In the Pennsylvania Dutch country, hard work, marvelous soil and benevolent weather make for some of the best farms in the world, but that may not be enough for the years ahead
Morning mis rises alon the road to Paradise, spinning a spring gauze around the silos and over the barns. Fields of last year's corn form an eerie stubblescape. Then the apparition looms on a far hillock. In the tow of three stately draft horses it comes, an old-fashioned moldboard plow, piercing and turning the soil, guided by a boy, clad entirely in black, standing erect on his rig.
It is spring. The air is right and the soil is right and the Amishmen are back in the fields of plenty. The boy will go on for hours, up and back, up and back with his anachronistic team, readying the land for the seed that will become the corn that feeds the cow that makes the milk that feeds a nation.
This is 1982, but it could be two centuries ago. Horses and mules still pull plows in the fields around Paradise, an aptly named corner of the Pennsylvania Dutch country. A beguiling blend of old and new farming styles makes Lancaster County one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. Year in and year out, no other county in the United States without irrigation produces a harvest as bounteous as Lancaster County's.
Agronomists marvel at Lancaster County. In 1980 its farmers produced some $424 million worth of milk, eggs, poultry, grains, hay, tobacco, potatoes and vegetables, peaches, apples, wine grapes and more. Their inventory of cattle, hogs, sheep and chickens was valued at $253.3 Ward Sinclair is a national writer for The Washington Post. million. Another perspective: This one county accounted for more farm products than the entire state of New Jersey, a phenomenon that brings a stream of visiting farmers to see how Lancaster does it.
The mystery is not profound. Lancaster is blessed with marvelously rich soil and benign weather, but so are many other places. There is something else here, rooted in the style of the European immigrant farmers who came here in the late 18th century. The stolid industry of the Amish and Mennonites, a sometimes contradictory mix of religion with modernity, pervades the place. Their quaintly austere ways attract tourism, and their work habits lure industry.
On the east side of the county, where the Amish and Mennonites are congregated around places like Paradise, Bird-in- Hand, Intercourse, Smoketown, Gap and Blue Ball, the panoramas are breathtaking. The picturesque little farms sit cheek by jowl, as though telescoped together in a photographer's long-range lens. All are neat, spotless, toy-like. It seems a view from some gentle, halcyon past.
But change comes, even to Lancaster County.
While John Barley's neighbors inch along with their horses, his tractors can plow scores of acres in a day. Barley, 36, owns one of the county's biggest farms: 1,400 acres in crops, 500 milk cows, breeding stock, a computerized farm- management record-keeping program, heavy machinery, all the modern-day accouterments. The Amish would call him "English"--the term for non-Amish, non-Mennonites. No harm done, no slight felt.
For the record, John Barley in 1979 became the first Pennsylvanian ever chosen by the Jaycees as a National Young Farmer, an award something akin to a Pulitzer Prize in journalism or Most Valuable Player in the American League. But Barley is in some awe of his neighbors:
"The Amish and the plain Mennonites, they spend their time doing things that ought to be done. They don't have these outside involvements, they're not watching TV, they don't have to hurry up and finish work to get to a ball game. But that's the nature of Lancaster County. A peer pressure thing. We non-Amish are under pressure to be as particular and aggressive as they are."
Richard Blouse, president of the local chamber of commerce and industry, disagrees a bit. "One thing we sell here is our people. The work ethic is probably traceable to the type of settler we had here, a strong Pennsylvania German background. Skilled, productive people. It's more than just Amish or Mennonite. The attitude here is that we can do it ourself."
Farming here runs counter to the modern single-cropping practices of, say, the Midwest's huge machines and massive expenditures for fuel and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers use chemicals in Lancaster, of course, but there is more mix and balance. For example, the air of Lancaster County carries the pungence of manure freshly spread to rejuvenate the fields--almost an impossibility on the bigger inland spreads.
And in an era when American farms are getting larger, Lancaster's farms are becoming smaller and more numerous. The county has more than 5,400 farms (one-fifth are Amish) that readily support families that work the land from generation to generation. And astonishingly, these farms average only about 80 acres each--a size that might evoke muffled derision around a nation where the average farm is around 450 acres.
The average Amish spread, by church fiat tilled only with horse- or mule-drawn implements, is 60 acres. Here the pacifist, plain-spoken Amishmen work in postage-stamp fields next to Mennonites, some of whom may use tractors --but only if the tractors have no rubber tires.
