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The Amish love to farm. “I think I wouldn’t want to be living if I weren’t on a farm,” an Amish teenager once told me. “It’s exciting — there’s always something happening.”

Farming is also a way to keep the family together. When the father works at home, he can take an active role in raising the children, training them in the Amish way of life. 

The Amish believe that farmers live closest to God. “On a farm, you can see that God is in all things that are alive and growing,” explains Leah Peachy, an Amish woman I met in North Carolina.

They are also known to be excellent farmers. Centuries ago, while still in Europe, the Amish were often banned from land ownership and were forced to farm land so poor that no one else wanted it. In order to survive, they experimented with new methods, such as crop rotation. The Old Order Amish today still practice a four-year crop rotation system in Iowa and other states, planting corn for two years, oats for one year, and a hay crop the fourth year.

The Amish feel that they are not the owners of their land. Rather, they are caretakers, entrusted with the use of the soil. they carefully nourish their fields — preferring organic fertilizers such as manure — so that when they retire, the land is as healthy as when they began. If any Amish man damages the soil, he is considered to b3 as sinful as a thief. As a result, Amish farms are extremely fertile and productive.


Golden sunlight stretches wide over the Iowa hayfields in early September. At the Yoder farm near Bloomfield, a girl waves a hearty hello.

This is Regina, age 15. Besides household chores, she and her older sister Annie milk their family’s cows and drive a team of horses in the fields.

The girls laugh merrily when they talk. “Some people think we are twins, especially when we dress the sa
me,” says Annie with a laugh. Today they wear identical raspberry-colored dresses, white aprons, and royal blue scarves tied under their chins.

Both say they’d rather spend their day in the fields than inside the house. “I think it’s great fun to work out,” says Regina.

“I feel more free outside,” agrees Annie in her mild way. “Farm-work doesn’t have to be done so fine and neat as needlework.”

Their day starts at 6 a.m., when their father wakes up the eight children who still live at home. Before breakfast, the girls feed the cows while their father and 22-year-old brother, Dan, feed the horses. All four help with the milking, then Dan goes off to work as a carpenter.

The 12 black-and-white spotted Holsteins all look identical to me, but the girls befriended Jody, Joline, Vera, Abby, Shirley, Tina, Sheila, Fannie, and Pam when they were calves and call each one by name. Honey Lou and Sunny Sue, two fawn-colored Jerseys munching on hay in the corner, complete their herd.

Do the cows ever kick?

“Some people’s cows do kick, but ours don’t,” says Regina. “If they start to kick, we give them a little slap and they learn they can’t do that.” Hobbles — clamps that gently draw the cow’s hind legs together just above the knee — keep the cows quiet during milking.

Sometimes the girls do get stepped on, which is not too serious. “It hurts for about five minutes, and that’s all there is to it,” says Regina.

Inside the barn I meet two colts, Dawn and Beauty. Regina pats Beauty on the lips, who bares her teeth in a jack-o’-lantern smile. “I like to tease her,” says Regina mischievously. “She bit me the other day, just to be playful. Boy, did that hurt.”

An immense black stallion stands in the stall across from the colts. “He’s gentle,” Regina reassures me as she strokes his forehead between soft black eyes. “He helps us clean the barn in winter by pulling the manure spreader while we pile it up.”

Suddenly three wide-eyed children appear. Robert, David and Grace, aged seven, 10 and 12, just drove home from their one-room school in an open pony cart. They show me how to hitch it up. Like a well-trained team, Robert and David pull the cart out of the shed while Grace slips the bridle on Midnight, their pony, and backs her in between the cart’s shafts. In one minute, thanks to team – work, it’s ready to go.

Annie takes me for a ride. The wind blows in our faces. Annie likes riding in a cart better than a buggy, she says, “because it’s more open, more free.” We pass the grassy pasture where the Yoders’ cows and horses graze peacefully. With just a slight tug, Midnight turns around.

