Amish allowed to use machinery on corn

Usual horse-drawn harvesting doesn't work on fields tangled by Isabel

October 30, 2003|By Tom Infield | Tom Infield,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PARADISE, Pa. -- Amish farmers here in eastern Lancaster County, Pa., are facing a crisis this harvest season, and their horses just won't cut it.

So this one time, their bishops are permitting Amish farmers to use heavy machinery to bring in their corn crops.

"They have been told, `You need to harvest your corn for your cows to survive, so whatever you need to do -- do it,'" said David Hoover, who was helping to direct an effort at helping the Amish that has been dubbed Harvest Aid.

The big wind that cut through Lancaster County in the wake of Hurricane Isabel Sept. 19 was like a scythe in many fields. Thousands of acres of corn were blown flat or left in a twisted mess.

Now it's harvest time. But Amish farmers, who in most cases disdain modern machinery, are finding that the horse-drawn methods that they normally use to cut, tie and carry cornstalks to their silos won't work. Their corn binders and wagons can't maneuver through the tangled fields.

Faced with the prospect that many farmers could lose their crops, Amish religious leaders met last week in Honey Brook, Pa., and made what was described as a rare, if not unprecedented, decision.

They decided to allow farmers to hire outsiders from the "English" world to cut the crops.

"These bishops didn't get in that position for no reason -- they're open-minded," said Elam Zook, a retired Amish farmer.

Zook was one of three men answering the phones recently at the Gordonville Fire Company, near Paradise, Pa., where a Harvest Aid hot line had been set up.

All three were on the phone at once, often talking in Pennsylvania Dutch, a German dialect used by the Amish and other Plain People.

Hoover, who described himself as a "horse-and-buggy Old Order Mennonite," said word was being sent all over the East that operators of mechanical choppers were needed in Lancaster County.

Operators had hoped to have several chopper operators coming in from Maryland, where the late-season crop of silage corn -- used as animal feed -- is almost all in.

Non-Amish farmers in Lancaster County typically hire chopper operators, often known as custom harvesters, to clear their fields. Owning such a machine is expensive. They can cost $200,000 apiece.

The trouble for the Amish is that local chopper operators had to finish their work for regular clients before they could turn to emergency needs.

On an Amish farm near Georgetown, Pa., several miles south of the U.S. 30 tourist strip, a single chopper was keeping three wagons busy going back and forth to the silo a few days ago.

The Amish method is to have several men and boys walking beside the corn binder tie cut stalks into bundles of 10 or 12, then throw them into the wagon. They later are ground up.

A mechanical chopper cuts and grinds in one motion.

"What would take three to five days using the traditional method could be done in six hours -- these big machines move a lot of stuff real fast," said Leon Ressler, director of Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lancaster.

On the farm near Georgetown, a neighbor stood admiring the chopper's work.

"Machines can go day and night," said the 25-year-old Amish man, who did not give his name. "Horses can't."

Hot line operators said chopper drivers were charging $250 per hour on average. Hoover said they were not gouging.

Individual farmers are likely to pay the tab, Ressler said. But if they can't afford it, he said, "the Amish community will make sure the bill gets paid."

Apparently, not everyone approved of the bishops' decision to permit the newfangled ways, even in an emergency, Zook said.

"Some didn't, but I'd say the majority went with it," he said.

Another Amish man, Elmer Esh, said that, if possible, worldliness was to be avoided.

"The Bible tells us [that] we are to be a people set apart from the world," he said. "If you allow machines, the crop gets bigger, the barn gets bigger. Where does it stop?"

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