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Tobacco In Amish Country

Tom Lowry
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

On rainy days in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, when the fields are too wet to work, the Amish farmers climb into horse-drawn buggies and make their way to the auction barn in the hamlet of New Holland. Farmers might bid on a horse or two, or barter for a season's load of hay, but the auction is more of an excuse to socialize. Talk among the bearded men gathered in clutches outside the whitewashed stables inevitably turns to tobacco.

For generations, tobacco has been the lifeblood--or "mortgage lifter" as some have dubbed it--for the closely knit, devoutly religious Amish community of 19,000 in Lancaster County. They're a people struggling to carry on simple and sheltered lives, refusing to use amenities like electricity and cars in a world that grows more modern by the day.

As they watch swaths of Lancaster County's lush rolling farmland being turned into housing developments and outlet shopping malls, many of the county's Amish are questioning whether tobacco is worth the trouble.

Just as the Amish's nineteenth century lifestyles have come under siege, the local tobacco industry has had to weather great market changes since the days when every small central Pennsylvania town seemed to have its own cigar factory.

Pennsylvania tobacco was a top filler of choice until the 1970s for many of the country's premier cigar companies--the Amish serving as the primary growers. Representatives from American Cigar, Swisher and Bayuk Cigar would make pilgrimages to Lancaster County to scour the Amish farms for the highest quality leaf.

With just a few local cigar operations remaining, most of the county's tobacco is now sold for cigarettes or chewing tobacco. Tobacco acreage in Lancaster County has plummeted to fewer than 9,000 acres from a high of 35,000 in the late 1950s. Many Amish now concentrate on dairy farming instead.

The county itself has undergone great changes. Since 1970, total farmland has shrunk by 16,000 acres to 311,000 acres. During the same period, the county's population has surged by 37 percent, to 440,000.

Despite less acreage, tobacco remains Lancaster County's largest cash crop--worth about $22 million a year. More than 1,000 Amish and Mennonite farmers still do the bulk of its farming. But growing numbers of Amish are torn between choosing new and easier ways to make a living and sticking with the tobacco traditions of the past. Chris Stoltzfus, 49, is among them.

Stoltzfus, whose ancestors have worked the land in Lancaster County for more than 70 years, heads to the New Holland auction to listen to what the other Amish are saying about tobacco. By standing among the Amish farmers talking in thick Pennsylvania Dutch accents, many smoking or chewing tobacco, Stoltzfus gets a forecast for the season: what type of tobacco will be in greatest demand, the price per pound brokers will offer and how many acres his fellow farmers intend to plant.

Two winters ago, Stoltzfus decided to cut his tobacco acreage in half for the 1996 growing season, to five acres. In addition, he farms about 20 acres of sweet corn. "It's just too much work, tobacco. You can't get the labor," says Stoltzfus, puffing away on a Captain Black cigar. "Too much work for the dollar return."


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