Back on the farm, I notice the family’s three black, covered buggies stored in an open shed. Annie and Regina have driven their family’s covered buggies to town or to visit friends “since we were big enough to read up and put the bridle on the horse,” says Annie.

The family owns two Standard Bred geldings to pull the buggies and nine big-boned Percheron mares to plow the fields. Both girls love to mow the hay fields with a team of two mares. “If you like horses, you like to do things with them,” says Annie.

“Driving a workhorse is even more fun than driving a gelding, because they’re more powerful,” says Regina. “When you drive a team, you just feel content. Except you have to watch to make sure you’re at the row you should be and the mower doesn’t get jammed up.”

The geldings and massive draft horses are easy to handle and calm, the girls tell me. “We do have one pony that is kind of skittish,” says Regina. “So only Dad or Dan (her older brother) rides him.”

Soon it’s 5 p.m. and time for Regina to round up the horses and cows from the pasture. Barefoot, she rides Midnight without a saddle, because “Dad says it’s more fun to ride bareback.”

The sun slips low on the horizon by the time the cows are in their stalls. In a graceful motion, Annie swings the hobble chain under a cow named Sheila and fastens it just above the knees, drawing them together.

“Usually, you milk cows on the right side,” Annie says. But since Sheila is a two-bucket cow, the girls place their stools on opposite sides of Sheila, clutch shiny metal pails between their legs, and pull the cow’s teats with both hands in brisk rhythm. Frothy milk splashes into the buckets.

“Want to try?” Annie asks. I do, but when I squeeze the cow’s udder, there’s barely a trickle. Annie laughs and makes milk squirt like a faucet.

They like to sing while milking. A plaintive hymn floats in the air, voices clear and sweet, perfectly on key. “There are no shadows without the sunshine. There are no showers when all is fair. And roses blooming in thorny places with sweetest fragrance perfume the air.”

Excerpted from “Visits with the Amish: Impressions of the Plain Life,” re-released by the University of Iowa Press in 2009. Available at and other online bookstores.

(This excerpt originally appeared in Radish Magazine, May 2009. Reprinted with permission.)


Categories: Amish, book excerpt, Iowa


Lancaster_County_Amish_03My mother calls herself the original recycler. Having grown up in the depression years, she stored used tin foil in a giant ball, covered our presents in last year’s discarded Christmas paper, and wrapped our school sandwiches in Pepperidge Farm whole wheat bread bags (a source of acute embarrassment for her 60s-era kids). My Dad lined his workshop with neat rows of Maxwell House coffee jars, the kind with bold white stars on red lids, which contained every loose washer, nut, bolt, nail, and piece of wire he had ever encountered in his life. When it came time to fix an appliance or a kid’s bike, he had the missing piece at his fingertips. My parents didn’t throw things away—they fixed them, mended them, and made do. It wasn’t that they were poor—they simply believed a frugal, non-wasteful lifestyle was best way to raise their family and protect the environment.

Thinking of this, I suddenly realized that going green to save our economy is not a radical new idea—it’s traditional and retro.

Take the Amish. As a growing but still marginal segment of the rural population, they make their own clothes, grow their own food, live off the grid, and drive horse and buggies instead of cars. While most of us are never going to achieve a carbon footprint as low as theirs, we can adopt a few of their habits to help ourselves, the environment, and our economy.

Buy Fresh, Buy Local

I once asked an Amish friend of mine why the Amish drive horse and buggies. I expected him to give me the usual answer—that it had to do with their religious beliefs, to remain separate from the world by eschewing modern technology. He surprised me by saying, “If we drove out of town to shop, our local merchants would be out of a job.”

While none of us are about to give up our cars, we can support our local restaurants, merchants, and farms. In a tough economy, your dollars spent at the corner market, the one-of-a-kind restaurant, and the local bookstore help prevent a chain reaction of small business failures, home foreclosures, and falling property values. In a town of 10,000 people, it’s estimated that a dollar spent locally will circulate a dozen times. Buying local also makes green sense because it cuts down on carbon emissions. And venues such as farmer’s markets bring fresher food at better value straight to the customer while supporting local farmers.

