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New study charts Amish business boom

Known for centuries as skilled farmers, many Amish recently have abandoned their plows for off-farm employment. A new study by Goshen College Associate Professor of History Steven M. Nolt and Elizabethtown (Pa.) College professor Donald B. Kraybill documents the remarkable success of Amish businesses across the nation – from Ohio furniture crafters and New York sawmills, to Pennsylvania quilt shops and Indiana construction crews.

The new study is reported in the second edition of the book "Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits,” which was released by The Johns Hopkins University Press in April.

In some communities more than 80 percent now work in factories or small businesses. Many larger settlements boast hundreds of Amish-owned enterprises, while Amish in other places have been drawn to building trades or industrial factory jobs. The new research builds on earlier work by the researchers and tracks the growth – and its implications – in several states.

Especially striking has been the emergence of Amish entrepreneurship. Despite not using public utility electricity, owning motor vehicles, using computers or attending high school, Amish business people have been remarkably successful in the commercial world. Their failure rate is less than five percent; the national small business default rate exceeds 50 percent.

Amish products are marketed on retail and wholesale bases. Many of the entrepreneurs have "English” (non-Amish) distributors that sell their products nationally and even internationally, sometimes using Internet advertising that the Amish themselves would shun. Fine indoor furniture and lawn furniture are among the popular Amish products, as are small storage sheds, quilts and leather goods.

Nolt and Kraybill call the rapid rise of Amish business a mini industrial revolution that will transform traditional Amish culture in many ways. "These folks are not just making buckets and brooms,” said Kraybill. "Many of these firms are sizable operations with annual sales over several million dollars. The phrase 'Amish millionaire' is no longer an oxymoron.”

Economic and occupational shifts promise to increase exposure to technology, cultivate a more rational, market-driven worldview and reshape child rearing practices and gender roles. Some 20 percent of the Amish enterprises, according to the researchers, are owned by women. "While none of these developments means the end of Amish society, they do signal change for Amish society,” said Nolt. "The specific implications vary – from greater cash flow to more free time to shifts in family structure – depending on regional context and the commitments of the local Amish church.”

The researchers attribute Amish entrepreneurial success to a number of factors, including frugal management and lifestyle choices, small-scale operations and the development of special products for niche markets. Attention to product quality, positive public perception of Amish goods and use of family labor also contribute to the flourishing of Amish firms.

Even technological taboos can be a boon to business, as they encourage innovation and invention, as entrepreneurs adapt equipment and harness nonelectrical power sources, such as hydraulic and pneumatic.

With a growing population of nearly 180,000 adults and children, the Amish live in some 1,400 church districts scattered across 26 states and Ontario. About two-thirds live in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

– Johns Hopkins University Press