New development encroaches on old ways of Amish

November 16, 1990|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEWMARKET -- Soaring farmland prices and the onward march of suburbia are driving some Amish families off the Southern Maryland land they have tilled for half a century.

Enos Hertzler's 33-acre farm near here goes on the auction block tomorrow, and some view the sale as a sign that the Amish and their horse-drawn simplicity are being priced out of the market as Southern Maryland increasingly becomes a bedroom suburb of Washington.

"It's the beginning of a trend," said David W. Cooksey, a LaPlata land-use consultant and former Charles County farmer. "I wouldn't be surprised to see the majority of the Amish out of here in 20 years."

Only half a dozen of the 120 Amish families in southeastern Charles and northern St. Mary's counties have recently left or are about to leave -- heading to Virginia and upstate New York, where land is cheaper and more plentiful.

But as prices make it impossible for families to buy farmland for their children, as is the Amish custom, others are expected to follow.

"St. Mary's and Charles counties are awfully nice places to live," said Enos Hertzler, 38, who was born here. "The biggest trouble is that too many people are finding out."

Mr. Hertzler wears a broad-brimmed straw hat and full beard, and speaks Pennsylvania Dutch, the German dialect of his devoutly religious people. He raises tobacco, hogs and produce. His home has no electricity, telephone or running water.

"We do like the old people used to do, like our father, grandfather and great-grandfather," he said.

But today's prices and regulations often frustrate yesterday's traditions.

For Mr. Hertzler to build a house for one of his four children, he would face a $3,500 county impact fee to pay for schools (the Amish must pay even though they run their own one-room schoolhouses), a 5 percent agricultural transfer tax, a series of expensive surveys and the need to drill a well so deep that the Amish's windmill-powered pumps might not draw the water.

"By the time you add up the whole thing, you wind up spending $8,000 to $10,000," he said. "There's no way a farmer can do that and make a living off farming, the way prices are."

The Amish areas have come under pressure as rambling houses have sprung up along Route 6 east of LaPlata on sprawling 3-acre lots that devour farmland.

"Land prices have -- well, the only word I can use is skyrocketed," Mr. Cooksey said. "Property that cost $3,000 an acre in 1988 was selling 18 months later for $5,200 an acre."

A farmer can pay $1,300 an acre for productive land and make money. But he can't pay $3,000, much less $5,200, Mr. Cooksey said.

The sluggish economy has stalled sales of Southern Maryland farmland in recent months, but no one expects land prices to drop to levels that farmers can afford.

The Amish -- more than 100,000 strong in North America -- tend to pick up and leave when development encroaches, said George Smith, editor of the Budget, an Ohio weekly that serves Amish and Mennonite communities.

An Amish exodus would deprive Southern Maryland of many commodities -- fresh meats and cheeses, cabinets and quilts -- and much charm: picturesque farms and the sight of "plain people" in black buggies rolling down the shoulder of the road.

"It'll be sad to see the Amish leave," said H. Rodney Thompson, the Hertzler sale auctioneer and a St. Mary's County commissioner. "They have certainly been good neighbors."

Enos Hertzler has bought a 235-acre farm in New York's Finger Lakes region. He will raise hogs and dairy cattle.

His next-door neighbor and brother-in-law, Ben Stoltzfus, is headed to southwestern Virginia, where he and two other Amish men have signed a contract on 486 acres.

Mr. Stoltzfus, who is 34 and the father of five youngsters, decided to move now rather than wait for his children to grow up and find there was no land for them. "We want to do for our children what our parents have done for us," he said.

Mr. Stoltzfus will go to Virginia as an Amish pioneer, much as his grandfather came to Southern Maryland in 1940 from Lancaster County, Pa., in search of cheap land and a school system that wouldn't force Amish children to attend past age 14.

Mr. Stoltzfus, who makes wooden toys on the side, conceded that many Amish in Southern Maryland can thrive doing non-farm work: building storage sheds, making cabinets, remodeling old tobacco barns for horse farms, or working in the sawmill run by his grandfather. But he said, "For our way of living, I think farming is best."

The Amish don't want the government to entice them to stay. They refuse all government aid, including the state farmland preservation program that pays farmers not to develop their land.

"We don't want any breaks. That creates jealousy among outside people. Rather than change things, we'd rather move on," Mr. Hertzler said. "There'll be Amish living here for a long time, don't get me wrong."

Jake Hostetler, who farms 125 acres, said: "I'm not leaving yet awhile. If you don't want to farm, it's a good place to run a business with all these housing developments around here."

"It's my home, but I don't want no spot on earth I'm tied down to so hard I can't leave it," he said. "It's not an earthly home I'm seeking."

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