hour before dusk, talking, playing with the baby, a peaceful time to bring the family together. When farmers put electric light in the barns, they work until ten and eleven at night. He tells Jake, “When people get richer, they drift further from their religion. You can see it plain as day. The people do as they please. When a people are under poverty, why, they cling closer to God, surely. But we have another thing going against us today. Credit. Credit lets the poor man live like the rich man.”

Ed recalls: “You know, when I grew up, I was in the black bumper church. We drove tractors with steel wheels on. I was a boy then, and I couldn’t understand why if we had tractors, we couldn’t have rubber tires. It just didn’t make sense. One day we put rubber on the tractor wheels. Our church didn’t have much use of us after that. So we went to a church where they allowed those sort of things. After that, I could see once you made an allowance, you could just keep on a-going and a-going. I saw that once you allow one thing to go, it’s just so easy to leave things drift and drift till you end up in ruin. Once it gets a-going, there’s no stopping it.”


When a horse is sick, Jake saddles the younger stallion and gallops the six miles through the river hills along the fishing creek to Raymond’s. Raymond hobbles across the stone and silt washed in his driveway from the cornfields above. His green, worn pants are suspendered crookedly, piled up on his bare feet. His hat is battered and greyed. He is short, big chested, hands curled with crooked fingers. His eyes flash under scowling brows. Raymond ignores his visitor and the fleet of Chihuahuas barking at his heels. He scoops oats into the horses’ troughs in the shadows of the old stone stables held together by cobwebs and caked manure and rough lumber props. Flies make twisters in the patches of sunlight lying on the dirt floor. Without looking at Jake, he says, “Well, aintcha ever gwan ta ask hit? Cantcha see Ahm grumpy?”

Raymond sits on the grain bin, his hands tucked deep in his armpits, eyes following his toes writing in the dust. On the one side of him is a wooden crate containing dark colored bottles stoppered with corn husks and filled with home-made liniments, spirits of turpentine and peppermint, camphor, lard. On the other side, a horse sticks its head through an old cow stanchion and nips his shoulder. Raymond tells Jake a remedy for his horse, how to make a wormer with sulphur, salt, wood ashes and brown sugar, how to sling a calf with a broken leg, to adjust a walking plow to turn a full furrow’s width…

Raymond is a natural healer. His crooked fingers seek out ailment, adjusting bones with a sharp crack. He cures blood poisoning with a comfrey leaf, saves a horse from lockjaw by pouring gas on its back. When a horse kicks him at an auction, he drives two hours in the night delivering the rest of the horses to friends. At home, he rubs his homemade liniment over the broken rib, where he places a few comfrey leaves, and then wraps his chest tightly in a sheet. The next few days he hoes in the garden. By the end of the week, he takes the team to the fields if there is someone to lift the harness for him.

When a horse balks or a stallion rears or a green team kicks and runs, Raymond jumps alive, calming the team with knowing hands on the lines or with the influence of a two-by-four on their backsides or by letting them gallop wild over the neighbor’s fields until they are winded and manageable, a grudging smile spreading all the while over his face. Raymond likes to buy the skinny horses bound for the slaughterhouse, the ones with the conformation of a snappy horse. He pastures them and doctors them and fattens them and breaks and sells them for double the price and cheap at that. He keeps the horses too sharp and ornery for ordinary farmers.

Raymond finds a patch of Indian corn growing on some abandoned neighboring property. He stuffs a few ears in his pockets. He crosses the Indian corn with his own open-pollinated varieties. A neighbor farmer shakes his head when the small, pale-green stalks push through the earth in the spring and he shakes it again in the fall when the corn stands twelve and fourteen feet tall with two full ears and a kernel here and there a curious red. Raymond takes hybrid corn and breeds it back to the original strains. He fears a disease could wipe out all the hybrid corn in the country. But his tall corn twists in a big storm and the irregular height of the ears make it unsuitable for modern machinery.

Raymond begins to farm organically twenty-six years ago when farmers are doubling and tripling their yields with the new chemical fertilizers and miracle hybrid seeds. He nurses the land into good health, rotating crops, spreading manure, planting cover crops, and applying lime with a liberal hand. When other farmers are marrying, Raymond takes in alcoholic men. He feeds them carefully from his garden, encourages the healthy men to work through the day on the farm. When the men yield to a peace of mind and a certain yearning, Raymond sits with them in the living room and reads to them from the Bible in hopes of working out their salvation. The two- and three-century old clocks tick soberly in the room. Raymond says the will needs to be broken, but not the spirit. The men come and go like the horses.