Live Within Your Means

I remember reading an article in the Des Moines Register at the height of the 1980s farm crisis. Small farms across the state were failing, mostly due to large debt-loads when farmers bought expensive new machinery and land at peak prices just before commodity prices fell. The article pointed out that the Amish, who did not incur debt and thus could weather economic downturns better, weren’t at risk of losing their farms.

It’s never too late to adopt a more realistic budget. A new fashion term cropping up is “frugalista,” someone who makes a statement by finding bargains and getting creative with the sewing machine. Even in today’s stagnant housing market, innovative new arrangements like house swaps are allowing people to unload homes that are too big to afford or to move up to a larger home to accommodate a growing family.

Take Joy in Simple Pleasures

Before I started visiting the Amish, I thought they must be a grave and dour people, judging from their dark, 1600s-era clothing and prim bonnets. What I found was a people who love to laugh, to tease, and to party even when they’re working. Whenever there’s a tough job to do—whether it’s putting up 50 quarts of tomatoes or putting up a new barn—they invite their friends over for a “frolic” that involves massive amounts of food and good old fashioned fun. And because they have less artificial types of entertainment at their disposal, the Amish have developed their human social skills to a high art. When they talk to you, they are truly present, free of interruptions by telephone, TV, or radio. The Amish enjoy simple pleasures—potluck meals, taking a walk in the woods, playing volleyball, baseball and other nonviolent sports, and family table games that involve a large dose of loud, raucous laughter.

No matter what your budget, you can take joy in simple yet fulfilling pastimes like starting a garden, preparing home-cooked meals for your family, or hiking in a nearby forest. Riding your bike for Saturday errands can burn calories, reduce your gas budget, and lead to new discoveries as you slow down and actually see the architecture and landscaping that were once a blur in your rearview mirror

Recently my husband, Tom, and I downsized to one car. It does require a little juggling when the weather is rainy, but Tom is enjoying a new form of exercise: walking to and from work. He says his daily walks have become favorite times of the day, and he wonders why he spent so many years driving. He also loves not having the extra car to service, which saves us both money and time.

“We’re just one car away from being Amish,” Tom likes to joke. “But no black hats yet.”

Simple pleasures not only save the environment, they save your health and your pocketbook. And like the Amish, who knows, you might find that living simply is simply more fun.

Linda Egenes is the author of Visits with the Amish: Impressions of the Plain Life, University of Iowa Press, 2009. A freelance writer and book author, Linda visited with her Old Order Amish neighbors in Southeast Iowa for 13 years before writing these very personal stories about her experiences inside the hidden world of the Amish. The book is available at

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, May 2009. Reprinted with permission.)

Categories: Amish, green living

Moving Toward Green
April 6, 2010

Web Marketing Can Save Energy & Resources

Last spring while setting up a series of book talks around Iowa, I started to question this fossil-fuel extravagant way to sell a few books—not to mention the cost of gas. Then my publisher fired off an email, “Create an online presence and market your book that way.”

Gulp. Even though I wrote website copy for a living, learning how to set up my own site felt daunting. But determined to finally enter the digital age, I attended a free Internet marketing seminar by three consultants based in Fairfield: Ellen Finkelstein, Phyllis Khare, and Lee Leffler.

From the tools and strategies they shared, I was able to create a blog and social media campaign to market my books—without driving my car or printing a single flyer. In other words, I suddenly went greener and reached a wider audience, too.

Green Marketing Mavens Ellen Finkelstein, Phyllis Khare, and Lee Leffler

Going Paperless

Of course, virtually everyone who uses a computer is moving toward a paperless, greener business model. But some, such as Ellen, Phyllis and Lee, are forging ahead, using cutting-edge technologies to reduce the use of fossil fuels in a variety of ways: working at home to avoid a commute, training clients using webinars instead of traveling to on-site seminars, creating e-books and e-courses instead of paper-based products, and marketing their services using social media and email.

