KENTON, Ohio (AP) — The bustling produce auction that drew hundreds of people to a spot in the middle of nowhere yesterday is a business born of necessity.
The Amish population, which a new study says is growing in this country at an unexpected rate, is diversifying. It has to, its leaders say, as the number of families in the religion grows and they search for new places to build homes and more ways to earn a living.
The Scioto Valley Produce Auction, which is held by the Amish in Hardin County every Tuesday and Friday through the summer, is a way for families to make do with less acreage and still produce a for-profit crop.
"The land was getting high-priced and, as we grow, more was harder to come by," said Daniel Bontrager, a bishop in his community and an authority figure in the Hardin County settlement of 200 or so Amish families. "The young people needed something to do, and we'd rather all stay here together and stay close. The auction helps us do that."
This is the auction's second summer, and its hundreds of non-Amish customers come from several counties away each week.
An Ohio State University study released this month shows that the North American Amish numbers are doubling every 22 years, a staggering growth that even researchers didn't expect. In January 1990, there were an estimated 179 Amish settlements in the United States; this year there are 456 settlements with about 251,000 people. The most recent count includes Ontario, Canada, because of its proximity to a New York region heavily populated by Amish.
The researchers predict that if this pace continues, the Amish population could reach 1 million by mid-century. And Holmes County, in northeastern Ohio, could in the next 20 years become the first county in the United States to have more Amish than English (the common term for their non-Amish neighbors).
"For the past 10 years, I have told myself that they can't keep growing at the pace they are," said Joseph Donnermeyer, a rural sociology professor at OSU who led the Amish census project as part of a larger study on religions. "I've been wrong every single year."
Church districts (each one overseen by a bishop, and usually with 20 or 25 families to a district) are the center of Amish communities. To estimate the population of the Old Order Amish — the most traditional, horse-and-buggy kind that forgoes modern technology — Donnermeyer and his fellow researchers studied directories published in the districts.
"In Holmes County, there's a directory that looks like the yellow pages for New York City, it's so large," Donnermeyer said. They also relied on information in the country's three major Amish newspapers and magazines, including The Budget in the Holmes County region.
Among the findings:
— The Greater Holmes County Amish settlement, which sprawls across Ashland, Coshocton, Holmes, Stark, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties, is the largest, with nearly 30,000 members.
— Ohio is home to the most Amish community members (60,233), topping Pennsylvania (59,078).
— The shift from farm jobs to construction and other trade work hasn't shrunk family size, as it has historically in other groups. Only about 17 percent of the Amish men are farmers today, compared with 75 percent 40 years ago, yet the growth still occurred.
In Hardin County, though, that latter figure doesn't hold true. The Amish men still largely work at home there, whether farming or running their own sawmills or shops, and they want to keep it that way, Bontrager said.
The bishop said he didn't need a study to tell him his community is growing. Thirty years ago, there were four church districts in his community; today there are eight.
Donnermeyer said the explanation is fairly simple: The Amish still have big families. Contraception is against their religion, and children are considered blessings. Their children also tend not to leave. More than 85 percent of the children raised in Amish settlements stay as adults.
But they are on the move, because almost all are in search of land, said Ben Borntreger, who is one of a half-dozen or so Amish men in charge of the produce auction.
"Used to be, we needed a 100-acre farm, but you can't find it or afford it today," Borntreger said. "Switching to produce, now a family can do that on 10 acres."
Those smaller farms are commonplace in Holmes County, where the growth in the Amish community has been going on for decades.
It used to be that you'd see one Amish farm here, then one there, much more scattered about, said Fannie Erb-Miller, national editor of The Budget, which is mailed to more than 18,000 subscribers in the United States and Canada each week. These days, there are far more clusters of farms. Newly married couples are building homes on their family land rather than moving on, she said.
"You want to keep a community together," she said. "But you have to go where there's enough land to hold you. That's more of a challenge these days."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.
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