When farmers in the Weavertown Church begin to buy tractors and build mechanized dairies and piggeries, Raymond sticks to the horses because he loves them. He lets his beard grow long instead of trimming it short like the other men in his church, and he wears to church the plainer clothes of his father’s day…

When Jake visits at the end of August, Raymond is plowing with the walking plow and single line. He drives two big stocking-footed mules with two midget mules jockeyed on beside, taking twice the steps of the big mules and still pushing hard into the bit and dancing. Raymond’s legs work as fast as the little mules to keep up with the fast walking team, his slow and steady commands coming. “Eeeeep geeeeeeeah geeup Wabub WHAAAAAAAA eeep.” The leader mule’s big ears move forward and back like twin periscopes, her eyes big, glistening and defiant, head drawn up high with orneriness. A smile breaks over Raymond’s face. He stoops to adjust the little mule’s traces and their hooves fly over his head. “Jupiter’s in the sky. Must be shining in their eyes!” he grins. “Feisty little mites, aren’t they? I never had toys to play with when I was a child. So I figure now that I am entering my second childhood, I ought to have some real live toys for myself. I have to have my fun, don’t I? Giddap, children!”


“…As to the decisions, our Bishops confer together. We have communion twice a year and before communion, the Bishops and ministers have a conference and innovations are discussed, an agreement made to which the lay members are to agree. About 1965 one of the ministers refused to agree. I had written about that which caused a split. They now use tractors and more machinery in the fields. The old order Amish feel that is only a stepping stone to worldliness. Our opinions are based on non-conformity as Paul wrote in Romans 12. Phillips translation reads: “do not let the world around you squeeze you into its mold.”
– from Grandpa Noah Zook’s letter

Jake’s forefathers flee Switzerland under persecution. They do not believe in infant baptism and wish to separate church and state. They refuse to serve in the military or to protect themselves from aggression. In Eastern Europe, they turn the poor marshlands and forests into productive farmland. They are innovators, draining the wetlands, planting beet crops and alfalfa, putting fallow land into pasture. The land yields to their determination and their acreages carry more and more animals. Russian, Romanian landlords envious of their productivity, drive the defenseless farmers from their land. They move westward over the mountains. In Alsace-Lorraine, Raymond says, they learn to drive their horses with the single-line, the commands “haw” for left and “gee” for right. They resist service in the army and are jailed. On the boats sailing for America, they compose hymns to commemorate their martyrs who died under persecution, imprisoned and tortured.

The Amish immigrants seek out the most fertile land on the Atlantic seaboards. Unlike their English neighbors, they farm the land intensively and carefully, so that yields increase from generation to generation. The horse-drawn mower replaces families gathered together in the hayfields, sharpening scythes with stone. Mechanical reapers displace cradlers. Corn binders swath the fields once attached by old men and young boys with long corn chopper knives. Steam-powered engines crawl slowly from farm to farm with their threshing crews like trackless locomotives. Hay forks are turned into manure forks when the hayloaders come in, soon to be followed by the balers. Diesel engines pump water once drawn by hand, run milking machines in the barns where farmers had sat by their cows splashing milk into pails. The engines are mounted on balers, on mowing machines and crimpers, and hauled into the fields with horses. Jake’s father warms himself in the winter, cranking the diesel engine over. In church, he is reluctant to sing without the steady pitch of the diesel whining high in the air.

While in Lancaster, tractors are shared between farmers for threshing wheat and cutting silage. In Somerset County, where the mountain summer is short and the soil heavy, the tractors are used for plowing. When Somerset County fills, some Amish move to Maryland. There they drive tractors in the fields, install telephones in their homes. Children leave their parents. They purchase cars and insurance policies. Jake says the Amish in Somerset are strict, but some of the Amish headed for Maryland are looking for an easier way of life. “They are drifting away,” he thinks. Machines enter a man’s life and sometimes lead him astray.

Jake believes it has been difficult for preachers to decide which innovations to accept and which to reject. They are caught in the delicate position of fathers who must sometimes tell their children “yes” and sometimes “no” and cannot always explain the reasoning behind either. “We have made some mistakes,” he says. “We know we can’t always be right. But that is why we try to pick a preacher who is honest and has a good sense for what is right. Sometimes the preachers give in to what they don’t think is right. It’s one thing if a child asks for something once, but another if it keeps on crying for it. That’s no good. The preachers just accept it without any words than run against the majority and cause friction.”

