What You Won’t Find at An Amish Farmer’s Market

Are North Americans spoiled? Oh, you know the answer is “yes.”

A writer for the Baltimore Sun recently reviewed a new farmer’s market, run by Amish, in that city. The Amish, from neighboring Pennsylvania, took on renovating an unused bingo hall and opened a three-day market. The writer was so disappointed to find that (please sit down, this is bad news) not everything in an Amish market is Amish made or even organic.

I know. I’m so sorry to break it to you.

It takes less than two hours to get from Baltimore to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. Has this well-educated, widely-traveled woman never entered Lancaster County? Has she never spoken to the many Amish and Mennonites who live in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware? Has she never been to the Amish markets that surround Baltimore?

Her chief complaint: Many of the products sold in the market are available in local grocery stores. Oh. But if I need a jar of mustard to go with the rolls and sausages I just bought, do I want to go to the Giant (grocery store name) or the Safeway (another grocery store) on the way home, in order to stand in line for fiteen minutes, to buy a three-dollar jar of mustard?

Her second complaint: The butcher mistakenly told her that the beef she bought was grass-fed. She checked with the distributor from which he bought the meat, and found that it was not. She called the Amish butcher. He apologized, said that he had been told otherwise, and he would find a distributor who would guarantee that the beef was grass-fed. Seeing that he was new to the business, in a new market, isn’t it excusable that he had been mistaken? It may have been too late, though; her family may be permanently disfigured by eating beef tainted with hay, or the suggestion of antibiotics or hormones. (It is entirely possible that the beef was free of any of those drugs, but she didn’t go so far as to send it to the lab for substance testing.)

She continued her “beef” with the Amish on her blog, where many people commented along the lines of calling for someone to investigate this fraud, those Amish just dress up for the tourists, and what about the puppy mills, hey! (The Amish puppy mill myth, now at least a decade old, refuses to go away.)

Have a look at what Eric wrote over at Amish America (http://amishamerica.com.) As always the voice of reason, he didn’t seem to have made much of an impression on Miss Outraged Baltimore. He also links to her article and blog.

The Amish are not preserving Americana circa 1890. They are not a living history museum. They are people who dress and live in a way they believe follows the teachings of Jesus Christ. They make decisions about technology and how its use will affect their families and church.  Most people make no decisions about using technology except to get the latest as soon as they can afford it, even while noticing that their children have drifted off and they never talk to their neighbours.

So the shoo-fly pie may contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. (Crisco in the crust – I don’t make my crust all-butter, either.) The fields may have been fertilized with a nitrogen-based chemical. The corn may have been sprayed with a pesticide.

So do North Americans think that the rest of their food is pristine, or are they looking to the Amish to save them from Monsanto? (One commentor at the Sun blog bellowed something along the lines of “Amish chemicals are ruining our waterways!” as if agri-business isn’t.)

The shock and outrage are really echoes of a disappointment that someone else living a gentler way of life won’t save us from our own excesses. It transfers the responsibility of living a life of consumption to someone who doesn’t consume as much. They can’t be using the same bad products as us – they should know better, and do all that we will not do ourselves.

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30 thoughts on “What You Won’t Find at An Amish Farmer’s Market

  1. Poor thing. Her entire exposure to the Amish is through Harrison Ford in “Witness”. Her surprise and disappointment that they were actually just human beings reminded me of the first time I met a real live Indian (First Nation, Native American) at college. I was shocked and dismayed – he was NOT gorgeous! In fact he looked very much like a regular person. I didn’t realize that Indians (Native Americans, First Nations) were actually human beings who lived outside of my bodice-ripper romance novels.

    Similarly here, her dismay is a result of her prejudice. Clearly she had painted a picture of placid, idyllic, organic, Birkenstock-wearing, “hippy-dippy” Amish folk. She had no understanding of why people followed this Amish way, what informed their relationship with God, etc.

    It happens.

    • I guess I was blessed as a child, growing up near a U.S. Air Force base. People of all kinds passed through our community. I pretty much grew up without stereotypes and prejudices.

      Now, her exposing her consternation meant that we could step up to the plate (well, mostly Eric) and have a gentle swing at that misinformation she is carrying in her head. I was dismayed, though, but the hostility in the comments. I lived in Maryland for years, and I had hoped that Southern bigotry had died out. I guess not! My naivety!

