Until the 1960s, most Amish people, regardless of the state in which they resided, lived on family farms. Amish farms were small, diversified operations with a dozen cows, some chickens, and a few beef cattle. Although many continue this tradition, Amish farms have grown more specialized, with dairy cows and, in some cases, chickens or hogs. Specialized farms tend to be more mechanized, but still less so than neighboring non-Amish farms. Farmers in most settlements typically use mechanical milkers and bulk cooling tanks. The more traditional farmers milk by hand and ship their milk in cans to cheese plants.
Many Amish farmers do not practice organic farming. A growing trend toward small specialty operations that produce vegetables, herbs, and flowers has emerged in some settlements. Some of these specialty operations do, however, use organic methods to target specific urban markets.
Although farming continues to hold a revered place in Amish life, in many settlements the majority of Amish people have abandoned their plows. In some communities, fewer than 10 percent of the households receive their primary income from farming. This shift to nonfarm work is the biggest change in Amish society in the last century. Still, despite their growing involvement in business and commerce, the Amish remain a distinctly rural people. Many families combine off-farm work with hobby farming.
In recent decades, hundreds of Amish-owned shops have sprung up in some communities. Most of these are small family businesses with fewer than ten employees. The bulk of these businesses produce wood products—household and outdoor furniture, gazebos, small barns, and lawn ornaments—although quilt shops, greenhouses, and bakeries have also been very successful. Small home-based shops tend to be very profitable. The annual sales of the larger businesses may exceed five million dollars.
Many Amish men are involved in all aspects of residential and commercial construction. In certain settlements, dozens of construction crews travel considerable distances to construct buildings for non-Amish people. In other settlements, the majority of Amish men work in English-owned factories located in rural areas or small towns. In northern Indiana, for instance, many Amish work in factories that assemble recreational vehicles.
- See chapter 15, “Agriculture,” and chapter 16, “Business,” in Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt, The Amish (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
- Donald B. Kraybill and Steven M. Nolt, Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
- Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, “Keepers at Home? Amish Women and Entrepreneurship,” American Studies Journal 63 (2017), doi:10.18422/63-04.
- John A. Cross, “Occupation Patterns of Amish Settlements in Wisconsin,” Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 6 (2018): 192-212.