After church, Jake and Annie visit with Joe and Lydia Stoltzfus. They sit on the wooden chairs in the living room, hesitant to puncture the space between them. Joe’s children prepare the Sunday meal in the kitchen and start the milking in the barn. Joe says, “When the district divided up about five years ago, Beniel Esh was the preacher. It was a year and a half later that Abner was made preacher. Then a year and a half later I became the third preacher. No, after they’ve picked lots and tell you you’re preacher, it’s not a time to kick up your heels and laugh. It’s a real shock. You feel completely unworthy. You know how it works, that we believe God chooses a preacher. I guess ‘chooses’ isn’t the right word. I think it’s better to say God reveals a preacher from among the people. It’s not something you want to do, but if that’s the way it comes, you do your best and you learn not to mind it. I know sometimes when a man is called to the ministry, he acts like he’s not hardly going to give himself up to it.”

“When you preach, you can’t let yourself stand in the way. The worst thing you can do when you’re standing up there in front of everybody is to worry if the people are going to think more or less of you because of what you say. You’ve got to set yourself aside, let God use you as a vehicle for His words. You have to tell them the cruel things that will come into their lives if they fall away from God. It hurts to say these things. Sometimes you cry.”

Conversation consumes the afternoon and evenings as friends and family come to visit. They consider the changes that have come to farm life and search their experiences for indications as to where the changes will lead them. Annie and Lydia come and go from the men’s talk, telling of weddings and births and funerals.

Joe turns to Jake. “We saw something a couple of weeks ago you might think about. We were out visiting in the valleys. There’s a young settlement there, about nine families. They had a few cows and a few pigs. I asked if they had a lot of corn in. They thought so. Twelve acres! They didn’t have running water or refrigerators. I think they were the same group that moved up to the hills awhile back, on to that poor rocky soil, because they thought they would think more on spiritual things if they didn’t live in the midst of such a rich land. Where they live now, the soil is good, but I can’t see how they keep busy or make ends meet on so little. I guess they do. They keep going.”

“I don’t know how you could measure spirituality, if a plainer group was more spiritual than another. I don’t think you can measure that. I do think when people live more simply, they are closer spiritually. It’s like a time of persecution. Their faith is stronger.”

Joe leans back in his chair with a satisfied smile parting his lips as though tasting his imagination. He explains to Jake a design he has seen in an old equipment catalog for a self-sufficient farm on five acres. In Wisconsin, he has seen Amish who farm successfully on twenty-four acres. Joe cannot imagine keeping a family busy on so little acreage. If the children do not have enough work, he believes, it will lead them away from righteous living.

Jake thinks otherwise. A farmer would have to change his ways on a small-scale farm, pull weeds by hand instead of spraying, milk cows by hand, make use of every inch of farmland. The big dairies in Lancaster, Jake thinks, are like factories where you need to work them right through Sunday to keep them going, making farmers too tired for church and the Sabbath too hurried for spiritual thinking. He says outloud, “It seems like the moderner you get, the less like a farm it gets and more like a factory. There’s not much farming life left.”

He is reminded of his Uncle Benny, who is one of the first farmers in the area to buy a baler and mechanical milking machines. After a few years, Benny sells the modern equipment saying, “These things will pull the people down.” It strikes Jake funny that Benny now has “Amish tourists” come to see how the old-time machinery works. One boy, after helping Benny put up hay for the day, reports to his parents that Benny has figured out a way to put up hay loose. “You don’t have to bale it anymore!”

The conversation shifts momentarily to the convenience of the peculiar-looking machinery the Lancaster Amish use. The talk is of tractor manure spreaders, haybines balers, crimpers, cornpickers, no-till planters and sprayers adapted to horse traction, old wringer-washers and modern shop tools run on compressed air, buggies outfitted with fiberglass wheels, hydraulic brakes and battery-operated lights. Old equipment made modern and modern equipment made plain. All at once the irony of this weighs, at first heavily, and then humorously, on Jake’s mind…

Yonny Beiler interrupts Jake’s thoughts. He has a way of laughing through his words. “I have to think twice about going backwards, trying to stick to the old restrictions. You know there’s a settlement out in Indiana where they still milk by hand and have to carry milk to a spring house across the farm to cool. They didn’t allow the bulk tanks to come in. They kept to the spring house and pretty soon they lost their Grade A standing. Well, they had trouble to make ends meet then. Most of the Amish went to work in the rubber factories where they could make four dollars an hour. I’ve got to think it might have been better if they let a few restrictions go and allowed the bulk tanks so they could keep their families on the farm.”