  2. I think we’re all susceptible to bigotry though. I grew up in a very diverse country, in Trinidad. American Indians were not part of that population. I think that my background allowed me to recognize my assumptions and laugh at them when they occurred. I think also there’s another bad habit we sometimes have when it comes to new or novel things; we have to be cynical and worldly about it to show we are not as impressed as the masses. Know what I mean?

  3. All people have prejudice, that is true, the difference is if you are prepared to challenge them or if you want to stick to them once you see that they do not seem to be true.

  4. I think Paula has a good handle on the Baltimore Sun’s writer’s preconceived notions. I greatly respect the Amish as people doing their best to live as they believe Heavenly Father wishes them to. However, they are people. That makes them as imperfect, living in as imperfect a world as the rest of us.

    On the other hand, I have to wonder whether or not the writer in question went to the market with the intent to “expose” it. Even when I have had the option of going to a butcher shop, versus meat section at the grocery, I never asked nor knew how to find out who the butcher’s supplier was. I honestly would have never thought of calling the supplier, even if I had known who it was.

    As to not every thing being sold being organic, I guess if a particular thing is important to me I ask. If it isn’t what I want, I move on. Grow up and deal with it. We constantly ask about corn syrup and a lot of corn products in things since I’m allergic. When I had an allergic reaction, that almost sent me to the emergency room, to a beef pastrami sandwich at a college cafeteria I even ask to check labels at the deli before I have them slice the meat for me. When something I want has corn syrup in it, I suck it up and move on.

    • I just don’t think it’s such a big deal. Even if for allergy reasons she didn’t want the commercial beef, she could have returned it to him or passed it along to someone who could use it. Yes, I wonder how much other “checking” she did. here in Canada, we are generally confident about knowing the origin of our food, as it has to be labelled with country of origin. Regionally, most things are labelled with the province of origin as well. I went to buy garlic at a Mennonite vendor one day and asked if it was local; she said “Argentina!” She didn’t try to imply it was Canadian. I really wanted local garlic because it is fresher and more pungent, and I’m dying to try a new garlic syrup recipe. (It’s medicinal, not food!)

  5. I took my family to Lancaster in April because my children are 14 and 12 and the only place we ever seem to go on vacation is Maryland (don’t even think about the irony). While we were there I made all three of the males in my family go to an Amish Farm where they demonstrate and explain how the Amish live. When we left the house to go to the outbuildings, my husband leaned over to me and whispered, “Who knew they ate Cheeze-its.” I thought it was hysterical until I looked at him and realized he was serious.

    We have these preconceived notions that the Amish are like the actors in Sturbridge Village (a historical village in Mass. U.S.A.) where the people are characters and they bake, make candles, print newspapers and work their farms as if it were the 1800’s. The problem is not a stereotype it is ignorance. They are not educated to the idea that the Amish live the lives that they do because it is a religious decision, they think it is a lifestyle choice. Who would want to live like that is often heard.

    My son could not grasp the concept that if I am a religious woman and the Amish are a religious group then why is it okay for me to have a Jeep Liberty and they cannot. My other son was suprised to learn that Amish is not a nationality like he is of German decent, but rather it is a religous sect like he is a Methodist.

    I think the ignorance of the Baltimore Sun columnist goes more to the lack of education and lack of research before going to the market and before writing her article rather than her sterotyping or attacking.

    If the garlic recipe works please do not forget to share, now that Rob has been diagnosed with High Blood Pressure, I am always looking for holistic meds that will not affect his BP pills.

    • The Amish sweet bread starter I have comes with a recipe that calls for pudding mix. And everyone loves Cheeze-its!

      I may have to wait until garlic season here because I don’t want to waste the effort with less than fresh garlic.

  6. You seem to be denying that there’s any legitimacy to the complaints in the Sun article. Lot’s of derision for the writer but no recognition that the Amish market exists because the Amish are willing to leverage and capitalize the wholesome image outsiders have of them.
    This article did the Amish a favor. It gives them the opportunity to make a course correction.
    My question to you is, why would you want to subvert that? Do you think the Amish vendors are well served by an exploitative relationship with their customers?

    • I’m saying that the complaints seem exaggerated and, outside of the problem with the mislabelled beef, are about cultural conflict more than anything. I live in the Plain world as well as the Englisch world; I see that the Amish (and other Old Orders) primarily as farmers and craftsmen who have a good network for selling what they produce. That they have a ‘wholesome” image may work in their marketing favour, but it is not why they live the way they do. That Amish/Plain image obviously works in the other direction as well – we are seen as uneducated and primitive.

