The Amish and the Government: Friendly Foes?

By Clinton Martin

The Amish have always had sort of an arms-length relationship with the U.S. Government.  It isn’t so much that they are anti-government, or that they don’t appreciate the freedoms they have in the United States.  The Amish are of course U.S. citizens, and by and large live out their daily lives amicably with their English (non-Amish) neighbors.  The overall approach has been an unspoken agreement of “You do your thing.  We’ll do ours.  Let’s not meddle in each other’s business.” 

You rarely see an Amish person getting involved in government affairs.  Running for office, passing out political literature, standing on the street corner with a soap-box and a megaphone, even joining a political party to vote in the primary (Pennsylvania is a closed primary) – these are all activities that you just don’t see Amish doing.  Some Amish do vote in National elections, but it is accurate to say while some do, most don’t. 

The Government likewise tends to leave the Amish alone.  While automobiles are highly regulated with government standards for everything from airbags to fuel efficiency and emissions, Amish carriages (other than the orange triangle on the back intending to make slow-moving vehicles easier to see) are largely unregulated.  No license plate.  No registration.  No insurance (required – it is available, but not required.) 

So, when the Amish and the Government do have a run-in, it is front page news.  The narrative often sways from one extreme to the other… the big bad government is overreaching and burdening the peaceful, innocent Amish with an unnecessarily heavy hand, or conversely, the Amish are hiding behind their straw hats, subverting civic duties everyone else has to support just because they don’t feel like following the law.  Both sides of the pendulum swing are probably a little unfair, but due to the rarity of the two intersecting, the news is normally bent one way or the other. 

Today, it appears one local Amish farm has gotten itself under the microscope of the Government, and not in a positive way.  For anonymity’s sake, I’ve changed the name of the Amish farmer, and I won’t name government officials, but the story itself is interesting in that it shows how the two camps approach each other in a dispute. 

The “Esh” farm, as I’ll call it, has been in the same Amish family for many years and for most of that time it has been a conventional farm, growing products in the usual “industrial” manner.  But, when farming this way began to favor huge, mechanized, factory-farms, the family had to do something to stay in business.  So they went back to basics, farming the “old-fashioned” way.  Some would say it is organic.  Others would say they aren’t certified organic, but are at least farming in a more “traditional” manner with minimal chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics, etc. 

Basically, the farm began selling raw milk, meats, and produce from their farm directly to consumers.  Their goal as stated was “to provide authentic farm fresh, nutrient dense, non GMO, chemical free, hormone free, antibiotic free, great tasting and truly organic food employing conscientious organic standards with traditional farming methods.”

Whether it was out of a lack of knowledge of United States Department of Agriculture rules, or a more direct flouting of the rules, the “Esh” farm was producing and making available these products without following all the government rules and channels. 

The government sought to have the “Esh” family adopt these practices through enforcement, but the family felt once again that to take on such practices would turn them back into a conventional farm, moving them in the direction of a mechanized, factory-farm setting.  That in their opinion was of course going against their “nutrient-dense” mantra, but would also put them back on a path of going out of business. 

So, in order to be able to continue farming as they had been, they moved to a “private membership association” model.  This meant that consumers who wished to source products off the “Esh” farm had to purchase a share in the farm, and essentially become a member-buyer of the farm.  The “Esh” family hoped this would shelter them from USDA regulations. 

In the eyes of the government, this did not change things.  In court proceedings, they argued (summarizing) that the farm was an unincorporated, non-partnership, for-profit sole proprietorship farm business, and not really a true “private membership association.”  The animals slaughtered at the farm are not all grown at the farm.  The farm has not applied for federal inspection of its meat and poultry operations and has no current plans to apply for federal inspection of those operations.

So essentially, the Amish farm and the government are at a stalemate.  Neither side is willing to budge.  The “Esh” family believes they are providing foods in natural, organic, nutrient-dense, pure and simple manner, and by abandoning their farming practices to become compliant with the USDA, they would be destroying the quality of the food and putting their customers at risk.  The USDA believes the “Esh” family is providing unsafe, “misbranded, non-federally inspected meat and poultry products” thus putting the public at risk. 

So what happens?  Who is right?  Both sides are making their argument.  The issue became further complicated when the USDA accused the “Esh” farm of shipping out tainted milk to a customer in Florida.  The woman in Florida died of a listeria infection, which the government traced to drinking tainted raw milk, which they believe came from the “Esh” farm. 

The “Esh” farm have called this a smear campaign against them by the USDA, saying that the government was using the unfortunate death of the woman (who was terminally ill with an unrelated cancer) as a way to draw their own presumed conclusions. 

What I assume will happen is the two sides will come to some sort of agreement where the USDA is satisfied the public is no longer at risk, and the Amish family are able to be “in compliance” yet still offer foods they believe in.  In the non-Amish world, this is usually a simple matter of lawyers for both camps talking things through and handling the mediation process.

However, it is a bit more complicated due to a resistance among the Amish to hiring lawyers or taking the legal offensive.  As it turns out the “Esh” farm has engaged legal council in order to navigate this process, so hopefully a resolution will come. 

In the past, the Amish community and the United States government have had to settle disputes arising from issues such as Social Security (named “Old Age and Survivors Insurance” when it was first introduced.)  Schooling (some Amish fathers were jailed in Lancaster during a school-standards impasse) and most recently when the government was aiming to require purchasing health insurance or levy a fine, the Amish and the government always have been able to compromise (eventually.)