Joe: “I can remember hearing the Bishops discuss this, about the milkers. When they first came in, they didn’t think they’d amount to much. They couldn’t imagine anyone would ever use them, they were such clumsy machines. So they decided not to say anything about them. Well, pretty soon everyone was using them. When the diesels came in for pumping water, no one thought they would be used for locomotion. Same way with the balers. The first balers were so large and clumsy, no one ever thought you could pull them with horses. So the church never put a ban on balers. Then the small pick-up balers came in and the farmers pulled them with their horses. The Amish have adopted just about everything that will pull with horses. It’s hard to say why one settlement made certain restrictions and others didn’t, why some have worked and others haven’t. I guess you’d just have to say it’s the will of the people.”


In the morning, Jake milks earlier than usual, then cleans the stable and puts down fresh bedding. The buggies arrive soon and park on the lawn. The women enter the kitchen with babes in their arms. The men lead the horses to the stables. There, they stand with their chins deep in their beards, rocking in their clean black pants and jackets. A few talk about farming in low tones, about horses and dairy feed. They wonder whether spiders hanging out their webs mean rain or sunshine. Jake smiles, “There will be weather tomorrow.”

The elders make their way slowly to the house. The men follow in small, hesitant groups, bowlegged as if walking in plowed ground. The boys follow last. Inside, the women are already seated, filling half the house. Silence. A wavering grandfather’s voice starts the chant echoed by two hundred rising and falling in steps and half-steps, notes neither dissonant or happy, as if the very tone of the hymns inspired under persecution had been passed down from generation to generation. Songs sung too slow for prison’s guards to dance. It’s a hollow, mournful sound which rings the skeleton of the house.

The hymn lasts for twenty minutes. The preachers enter. Abner stands in a corner where everyone from the different rooms in the house can see him. His words are at first few and rambling. He squeezes the color out of his fingers. Slowly the thick German builds, a rhythm struck, a melody woven into the phrasing not unlike the hymn. His voice rises and falls, then rises again, a sound that is lone and aged like the centuries. Everyone stands while the Bible lesson is read, stoops in unison, then kneels for a long prayer.

Beniel Esh stands. His cool blue eyes and handsome, stern face search the rooms. He preaches for an hour and a half. The men slump over in shifts, or rock in half-sleep-half-meditation on the hard benches, a boy’s blond head fast asleep in their laps. They pray again, the heat tremendous under all those bodies crowded and bent over, the floor creaking with knees. They sing for half an hour. Then they eat in shifts at long tables, the young folks leaving early in their courting buggies.

The men ask Jake each in turn if he has all of his corn planted, as they have for the last few Sundays. They wonder why he is so late and Jake replies he was laying around. They kid him and say it was because of the new baby, implying he could not keep his mind on his work, and at this they are sympathetic. They find the new two-row cultivator Jake recently bought. They poke about the machine and ridicule him for making trouble for himself when he could spray herbicides like everyone else. The old men nod at the machine. They are pleased to see a return to older and simpler ways.

In the house, a group of men sit around two old-timers with whitened beards. Chris’s father, Noah Zook, leans forward on the cane stuck between his legs, his mouth gaping with a smile. He tells of the great threshing crews of his youth sweeping across the West. He can guess a man’s origins by his name.

Jemima’s daddy has her long, worried face, those bugged-out eyes always rolling to the bottom of his wire-rimmed glasses. Beniel talks in incomplete phrases that drift back to fears of death, his own or someone else’s. He likes to think back on the changes that have come, changes that would seem to have a personality of their own, that must be talked about carefully. He remembers a man by the name of Stoltzfus back in the 1930’s who invested a perpetual motion machine, a pump that somehow ran itself with complicated weights and balances. “It worked on his thinking too much and he gave it up,” Beniel says. “Stoltzfus dreamed there was a devil in the machine one night and went out and smashed it up.”

Beniel remembers when the telephone became popular. The church put a ban on it. There was an Amish man who made himself a telephone with wire attached to a cow bladder inside a cigar box. He ran the wire to a neighboring farm. Now the Amish think they need the telephone on these big farms to call the vet’s and feed companies. But Beniel thinks if the Amish have telephones, they will never hang up. He says: “The Amish have drifted a lot. I like to think we are drifting wonderfully.”