      I find that people don’t mind slamming Amish in particular in the media because they are pretty certain they first, won’t see the media and second, won’t fight back.

    • I had a look at your blog, and see that you were formerly Amish. I am sorry that you are bitter about your past. It’s been a while since you were in the church and the community, I take it. But it isn’t productive for your spiritual health to carry this bitterness and anger. You were particularly critical of Eric for his work, but please remember that he lives and works among the Amish now, while you have moved on. I don’t see how this helps anyone if you can’t support your claims.

  7. And third, because they are disappointed to find that the Amish are mere human beings. They are literally angry at the Amish for not living to some preconceived Englisch notion of what the Amish should be. How they live has nothing to do with offering the world free range chicken.

    • Right on. We don`t wear funny clothes to `fool`people into believing that everything we do is pure and righteous. Righteousness is in the Lord, purity in the cleansing blood. Problem is, the Englisch see this only from their perspective, which is often costume as disguise, marketing as lies. I`m sorry the author of the Sun article felt she had been misled re: the beef she bought, but the seller did try to explain. If it had been the Safeway, would she have written this article about them – or would she have just returned the purchase or asked for some sort of recompense…

      If I had sold someone a knit item I thought was made from 100% wool, and they found out it was only 50% and didn`t want it anymore, I would have taken it back and refunded their money. Or, as in one case when I sold some alpaca prepackaged, and it was not all the same quality once the knitter started it, I gave her a free item to make up for it. I think that would have been the equitable solution, rather than a vituperative article in the newspaper. I am puzzled as to whether she let the seller try to make it right. Even if she had already used the product, she could have asked for a refund.

  8. As a non-Plain farmer we deal with the opposite. Many non-farming people assume we are evil, that we dump manure into rivers, spray pesticide for no reason and use Round-up/herbicide on everything. It’s so frustrating. I even come home from a night with girlfriends either ready to cry or scream.

    People seem to forget that the Amish farmers are struggling to MAKE A LIVING, they aren’t farming for a ‘lifestyle’. They need to use spray when they have a problem. Also, people forget ‘organic’ doesn’t mean no pesticide/herbicide it just means they used a more ‘natural’ spray. And ‘natural’ doesn’t mean safe. A poison is a poison no matter where it comes from – arsenic and asbestos are natural and I wouldn’t want either of them on my food.

    As to ezook’s comment that “the Amish are willing to leverage and capitalize the wholesome image outsiders have of them”. More power to them. It’s not the Amish fault that the English want to put them on a pedestal. Most Amish at markets I’ve seen don’t do anything but stand there and sell their goods. What does ezook think they should do? Change their cape dresses and wear t shirts and jeans? It’s like when people make assumptions about my dresses or my coverings, I can’t help what other people want to think, neither can the Amish.

    It’s too bad you don’t live closer Magdalena. We’ve still got a pile of garlic left from last year’s harvest that I don’t think I’m going to get through in time.

    • How many times do we need to remind people that “farmers feed cities”? The major diffeerence between “natural” pesticides and “chemical” pesticides is usually what happens when they break down, but as you point, arsenic and asbestos, natural produts that they are, don’t do that! I get the impression that non-farmers think their food should come from some pristine hydroponic greenhouse – although they aren’t exacty chemical-free either! Food has to be grown, and how we do it is important. The governments and the agri-business companies need to be more honest with farmers and consumers.

      When I go out in public, I don’t think too much anymore about how I’m dressed or how people will react. I spend less time thinking about that than most Englisch dressed women!

      Too bad about the garlic. Maybe I should send you the garlic syrup recipe! I’ll post it here if I can find it soon.

  9. And here’s another thing that bothers me about this. Baltimore is full of what we in public health (my graduate discipline is public health and epidemiology) call food deserts. Food deserts are neighborhoods without access to grocery stores within decent walking distance. For the urban poor this means they do their shopping at convenience stores (of which there is inevitably a plethora in these same urban food deserts), liquor stores and fast food outlets (also plethora in these urban deserts). As a result, for some demographics poverty is actually a risk factor for obesity. Simply put, urban poor are more likely to be obese because of the quality of food most have access too (not fresh, not whole, etc). This contributes to the existing health disparities in the USA.