“The information economy is a paperless, green economy, if it’s structured correctly,” notes Lee, who calls herself “The Newsletter Gal” and writes e-newsletters, websites, and blogs for organizations such as the Miles of Hope Breast Cancer Foundation.

For Lee, establishing a green business was a lifelong dream. Inspired by Ralph Nader as a student, she founded a still-running eco-radio show in 1989, but it wasn’t until 2005 that she was finally able to realize her dream.

“Back then most businesses were still using paper newsletters and wasting trees,” says Lee. She positioned herself as a green entrepreneur, helping businesses market with e-newsletters to save resources. She joined Green America and landed a coveted spot in the Green America National Green Pages. Today she continues to pursue a green agenda, participating in a recycling program, running her website from carbon-neutral EcoHosting, offering sustainable living tips on her blog, and working from a home office to eliminate commuting.

Ellen Finkelstein found another way to switch to a paperless business model—by writing e-books. A best-selling technology author of numerous paperback titles such as AutoCAD 2010 & AutoCAD LT 2010 Bible and How to Do Everything with PowerPoint 2007, she has racked up combined sales of over 300,000 and seen her books translated into 14 different languages.

She wrote her first e-book two years ago because she wanted to reduce paper waste and create products that were more environmentally friendly.

“When you think of the trees used in paper books, the carbon fuels used in shipping, and the costs and energy involved in running a bricks-and-mortar publishing house, traditional publishing is a very 20th-century institution,” says Ellen. “I still update two of my print books each year, but I like the idea of having more editorial control with e-books, and by cutting out publishing and shipping costs, you retain a larger portion of the profits.”

Reducing Fossil Fuel Use

For Phyllis Khare, going greener came with a sudden career move. In the midst of a 12-year stint touring Iowa schools on the Iowa Arts Council roster as “Miss Phyllis,” a children’s music educator, she decided to take time off to indulge another passion: exploring web technologies. Today she has reduced her commute to a few steps—working from her home office as a consultant specializing in web design, Internet marketing, and social media.

“According to one survey, businesses using social media such as Facebook and Twitter reaped 24% more profits than those who used conventional, direct-mail advertising in 2010,” she says. “And the use of the earth’s resources is much less.”

Even though her clients are scattered around the country, Phyllis holds business meetings using video Skype and screen-sharing programs—and trains others to do the same. Ellen also uses webinars to train professionals to give presentations online.

“There’s a synergy of factors—saving money and saving the environment—that is creating a huge demand in online training instead of flying presenters long distances,” Ellen says. “And of course, this is a perfect situation for someone who lives in Iowa, to be able to train professionals anywhere in the world without leaving your home.”

(I wrote this article for April’s Iowa Source–you can view it online here)

Don’t miss a chance for a free Marketing Make-Over Sessions with Phyllis, Lee and Ellen on Tuesday, April 20 at 1:00pm

Event: Marketing Make-Over Sessions with Phyllis, Lee and Ellen
What: Informational Meeting
Start Time: Tuesday, April 20 at 1:00pm
End Time: Tuesday, April 20 at 2:00pm
Where: Fairfield Public Library

Cooking with a Solar Oven
February 22, 2010

Probably I’m way behind the eight-ball here, but I’d never really thought much about solar ovens before I visited my sister Cathy and her family in northern California last Labor Day weekend. Cathy took me to a dinner party at the home of Alice Friedemann and her husband, Jeffery Kahn, the webmaster at UC Berkeley. Alice is a freelance journalist specializing in energy and peak oil issues. She is also developing a cookbook on whole-grain cooking, and has experimented with using a manual grain grinder and solar ovens to make truly sustainable and awesome breads.

In this video she talks about using a solar oven. Alice bought hers but recommends building your own.

Alice says she’s still trying to figure out solar cooking. She thinks the plastic on her oven needs replacing and that may be creating less than stellar (solar?) results. But she feels it’s worth the effort because solar cooking is going to become more and more important in the future.

