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Amish population continues to grow, especially in New York

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While many Anabaptist groups struggle to grow, the Amish continue their steady rise in numbers, bolstered by new settlements beyond traditional population centers.

From 2009 to 2011, the Amish population increased by about 10 percent, to 261,150, according to a new study.

For years, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana have been home to almost two-thirds of the Amish. But the number of Amish in other states is growing quickly.

The biggest recent percentage increase has occurred in New York. The Empire State’s Amish population expanded at three times the national average over the past two years, mostly due to migration from neighboring states.

The Amish of New York increased 31 percent from 2009 to 2011, to 13,000 people, according to a new study by Elizabethtown (Pa.) College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

Elizabethtown professor Donald B. Kraybill, who directed the study, said there are “push” and “pull” factors leading to Amish growth in New York.

“In general, families with a more traditional bent that would like to be in more rurally isolated communities tend to move,” he said. “Some of them want to farm, while others want to set up small businesses.”

Kraybill said other “pull” factors toward New York include more affordable farmland and proximity to traditional population centers in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

He noted that “old and big settlements” in these states “are saturated with Amish shops and businesses,” so the Amish see opportunities to develop new markets in new places.

Amish families moving to New York are typically younger, though there are numerous exceptions, Kraybill said.

“Sometimes there may be problems in their church, so a few families that are dissatisfied may leave, and some older people may come along,” he said.

The Amish have established 11 new settlements in New York since 2009, bringing the total to 40 settlements in nine counties. The state’s first Amish settled in the Conewango Valley in 1949.

New settlements typically have just a few families in a single district, or congregation. Older settlements can have dozens of districts.

Life can be complicated for Amish looking to maintain their religious beliefs and practices in communities unfamiliar with their unique lifestyle.

Karen Johnson-Weiner, an anthropology professor who recently wrote a book on the Amish in New York, said they have been involved in disputes over zoning, construction practices and electronic filing of sales taxes.

“For example, the most conservative Amish say the building code is against church discipline,” she said. “There are even cases in the federal courts of New York having to do with the Amish.”

She called it “a learning experience” for the Amish and government officials.

Disputes aside, the general public has shown “a lot of interest” in the Amish, Johnson-Weiner said.

“Local people like the Amish,” she said. “And on the whole, the Amish want to be good neighbors. They want to be a good presence in the community, even if they don’t want to be integrated into the community.”

Overall, the Amish established 36 new settlements during the past two years, totaling 448. They started a settlement in South Dakota in 2010 but have not yet entered any new states in 2011.

In addition to New York, Amish populations that grew faster than the national average from 2009 to 2011 were in Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri and Michigan.

The Amish population doubled from 1991 to 2010, growing 5 percent on average every year.

Reproduction and retention drive consistent growth. The Amish have sizeable nuclear families, with five or more children on average, and a retention rate of 85 percent or more.

Amish communities are located in 28 states and Ontario. The three largest settlements by total population are Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, Holmes County in Ohio and Elkhart/LaGrange counties in Indiana.

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