    I don’t know Baltimore well enough to know where this Amish market is with relation to these urban food deserts, but wouldn’t it have been nice for the author to have acknowledged that this market is meeting such a need. She could even have said, “mind you, the food is not guaranteed organic, but now more people have access to a grocery store, and maybe even a glimpse of alternate lifestyles to what they would have typically been exposed to.”

    • I lived out of the bodegas when I was in a poor neighborhood of Washington. They were a life-saver, because the nearest supermarket was several metro stops away. I spoke Spanish and was familiar with Central American food, so I could navigate the ethnic market. Other neighbours couldn’t and you are right, they lived out of the convenience stores and fast food outlets. They spent a disproportionate amount of their income on food. Most farmer’s markets have vendors who will give a good deal on bulk sales. We can get local grown ground beef here for $2 a pound in quantity, and discounts on eggs if we buy them by the flat. Even imported produce is cheaper because of the lower overhead – bananas are usually 10 cents a pound cheaper in the farmer’s market.

      • I presently live in an urban neighborhood, miles away from the nearest major supermarket, but there are several places to buy decent food here, each one with a particular ethnic flavor. All of them sell conventional groceries and convenience foods, but one has Indian products, one has Caribbean products, one has halal foods, and one has a section in the back with labels in Turkish. There probably are one or two others I’ve forgotten. The prices are not cheap, but by no means outrageous, and about the only thing I don’t get are the loss leaders and the discounts that bring people to big supermarkets. Still, it’s worth it to me to save the time and complication of getting in my car and fighting traffic just to pick up some milk and a couple of pieces of fruit. It’s quite easy to buy nutritious food, if that’s what you want, and you can get good bargains on ethnic food (rice and olive oil come to mind right away). This is not at all an unusual situation, because in my city, these little markets are dotted around here and there, and nobody lives very far from at least a couple. We also have a few farmers markets here and there. Still, there’s a lot of hue and cry about how the city has no major supermarkets, they’re all located in the suburbs, and how that’s a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, the suburbs can keep them. Sure, we’ve got the liquor stores and the fast food outlets, and you can fill your grocery bag with junk food at any one of the markets, if that’s what you want. I can’t speak for Baltimore or other cities, but for my part, it was way more difficult to buy groceries when I lived in the suburbs.

    • I don’t know. It doesn’t sound as if they represented themselves that way. Most farmer’s markets are careful about that. The vendors each would have to be organically certified, not the market itself.

  10. May I suggest that cultural conflict is a normal and naturally occurring phenomenon and if we’re going to sort through our differences, someone needs to start the conversation.
    I would like to think that I have the plain communities’ best interest in mind when I advocate for them to assume responsibility for how they’re perceived by the larger culture and the complications that occur as a result of that perception.
    I inherently accept that there’ll be issues upon which the plain community will not be open to compromise. This will naturally create conflict, so it seems short sighted to not be proactive in seeking an amicable solution, especially if it won’t require an ideological or religious compromise.

    “They are literally angry at the Amish for not living to some preconceived Englisch notion of what the Amish should be. How they live has nothing to do with offering the world free range chicken.”

    Not that it behooves me to pretend I know scripture, but didn’t the apostle Paul recommend doing everything possible to not offend another?
    Trans fat and hydrogenated oils are persona non grata to the well being of the human body. How can you reconcile wearing plain clothe while serving a lethal product?
    Sure those foods are ingrained in our culture, but you would think the Plain folks would be making common cause with the outsiders who also recognize that sometimes people in general are unable to do what’s best for themselves!

    Instead you have a nihilistic hissy fit because people attribute value and meaning to your actions. And you think I’m bitter?

    • Well, that was a pretty good answer up to the hissy fit part. That was personal and snarky. I speak to you as a discerning priest, not as some advocate for all-that-is-right. So take it as you will and as the Holy Spirit moves you.

      Back to the point you are trying to make – while trans fat and partially hydrogenated oils aren’t the best thing to eat, the occasional indulgence won’t kill anyone. I eat them and I’m remarkably healthy for someone over fifty. Food labels are there so we can make a choice. I’m not going to police what people eat. While buying the shoo-fly pie and doughnuts, there’s an opportunity to buy tomatoes and cabbage as well. I recommend that people eat the vegetables first, but if they choose something tasty and not so “healthy”, well, no one is forcing them. If you look at the the comment Paula Roberts posted, you might have a sense of how city people live. I’ve been there, too. An opportunity to buy good vegetables and treats in one market is a great move forward in many nieghborhoods in Baltimore.