Besides learning about solar ovens that evening, we were treated to a sumptuous dinner featuring Alice’s homemade whole-grain flatbread along with beets, basil and Early Girl tomatoes from Jeffery’s amazing garden.

I was totally in awe of Alice and Jeffery’s gardening skills. First of all, the way things grow in sunny California, something like rosemary, found in Iowa as a small plant, grows as big as a tree. But it was more than the climate, it was super smart brains at work.

Check out this rather perfect apple tree that grows in Alice and Jeffery’s back yard. A neighbor grafted it with four different strains, so you stroll around the tree and find four types of apples, including Pink Lady and Misui.

According to Alice, most nurseries these days sell apple trees with more than one strain of apples grafted into them, but still, you seldom see such perfect looking trees in someone’s yard.

Says Alice, the trick to getting a lot of apples is to rigorously cut back the tree before spring (in California sometime in January or February) but not snipping off the buds that will produce apples. Later, you’ll get clusters of more than two, and you need to get rid of all but one or you’ll have very small apples and many will fall off in addition if you don’t, wasting the tree’s energy.

After dinner we peer through the telescope from Alice and Jeffery’s second-story balcony, and catch a rare glimpse of the Bay Bridge without any cars (closed for major repairs over Labor Day).

Now I feel inspired to make my own solar oven, but will have to wait until spring as the sun is at too much of an angle now. Will let you know how that goes.

For free directions to make your own solar cooker go to

Additional links on Alice Friedemann

Stories Behind the News
November 1, 2009

I once visited the farm and mail-order bookstore of an Amish author named David Wagler. An intelligent man with traditional white beard and a habit of challenging whatever you said, he wrote and self-published his own books.

Amish - Stories Behind the NewsDavid also was a contributor to the weekly Amish newspaper called The Budget, a collection of newsy letters written by a designated reporter from each Amish community across North America (and one or two in South America as well). The weekly letters, which usually start out with the weather, keep far-flung relatives and friends abreast of each Amish community’s births, deaths, visits, travels and other important events. Some people call The Budget the “Amish Internet,” and a recent NY Times article likened it to blogging and Twitter.

An excerpt from The Budget, from my book Visits with the Amish:
Nov. 25—27º this morning with a light blanket of snow on the ground again, and sunshine. Received the snow yesterday.

The non-Amish neighbor bought a heifer recently at a sale, which seemed to have been someone’s pet. But it did not want to yield to authority and butted him down, in over the electric fence. Thankfully he wasn’t seriously hurt.

AmishUsually the letters follow a regular formula, but David Wagler liked to pepper his with long discourses on the moral dilemmas Amishmen face as they walk a fine line between the “English” and Amish worlds. Much to his dismay, the editor of The Budget usually cut these discourses out. But David had the last word—he gathered them into a thick book, Stories Behind the News, which every Amish person I ever met seemed to be reading.

I think of this blog a little like that. In my books and magazine articles I write about green and healthy topics, but there’s always so much more that I want to say. This blog serves as an outlet for my compulsive need to interview cool people wherever I go. In the past—true confessions here—I’ve been in Italy or California or anywhere, Iowa, and found myself gripped by the thought, “I’ve got  to write about this!”

Sadly, once I get home I don’t always have the time to query a magazine, or worse, the magazine I’m thinking of rejects my idea. So there I am with photos and recorded interviews and notebooks stuffed with observations and ideas—and nowhere to put it (not to mention that I’ve wasted the other person’s valuable time). So now I can ask them if they want to appear in my blog—and from there I can always take it to the level of an article or book.

One thing I want to be clear about—I’m not setting myself up as a person who is perfectly healthy or already living a completely green and sustainable lifestyle (just one look at my raggedy garden will tell you that I have a long ways to go in the green department!). Like many of you, I’m on a very personal journey to make my life more healthy inside and out. And I’m hoping that by connecting with you, we can help each other live a more sustainable life.