Around the edges, Lancaster farming has generated other major businesses. There are dairies and butchers and cheese makers, implement dealers and feed dealers. Amish craftsmen produce ingenious implements (a hydraulic lift plow and hydraulic power tools, for example) to meet church strictures on tractors and electricity. Farmers' markets and roadside stands provide an outlet for fresh produce. Livestock and hay auctions draw hundreds of customers every week. Sperry New Holland, which claims to be the country's biggest farm- implement manufacturer, got its start here and continues to run operations from the town of New Holland. A weekly livestock paper is published here; another weekly, Farmshine (phone: MAN-MILK), chronicles the dairy industry. Lancaster Farming, a tabloid newspaper that often weighs a pound, goes to 40,000 readers every week with a farmer's anthology of classifieds. If Lancaster Farming doesn't advertise it, the saying goes, it can't be bought.
Jay W. Irwin, the county extension agent, marvels at the cornucopia. "This is one of the best agricultural producing areas in the world. A place in England and another in the Soviet Union rank right up there. It's the weather, the moisture, the soil--60 percent of it is of the very best kind. And we have the people. Agriculture, you know, is a quiet industry. These people just go out and do their job. No other country has food as cheap as ours because of this great productivity."
But for all of this, things are not well in Paradise.
Lancaster farmers areafflicted by the same economic pressures as their brethren else-where. Despite the farming ethic, the land is eroding seriously. As farmers try to squeeze more from the soil and as the Amish subdivide their small tracts to keep sons near home, topsoil erosion has increased to an annual rate of about nine tons per acre. U.S. Department of Agriculture conservationists consider soil loss above five tons per year to be "unacceptable"--eroding faster than man and nature can replace it.
The other problem is that they're not making any more farm land in Lancaster County. Farm operators are under heavy pressure to sell to developers building housing and services for the rapidly growing population (up about 14 percent over the decade). There is a belated effort here to save some of the best farm land from the bulldozers, but only the keenest of optimists see hope.
Amos Funk is one of them. He is 70 and farms 240 acres with his son on the west side of the county. Their vegetable fields are picture-book pretty and productive. Their old-fashioned country market at the town of Millersville is a page from another era. All around him, Amos Funk has seen the builders bid up the farm-land prices and then gobble it up. He still has hope, has to have it, since the county commission appointed him to head a farm preservation study team.
"We've got about 386,000 acres in farms right now, and we've lost thousands of acres in the last 20 years," Funk said. "We've come up with a plan that would allow about another 100,000 acres to go into development. The builders seem to like it. We'd like to save more than that, but we've had to make some compromises. It's not too late to save some of our best land."
Go to Dave Fisher's place over among the Amish, and you get a different picture. Fisher, active in the land-preservation movement, is Amish but is uncharacteristically dressed in green coveralls. Preceded by his jutting beard, he leads the way to the loft on his 76-acre spread. His 1981 tobacco crop is still there, tightly held in bales, waiting for a buyer. Right now, depressed tobacco prices have his as worried as the loss of farm land. "I've got maybe $8,000 worth of tobacco in these bales," he said. "They say there's no demand. It's a game. They'll buy when they force the price down on us."
As for saving Lancaster's farm land, Fisher thinks it's pretty much a lost cause. "I say keep agriculture and housing apart," he said. "But we're 15 years too late. To give up 100,000 acres of farm land like they're talking about is nothing, if it's in the right places, where production might not be so good. All this industrial and housing development around here has pushed people out. There're 11 brothers and sisters in my family, and only two of us are farming. They'd all prefer to farm if they had a tall chance."
Not far away is Eugene R. Witmer's picturesque motel. Witmer bought six acres from a farmer who needed some cash, hired some Amish carpenters and put up a rock of a lodging place. The farm surrounds the motel; diners sit in the restaurant and gaze out on the bucolic scene: an old millstream, silos, barns, split-rail fences. Witmer, who used to head the county tourist-promotion bureau, is a tad sensitive to the debate over creeping urbanization. "Our economy depends as much on tourism as it does on agriculture," Witmer said. "Housing and shopping centers--not tourism--are what eat up this land. Farmland preservation activity is just getting started here. There is a good deal of concern that we may have started too late."
The picture unfolding in Lancaster brings an ache to Robert Gray. He headed a Department of Agriculture national agricultural lands study, which produced a report last year demonstrating the massive loss of some of the country's best farm land to development. Now he works in Washington with the American Farmland Trust, which keeps blowing trumpet calls for action.
"It's depressing for me to go to Lancaster, and I'm an optimist," he said recently. "I hate to tell them, but I think they're closing in on the 10th inning of a nine-inning game."
Depressing, perhaps, but Don Ranck isn't buying it. Eleven generations of his family have been farming in Paradise Township and Ranck isn't planning to leave. A steam-powered railroad for tourists cuts through part of his 127-acre dairy operation. Knick-knack and curio shops are pushing out toward him from the hamlet of Strasburg.
