Bread baking, home gardening, and family dinners have become staples of #quarantinelife. To some, it feels like a return to “simpler” times. But to many communities, these activities have been a way of life for centuries. For a curious traveler, there is much to learn from people who have perfected patterns of life that many of us are now discovering for the first time.
One of a traveler’s best tools is humility, a quality that seems especially resonant right now. Humility is a value that is the central tenet of life in Amish communities. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—the United States’ oldest Amish community—horse-and-buggies share the road with cars, and bushels of apples brighten roadside farm stands. Viewed from a barn loft or the top of a grain silo, the patchwork of fields and pastures can resemble the quilts found hanging on local art gallery walls.
There are many enriching (and COVID-safe) ways to experience Amish hospitality, even during the pandemic. Farm stays—an estimated 2,500 working farms and ranches in the U.S. now offer lodging—deliver social distancing, cultural immersion, and an earthy education all in one stop. Farm stays “promote education about stewardship of the land,” says Bonnie Schubert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association. “There’s also a therapeutic appeal to them that’s especially welcome right now.”
The Amish are a distinctive group within the Anabaptist movement, which began in Switzerland in 1525. Anabaptists stressed the separation of church and state, voluntary church membership by adult baptism, pacifism, and isolation from worldly corruption. The movement spread rapidly but encountered severe persecution. In 1693, Jakob Ammann, a Swiss Anabaptist Church leader, sought to revitalize the Anabaptist movement. He forbade the trimming of beards and the wearing of fashionable dress. Ammann’s disciples, eventually known as Amish, first settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s.
The Amish attiude toward tourism is “a love-hate affair,” says Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow emeritus at the Young Center at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College. It complicates their lives, for example, creating more road traffic for their horse-drawn buggies and sometimes making them feel like animals in a zoo, “with everyone staring at them and asking them questions,” he says.
However, they certainly benefit from tourism financially, and it’s one of the many businesses—from farming to construction-related trades—where the Amish and non-Amish interact. “They’re not strict separatists,” Kraybill says.
According to Joel Cliff at Discover Lancaster, the region’s estimated 40,000 Amish are a large and active part of the county’s $3 billion tourism industry—operating farm stays, selling handcrafted furniture, running buggy rides, and more. In 2019, visitors cited learning about the Amish as the top reason for visiting.
COVID-19 hit travel business in Lancaster hard as visitors canceled farm weddings and weekend getaways. But as both Amish and non-Amish farm stays begin to welcome guests again, visitors are finding Lancaster’s promise of low-stress, nature-connected escapes an undeniable draw. Autumn—with its pumpkins and mums, corn mazes and mugs of hot apple cider—is one of the best times to visit.
Staying on a farm
Each Lancaster farm stay is different depending on location and time of year. The sunrise crow of a rooster may wake guests in time to help milk the cows and bottle-feed the calves before the breakfast bell starts clanging. The table may be laden with fresh eggs and milk; homemade sausage; fruit from the orchard; and just-out-of-the-oven bread, muffins, and cinnamon rolls. Guests might have the chance to play with baby goats and bunnies, go on a farm tour, collect eggs, take a spin on the tree swing, or just relax next to the garden. What’s constant: no pandemic fears of overcrowding or being cooped up indoors.
Sabrina Myoda first stayed with her family at Olde Fogie Farm Bed & Breakfast, in Marietta, when she was “knee high to a grasshopper,” she says. It was within easy driving distance of her family’s Delaware home. Every time they returned, she would check in on barnyard animals she had befriended and spend time splashing in the wading pond. “It was like a fairy-tale,” says Myoda, now 24 and still a regular visitor.
Out of 30-plus farm stays in the county, 13 are Amish-owned, according to Discover Lancaster. The number of Amish farm stays has about doubled in the past five years, Cliff says. Visitors to an Amish farm are usually booked in a separate guesthouse, possibly with fewer amenities—such as WiFi—than at non-Amish farm stays, which tend to be bed-and-breakfasts.
“The Amish selectively, carefully, and thoughtfully use technology,” says Kraybill. “They don’t own TVs but will purchase state-of-the-art archery equipment, for example; they’re not allowed to drive cars but can ride in them.” Most Amish people do not have phones inside their homes, he says, but might use a cellphone for business. They “seek to master technology rather than become its slave,” according to the Young Center, which studies Anabaptist and Pietist groups.
If you stay at an Amish farm, Kraybill offers this advice: Find out what the rules are about touching animals, walking in the garden, and taking photos. Most Amish people consider being photographed against their religion, but those who operate a farm stay usually let guests snap pictures of animals and buildings. “Ask questions before you do something silly and later regret it,” he says.
Amish couple Ben and Anna Riehl own Beacon Hollow Farm, in Gordonville. After a very quiet spring, Ben says guests began arriving again in late May. “People want to get out,” he says.
The dairy farm’s bookings are often international, with 30 percent from overseas, Riehl says. In the guesthouse, visitors are served a continental breakfast, typically including yogurt made with milk from Beacon Hollow’s 50 or so cows. Guests familiar with farming will walk around on their own; others are given tours. At the end of the day, Riehl enjoys visiting with his guests. “They think it’s quiet,” Riehl says. “They can’t wait to come back.”
What to do nearby
Visitors not overnighting at an Amish farm can learn about the culture and history of the Pennsylvania Dutch, as the Amish are also called, at places such as the Amish Farm and House, the Amish Experience, and the Amish Village. Passengers of Aaron & Jessica’s, Abe’s, Ed’s, or AAA buggy rides take in the sweeping panorama of Lancaster’s fertile farmlands. Numerous restaurants serve Pennsylvania Dutch fare: meat loaf, mashed potatoes with gravy, chowchow (pickled vegetables), and, to top it off, a slice of pie— from pumpkin to shoofly (molasses).
Families looking for unplugged activities in the area head to the Strasburg Rail Road, among America’s oldest continuously operating steam train lines, for a 45-minute ride into the countryside in open-air carriages. Nearby, the National Toy Train Museum displays seven interactive miniature train layouts.
The Amish community’s response to pandemic protocols has, as in any other places, varied: Some Amish wear (and make) face masks; others don’t. Amish schools, worship services, and businesses were shut down, and have since resumed. To see what safety measures are in place at farm stays, research online or call ahead and ask.
“Farm stays have always been about building connections,” says Elisa Fleming, owner of Verdant View Farm, in Paradise. That’s why Fleming’s communal breakfasts still take place daily, though they look different now. Individual breakfast tables are arranged outdoors in such a way that guests can still face each other and easily chat.
“This year, especially, people are craving connection. People think they are just coming for vacation, but they leave and it’s the relationship-building they remember,” says Fleming, who is not Amish. “You realize that we have so much in common.”
A lifelong Lancaster County resident, Paula Wolf is a freelance writer who also blogs about sports at wheelchair-quarterback.com. Follow her on Twitter.
Additional reporting by Rebekah Barlas.