      As a Christian (Plain or not) I’m not open to compromise on many issues. When Paul spoke of not offending others, he meant members of the church itself, and, for example, not eating meat in front of those on vegetarian fasts who are not firm in their faith and would see it as indulging in idolatry. It certainly doesn’t mean blending into society in all ways and never taking a stand.

      Thank you for your reply.

      • Good answer Magdalena. We often have arguments on the Ottawa Valley Food Co-op’s board of directors between the people that want to be the food police and those of us who feel people should be able to chose for themselves.

        As to trans fat and hydrogenated fat, it’s all more reason to eat pork 🙂 Pork is trans fat free.

      • I say we need to respect the decisions people make, good and bad, and stop trying to nanny the world. And what if we are wrong? I believe that many diseases are caused by environmental pollution, and not by food choices. I was vegetarian/vegan and a skinny little thing for years, and I’ve had cancer twice, as well as fibromyalgia. My mother attributed our health problems to industrial chemicals, and I could bet that she was right.

        Mmm, pork! We are having split pea soup tonight with garlic sausage and home-smoked bacon, both from the butcher at the farmer’s market.

  11. You’re sorry that I’m bitter? Just an accusatory statement without bothering to define why and how you come to that conclusion. And then you accuse me of not supporting my claims? Again without any specifics.

    That sounds more brutish than discerning.

    You don’t like my critique of Wesner’s work, again no specifics other than to question the greater part of my life’s experience against his visiting with the Amish since I’ve left. Do you have any idea how pathetic that sounds? Probably you don’t. Has Wesner ever been to an Amish ordination? Has he seen his cousin sob uncontrollably for twenty minutes when the lot fell on him? Does he know what it’s like as a young adult to sit there among the congregation, patiently waiting for the chosen one to gain composer? Has Wesner ever experienced one of his siblings give their first sermon as an Amish minister? Are any of his childhood friends ordained Amish ministers? Did he marry an Amish woman? Has he ever helped to hand dig a grave for a deceased church member? Does he remember what the conversation was like as the hole got deeper and the sun beat down? Has Wesner ever heard the respect and admiration in his older siblings voices as they endlessly retold the legendary stories of the irreverent banter that occurred between our old bishop and the undertaker at funerals?

    It’s truly sick that you would even attempt to make that argument! But it’s no surprise, there’s even a word to describe the end goal of your efforts.
    It’s hegemony. The Old Order plain community doesn’t tell it’s own story. You along with a lot of others have taken it upon yourselves to fill that vacuum. The hegemony occurs because your portrayal isn’t about them, it’s about you. Even when someone like me wants to engage, your response is to dismiss and marginalize what I bring to the conversation. Because, like I said, it’s not about them, (or should I say us) it’s only about you.

    • I don’t mean to be accusatory. As I remarked earlier, it is a pastoral statement. It may not be flattering to you, but there it is. I see anger and bitterness in you writing and attitude. Not an accusation at all, not a statement that needs defense. This is not a debate. Call it a spiritual remark.

      Eric Wesner doesn’t need my defense, as his work speaks for itself. He reaches out to many in our extended community, and we appreciate it. His good reputation speaks his defense.

      I almost deleted this comment saying to myself, “I’ve had enough of this.” But I wanted another opportunity to reach out. If you don’t want that – and you don’t seem to – that’s all right. But I’m not going to go back and forth on this. I can guess I’m not the first. I apologize if a Christian gesture offended you.

  12. Who knew they eat Cheezits? haha, that’s great. Even though I think of myself as more informed about minority religious groups than most, I did have a bit of a surprise last summer when I was returning from visiting my family. At the train station in Chicago there was a large group of Plain People waiting for the same train I was waiting for. I was a bit surprised to see them in the food court, all crowding into the McDonalds. (I wanted to take a picture, but didn’t.) I guess I was half expecting them to have broght bags of scrapple and shoofly pie, or something like that. On the same trip, by coincidence, my sister gave me an Amish cookbook. It’s hardly what you would call health food–lard in the piecrust, two cans of soup in the casserole, and fully one third of the book is pies, cakes, cookies, and other desserts. My impression is that they cook and eat pretty much the way the other farm families I grew up around cook and eat.

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