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Amish see the recession as a challenge and a blessing

A severe downturn in the RV industry has forced hundreds of Amish people out of factory jobs, causing pain but also allowing some to take a step back to simplicity and community.
Image: John Yoder builds cabinets
John Yoder assembles overhead cabinets for a travel trailer at the Jayco RV factory in Middlebury, Indiana. Jayco's production is about half of what it was a year ago. About half of their assembly work force, like Yoder, are Amish.Jim Seida /

The roar of power tools fills the air as workers jog across the cramped and busy floor of the Jayco recreational vehicle factory, hustling to complete the labor-intensive task of building a travel trailer.

The scene could resemble any U.S. factory save for one thing. Here, as at many RV makers and suppliers in Elkhart and neighboring LaGrange County, members of the local Amish community work side-by-side with the non-Amish, handling power tools, driving forklifts and operating machinery with a speed and comfort level that seem at odds with their traditional dress and long beards.

For decades, even as members of this Amish community in northern Indiana have tended to small family farms, sewed their own clothing and traveled by horse and buggy, economic necessity has forced an increasing number to make their living by working for the RV makers and suppliers that dominate the landscape, and economy, here.

An estimated 53 percent of the area’s Amish men under age 65 were working in factories as of 2002, according to Steven Nolt and Thomas J. Meyers, academics at nearby Goshen College who have written extensively about the Amish.

Now, a severe downturn in the RV industry has pushed hundreds of Amish people out of the factories, forcing some to pursue more traditional — but often less lucrative — work such as baking, woodworking, making jam and selling homegrown produce.

But despite the loss of jobs and income, many in the Amish community here say they see the recession as a blessing, because it has caused them to refocus on the key principles of their community: family and faith.

“I think maybe that’s what the good Lord’s trying to teach us,” said Cletus Lambright, whose business, Lambright Woodworking, has seen a big drop in demand for custom-made cabinets and other items. “Family values should never be pushed aside.”

In a community that tends toward large families, the lack of factory jobs also has brought some men back into home-based businesses, where they can be closer to their children and where their work is more ingrained in family life.

Factory work is “not conducive to the family life,” said Chris Miller, a deacon in the Amish church who also runs Creekside Bookstore, a Shipshewana business that caters primarily to the Amish. “It takes away from our values.”

The recession also is forcing many to rediscover a tradition of living simply and frugally, which some say had fallen away in recent years as people here grew used to the high salaries of factory work.

The signs of this economic shift abound. Around the two counties, residents say they have seen a dramatic increase in signs advertising things like eggs or produce, while longtime Amish business owners say they are fielding many questions from people seeking to start similar enterprises.

In the small town of Middlebury, a farmer’s market has sprung up featuring Amish and non-Amish vendors, while massive Shipshewana Auction and Flea Market nearby also is attracting more interest from Amish sellers.

Dean R. Miller, senior vice president at First State Bank in Middlebury, said he’s seeing more Amish entrepreneurs applying for business loans.

“The Amish families definitely aren’t ones to sit back and wait for something to happen,” he said.

Financial struggles
But even as more Amish people go into business for themselves, many here say that traditional Amish businesses also are suffering because of the recession. The downturn has crimped demand for items such as hand-made cabinets and metalwork and even has caused some longtime Amish businesses to lay off workers.

Experts say Amish businesses elsewhere in the country are suffering as well. There are an estimated 233,000 Amish people living in 27 states and the Canadian province of Ontario, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

Some in the Amish community, which tends to eschew much modern technology, are now grappling with ways to boost business in a world that is increasingly dependent on e-mail and Web sites.

“We went from being order-takers to being marketers,” said Lambright, the furniture maker.

The drop in both home-based and factory work also has been hard for many Amish families, who like many other Americans are struggling to pay their mortgages, feed their children and provide for basic needs amid the worst recession in decades.

Some in this northern Indiana community, one of the nation’s largest Amish settlements, have even accepted unemployment benefits, a big step for a sect that traditionally has shunned public benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The Amish community also has a tradition of helping each other with medical and other expenses, but that can be a challenge when so many families are struggling at once.

“I still think that one of the great assets that we have is that (we want) to help each other in hard times,” said Lambright. “I just don’t want to see that lost.”

Another hallmark of the community that seems to have served them well in this recession is an extremely strong work ethic.

“Of all the people that got laid off, I can’t think of one Amish person I know that is out of a job and is at a place where he doesn’t know what to do,” said Ray Troyer, a deacon in the Amish church who works at Yoder’s Hardware in Shipshewana.

Donuts and baseball bats
Wilbur Lehman has worked on and off in factories for years, most recently until he was laid off last November. Since the layoff, he has been making baseball bats in his wood shop and working to expand his wife’s small donut-making business.

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Using his skills from factory work, he and his wife recently purchased and retrofitted a small RV, which they are using to make and sell the donuts at the flea market and other locations.

Lehman said he prefers working for himself because he can be his own boss, but he concedes the factory work offers a financial stability that his own businesses can’t. Still, in a community that values frugality, he thinks there has been a broader benefit to people earning less.

“In some ways it was good that the factory (work) went down because there was a lot of money spent freely,” he said.