Ranck and his wife, Virginia, aren't too concerned. In a way, they've even joined in. They've decked out part of their farm home for tourists, and they do a steady room-rental business during the warm months.
Ranck is a careful, conservative farmer. That comes with the blood to some degree, but it comes with being a dairy farmer as well. Dairying, the major farming activity in Lancaster County, produced $163 million in milk sales in 1980. A generous federal price-support program has made dairying a money-making enterprise.
But dairy farming is about as tough a job as a man could find. The farmer raises his own grains and hay to feed his , Amos Funk stock. He breeds the animals and replenishes the herd. His cows make the juice that is the milk, cream, cheese, butter, ice cream and yogurt that nourishes the nation. The cows must be milked twice a day, rounded up and herded through the modern milking parlor, and there are no vacations. Dairying means knowing each cow's idiosyncracies, knowing the breeding and birthing techniques, nursing and tending to the young. Around the clock, cold nights and hot days. This is the Rancks' life.
This is the sort of travail that makes the Rancks think twice about expanding the farm. They are buying part of the family spread from Ranck's father, and they pause, consider and weigh the issues before they spend an extra dollar on developing the place. This year's project is the refurbishing of the huge white barn where their 72 cows are milked.
"Our biggest problem is: How big do we want to get? We could go to 110 cows and that would increase our cash flow by 50 percent," Ranck explained. The Rancks already have gone through a similar expansion, from 44 cows just five years ago. More income is attractive, but it means more problems and more risk.
Six, seven years ago, when banks were begging farmers to borrow low-interest money for expansion, Ranck and his father didn't bite. The Rancks figured a time would come when paying it back would be tough. Today is such a time, and while some over-extended Lancaster farmers are bucking the storm of farm recession, Don Ranck feels fairly secure.
Ranck is in his early 30s, Mennonite but progressive enough to use a rubber-tired tractor, a cum laude graduate of Penn State. A gentle and respectful demeanor gives him special status among his more conservative Amish neighbors. They look to him for advice and listen closely when he speaks. The Rancks spent five years in Brazil doing mission work with poor farmers before they came back to Verdant View. He has been around, seen how others farm, pondered his place on the planet.
If instant impressions have meaning, one must judge that farm families like the Rancks are the rocks that will keep a nation firm and well-fed. Ranck husbands his tiny patch of earth, trying to make it better and more productive for the sons and daughters who may follow. His style came from his father, who learned it from his father, and it came from staying close to his soil and his stock.
He rotates his crops, puts no chemicals on his barley, uses only biodegradable weed killers on his corn, hires a custom applicator to cautiously apply pest control to the alfalfa. He didn't wait for federal money to flow before he put in his newest soil erosion-control terraces.
"We have made changes here, but it is very expensive," Ranck said. Ranck pointed out toward one of the sloping fields off behind the barn. The untrained eye could barely perceive slightly manicured lines that would channel excess groundwater into a benign, nonerosive flow toward the little creek that crosses the farm.
Ranck has thought a good deal about his purpose here and where he may be headed. Like many other farmers these days he worries about the eroding soil, the loss of crop land to development, the tight economy. Somehow, he finds silver inside dark clouds. He doesn't say so specifically, but he knows some greater power intends that he not fail.
"I'm a general promoter of agriculture, I suppose," he said. "I believe we have the potential to have a strong agricultural system here. I know the large farms have built-in inefficiencies, and I think our small family farms will last longer than they. When prices fall, those big corporate farms are the first to suffer. We contribute our time to farming at a lot less value than you'll find on those bigger places. A family farmer doesn't expect to have the hours a hired farm manager has."
"And," Ranck continued, "I know this is a garden spot. An abundance of water, ideal weather, our soil. I have tried to put my finger on how much credit to put on the weatherFunk. I decided that weather and management account for about 80 percent of our production potential. But we are blessed, and it is awfully arrogant of us to think otherwise."
It's a thought from the road to Paradise. GRAPHICS(By Margaret Thomas for the W.P.):Above,Don Ranck, a M nnonite dairy farmer in the Paradise township, inherited his farming know-how not from colleges of agronomy or from the technology-laden pages of modern farm magazines, but from his father, and his father's father. A man with the arms and hands of a pro-football tackle, the waist of a halfback, a cumlaude degree from Penn State and 72 cows, Ranck is progessive enough to use a rubber-tired tractor. Right, on a spring day a young Amish boy drives a hydrolic plow, Amish farms, by church fiat, are tille