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Amish Farmers

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By KEITH SCHNEIDER, Special to the New York Times

STRASBURG, Pa., Aug. 27, 1986 — The mules fussed and the wagon's steel wheels rattled in the rose-lit dawn as Samuel Beiler, an Amish farmer, headed up the hill this morning to his fields.
        It is the tobacco harvest season in Lancaster County, and Mr. Beiler, his wife, Mary, and his five children were flanked by other Amish families cutting the waist-high plants and hauling them in to 100-year-old barns to be hung from the rafters and air-cured.
        The crop, worth $2,000 an acre, is one of Mr. Beiler's principal sources of income, but by no means the only one. On his 80-acre farm, Mr. Beiler raises corn and alfalfa to feed 50 milk cows.
        At a time when leading agricultural economists have declared the small commercial family farm a relic, Lancaster County's 1,200 Amish farm families are thriving. With diverse crops on small farms, with a conservative approach to farm technology and with constant manual exertion, even by little children, this region's Amish have largely escaped the high debt that has put 250,000 to 300,000 family farms out of business since 1981. 'You Get Too Big'
        ''This isn't the first time things have been tough, and it's not going to be the last,'' said a 40-year-old Amish man from New Holland who asked not to be identified. ''Our leaders know this. If you get too big, you make a bundle in good times. But you lose a bundle when times turn bad.''
        The Amish are providing a stable economic base to a county with one of the nation's most vibrant farm economies. Land prices are climbing. Farm implement and supply stores are busy. Banks are open and pursuing new farm customers. The value of the total farm output in the county is more than $700 million annually and rising steadily. Sloping fertile Lancaster County is crowded with white farmhouses and silos spring from the valleys like silver-topped mushrooms.
        ''There's no secret,'' said Mr. Beiler. ''We've been blessed with fertile ground, and we work, maybe too hard.''
        Despite this modesty, some agricultural authorities insist that Amish farm practices and economics are another indication that the get-big-or-get-out theory that has dominated American farming for more than 30 years may no longer be valid.
        Amish farmers protect themselves from the cycles of boom and bust in agriculture by operating diverse production systems. Most have herds of milk cows and grow feed corn, alfalfa, hay, wheat, tobacco, vegetables and fruits. Some raise poultry and cattle. Others breed horses and raise mules.
        The Amish also avoided Government farm supports. The programs require farmers to idle acreage as a requirement for receiving benefits. ''We don't need handouts,'' said Mr. Beiler. ''We need to work every foot of land that we own.''
        The Amish community of Lancaster County numbers 6,500 people and is growing quickly. Although the Amish own less than a quarter of Lancaster County's 5,000 farms, their system has been used as a model for the Mennonite and ''English'' farmers in the region.
        Amish farmers generally till 70 to 80 acres, enough for one family to handle, but one-fifth the size of the average American farm. The average non-Amish farm in the county is not much bigger.
        Mules and horses haul implements at a cost Amish farmers say is one-third that of a tractor. The Amish buy mechanical harvesting equipment that is pulled through fields by teams but whose machinery is powered by independent gasoline or diesel engines. They Work to Cut Erosion
        The Amish developed advanced programs for rotating crops, applying manure and fertilizer and growing along ridge tops to lessen erosion. They buy the best seed.
        A result is that Amish farmers produce as much corn per acre as bigger farms in Iowa, or as much milk per cow as Wisconsin's dairy farms, but at far lower costs. Pennsylvania State University estimates the cost of planting an acre of corn at $115. Mr. Beiler and other Amish farmers say they can put the crop in the ground and harvest it for under $35 an acre.
        An important source of savings is in the cost of labor. From the time they are toddlers, Amish children are regarded as important additions to the farm system. Children are educated in one-room schoolhouses until the eighth grade, and then become full-time helpers. Eight children in a family is not unusual. 'They Have to Work for It'
        In a tomato field ringed by feed corn near Honey Brook, 30 miles east of Lancaster, one Amish farmer, Sam Stoltzfus, explained the source of his people's strength. He said that Amish families helped one another at planting and harvesting and that children were taught that they were central in the community. ''We have to eat,'' he said. ''We have to feed the children. And they have to work for it, just like we did.''
        The lessons are simple, but they have been proved workable over centuries. Only a handful of the Amish have been forced out of business since 1981, according to the Amish and county bankers.
        Farm finance experts say net profits on Amish farms are unusually high. An Amish farm of 80 acres, 40 cows, five acres of tobacco, vegetables and fruit can earn a gross annual income of $125,000 or more. Because of their religion's demand for ''plainness,'' annual expenses for feeding, clothing and housing an average Amish family with six children total $6,000 to $8,000. Amish farmers generally have moderate debts, principally in loans for land.
        Most Amish share the costs of mechanized equipment, dividing the purchase of a baler or corn harvester among three or four farms.
        Their net income usually totals $25,000 to $40,000. Coupled with off-farm income from the sale of quilts and other handcrafts, the Amish have operations that are among the nation's more profitable commercial family farms.
        ''The Amish farmer puts all the modern models to shame,'' said Paul Whipple, a long-time farm consultant who has many Amish clients. ''They don't have their money tied up in machines. They aren't looking to buy out their neighbors. They put their money into the best land and they take care of it better.''
        Other experts say the Amish system would not work for most American farmers and their families. ''People just don't want to work that hard anymore,'' said Jay W. Irwin, the Lancaster County farm agent.
        Yet the Amish successes, said Mr. Irwin and Mr. Whipple, suggested that smaller farms might be more suitable.
        After dark, Mr. Beiler brings in his mules and his family retires to a large kitchen lit by a gas lantern. His youngest daughter sleeps in Mrs. Beiler's lap. The boys sit on a bench. Mr. Beiler, his 40-year-old eyes bright despite a full day in the field, sends his sons to bed and asks: ''Tell me about the farmers in Iowa - what went wrong?''

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