His wife, Lizzie Lehman, says she has watched some struggle with the change in fortunes.

“Some people turned bitter,” she said. “We’d like to see it that they turned better (rather) than bitter.”

When the RV industry was roaring, Amish say workers could bring home between $50,000 and $100,000 from a factory job, far more than they might make farming or running a business.

With all that discretionary income, it became commonplace for many to hire non-Amish drivers to take them on shopping trips to Wal-Mart or other area stores. The relatively high wages of factory work also gave them enough financial flexibility to regularly eat out at restaurants, take vacations and even buy things, such as clothing, that they traditionally made at home.

Many of those workers have seen their fortunes change dramatically as the RV industry has fallen victim to the recession and credit crunch. Total RV shipments were down 55 percent for the first six months of 2009, compared with the first half of 2008, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.

The Jayco plant, one of several in the area that has a substantial Amish workforce, has been able to hire back about 120 workers this summer because of a seasonal increase in business. But the total work force is still just around 1,300 now, compared with a peak of about 2,400.

“We all tend to be too comfortable with the next paycheck and we all grow too fat,” said Harvey Bontrager, an Amish father of 10 who worked in the factories for 10 years before leaving more than 20 years ago to start his own flower and food business. “We failed to teach our children what the value of money is, and we let money govern us rather than us governing money.”

Miller, the owner of Creekside Bookstore in Shipshewana, said he has been seeing more young Amish women come in looking for material rather than ready-made clothes — a sign, he hopes, that some are rediscovering a simpler way of life that is key to the community.

“It brings us back to where our food and clothes and stuff comes from,” Miller said.

But even as he celebrates such changes, Miller concedes that the recession has hurt business at his store.

“It’s been tough, but then it’s been tough for everybody,” he said.

No longer able to rely on farming
The Amish community in Elkhart and LaGrange counties is unusual in that so many of its members have turned to factory work primarily in one industry, said Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies and an expert on Amish life.

But as farmland has grown more scarce and expensive, and their traditional farming methods have hampered their ability to compete, many Amish across the country have turned to other work.

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These days, Kraybill estimates that more than half of Amish households nationwide receive their primary income from non-farm sources.  Some have gone to work for non-Amish people, whom they refer to as “English,” while others have started their own carpentry, welding and other cottage industries.

“It’s not like they’re insulated or isolated from the larger economy,” Kraybill said. “They are not self-sufficient. They’re buying and selling in the larger marketplace.”

Even as they’ve become more ingrained in the English business world, most Amish communities have held onto their faith-based traditions, including a conservative style of dress and a belief that education should stop at eighth grade.

Many Amish people are comfortable using technology such as power tools or riding lawn mowers when working for others, Kraybill said. They also have adapted some modern technology, such as telephones or propane-powered light fixtures, for their own businesses.

In addition, it’s very common to use non-Amish vehicles and drivers to take them to stores, faraway jobs or other places. But Kraybill said they generally shy away from owning things such as computers, and for the most part they will not use the conventional power grid.

Experts say that as the Amish community has become increasingly ingrained in the professional world outside of their community, it has inevitably affected their everyday lives.

“They’ve kept the boundary between their world and the English world, but they’ve changed the way they lived,” said Meyers, the Goshen College sociology professor, who has studied the Amish extensively.

But, Meyers said, the acceptance of new technology has come only after much reflection about what it will mean for their faith and family life.

“The Amish are constantly asking the question of what changes imply,” he said.

New ways of doing business
Now, some in the Elkhart and LaGrange county Amish community say even more change is necessary if they are to stay competitive.

Freeman Miller, who runs F&N Woodworking and heads up an Amish woodworking association, said he had around 20 new exhibitors show their furniture at an annual Amish exhibition this year, for a total of 87 vendors.

Hoping to drum up more wholesale business, he’s been trying to band the woodworkers together so they can offer all their chairs, tables and other furniture as a package.

Miller also is trying to figure out ways to better market Amish wood products in an increasingly Internet-connected world. Recently, he began working with a non-Amish sales team that is able to use modern technology he wouldn’t feel comfortable using himself. He’s even recommending that members of the community attend professional development lectures to improve their business acumen.

“Too many people want to go on with life the way we’ve always done it,” he said.

For some, business is booming
Although the recession has taken a toll on many Amish businesses, some are finding that business is booming despite the hard economic times. But that, too, presents its own challenges.

Recently, the owners of the Amish-run Rise 'n' Roll Bakery decided to sell their business to non-Amish investors so they could expand the food offerings and use electricity without sacrificing their own belief system.

The company has nearly doubled its staff, to about 22 employees, amid a crush of job applicants.

“It seems like we’ve had half of LaGrange and all of Elkhart County applying,” said Tom Hart, who ran a business driving vans for the Amish before agreeing to become the bakery’s general manager.

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The owners of Ben’s Bakery, another area Amish business, also has seen business improve dramatically over the past year as demand for their cookies, pretzels and other goods has exploded. That’s allowed them to add about 10 workers.

Co-owner Elizabeth Miller, who runs the bakery with her husband, said she feels blessed to have had such success in these hard times. But she is hesitant to take much credit.

“It is up to the Lord,” she said.