An unlikely group of social innovators: The Amish

Planet Money has a gem of a story on ‘the Business Secrets Of The Amish‘. The story zooms in on how the Amish, who have made their living through small plot farming for centuries, have adapted to an environment that does not allow for this lifestyle anymore:

What you see in this hall is the transformation of Amish culture. Up until certainly the 1970s the vast vast majority of amish men were farmers. They lived at home, typical plot size would have been about a 130 acres, which is enough for a family, you know a dad and a few boys to farm using horse-powered machinery. But they lived in places like Lancaster county and Holmes county, Ohio where land prices have gotten bigger and bigger, the Amish have doubled in the last 40 years because the have so many children and what has happend is more and more kids can’t afford to buy farms and the fathers can only divide the farms so many ways. If you have 7 boys your 130 acres pretty quickly becomes too small to even be worth farming and then what happens to their boys? So for the first time ever a majority of Amish men in America are not farming, they are finding other ways to make a living.

So right trough the 1960s into the 1970s all of these guys’ fathers or grandfathers would have been farmers and there might have been in any community one or two guys who farmed but also did a little carpentry on the side or a little blacksmithing on the side. But now you have tens of thousands of amish businesses, tens of thousands of people who have industry, this convention center here in a few months this is going to be the Amish furniture show and it is not for the general public, it is not ‘oh lets go down to Amish country and get a nice dressoir’, this is serious business: Walmart, Sears, JC Penny come here to buy, to place orders with huge amish factories, this is serious business. […]

The flexibility that the amish have shown in adapting to this new social reality is quite remarkable (especially if you compare this to the way the entertainment and publishing industry react to the change in economic fundamentals in their business environments). Who would have thought that a 320 year old religion that is known for it’s adherence to a strict set of behavioural rules (referred to with the delightful Germanism ‘Die Ordnung’) would turn to what is currently hyped as ‘Social Innovation’ to ensure their survival?

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