Several years ago we had a week-long power outage in my region. Even though we live in a fairly old-fashioned rural community, panic still set in somewhere around hour 12 of the weather-related disaster. It was summer, a really, really hot summer, with temperatures hitting about 95 degrees before noon.
Friends and neighbors cleared out their refrigerators, and everyone was invited to a community cookout at the high school. The only grocery store in the county ran out of generator power far sooner than expected. No gas station within a 25-minute drive had power. The wait at Walmart for bottled water and ice was often fruitless.
While preparing a meal of long-term storage food on our charcoal grill, our daughter (who turned 16 during “the storm”) and I heard the familiar click-clack of a horse and buggy rolling by on a side street. She turned to me and said, “Do you think the Amish even noticed?”
I laughed and responded, “Probably not, at least not until an ‘English’ neighbor mentioned the ongoing power failure.” Once the news did spread to the Amish community in our county, buggies began heading to the grocery store to buy perishable items at a very steep discount. All the Amish farms and homesteads had an ice house and were fully capable of storing the bargain steaks and other “must refrigerate” items, which were destined for the dumpster.
Although I was impressed with how our community pulled together during the power outage, I was equally surprised that so many folks in a rural area struggled so much during the short-term disaster.
When the editors asked if I was interested in going to visit one of the local Amish farms to craft a piece about homesteading skills we should all be learning, I jumped at the opportunity. I pulled on my favorite cowboy boots and headed out in the county to enjoy some of Alma’s amazing homemade cookies while talking off-grid living in our modern world with her farrier husband and some local Amish farmers.
Sadly, many of the traditional homesteading skills rural folks in my region once considered merely necessary daily tasks have been lost. Knowing how to grow you own food, preserve your harvest, raise and “doctor” livestock, and care for minor physical ailments are not only handy self-reliant skills for off-the-grid families, but survival attributes which could one day save your life.
My Amish friend, Ezra, said that over the course of the past year or so, more and more folks that routinely engage the services of his community have mentioned the disturbing events going on in the world and asked for tips to help them rediscover the Appalachian ways of the past and traditional homesteading skills.
Amish Homesteading Skills
1. How to Sew by Hand – Many of us suffered through mandatory middle school home economics class – and likely should have paid better attention. The Amish teach simple sewing to children when they are barely more than toddlers. Learning how to make your own fabric, thread, patterns and clothing is not only a money-saver for off-grid families, but a necessity following a disaster. Not surprisingly, the Amish keep it simple when it comes to clothing. Learning how to sew-in zippers is not necessary. The sturdy garments made by the Amish are secured with thick buttons, hook-an-eye fasteners, and Velcro. Amish Farming Task Schedule.
2. How to Farm Without Machines – Amish farms most commonly grow corn, wheat, hay, soybeans, tobacco, tomatoes, barley, potatoes, green beans and grasses for grazing livestock. The level of self-sufficiency found on an Amish farm would likely impress even a seasoned homesteader. The Amish do not smoke, but do sell tobacco and other excess crops to non-community members. Farm work on an Amish farm is done with horse-drawn equipment only. The wagons used have durable metal wheels and not tires made of rubber. One Amish farmer does not usually possess all the skills necessary to make wheels, shoe horses, grow crops, make furniture, etc., but he does network closely with other members of the community to ensure that none of the necessary items will ever be in short supply. An Amish community resembles a very well-trained and close-knit mutual assistance group. When a barn needs raised, it is framed within a day. A regime of crop rotation is strictly followed on an Amish farm and no season is wasted – replenishing empty ground during the winter is key to developing nutrient-rich ground in the spring.
- In April, the Amish sow oats and plant corn. Tomato seeds are also moved outdoors from the greenhouse in many locations.
- In May, the horses and cows are munching on well-maintained pasture, and late-harvest corn is planted.
- In June, it is hay-making time. Strawberries are also preserved and turned into a plethora of sweet delights to be enjoyed by the family and sold at roadside stands.
- July is an extremely busy month on an Amish farm. The second cutting of hay occurs, threshing must be done, honey is removed from supers, apple starts are transplanted, and sweet blackberries and raspberries are picked.
- During August, silos must be refilled before the weather turns cold and sowing of fall wheat must be completed.
- In October, it is cider-making and late-corn harvesting time.
3. How to Take Advantage of Off-Grid Power – There are multiple varieties of Amish. The Old Order is far more strict when it comes to the use of any type of power. The Amish community in my area and in “Ohio Amish country” utilize both gas and solar power. Amish do known how to milk cows by hand, but are permitted to use gas-powered milkers, barn fans, and propane appliances. If fuel suddenly became unavailable, as it did during the summer storm in my area, the Amish would still be able to go about their chores and operate their businesses. Some tasks would just take a little bit longer.
Bottled gas is often used to power water heaters, stoves and refrigerators. Gas-pressured lamps and lanterns – and even rustic lantern chandeliers — can be used to light homes, businesses, and barns. We recently visited a major supplier of propane refrigerators and stoves while in Ohio Amish country. The prices were not much higher than the modern appliances you can buy at the local big box store and offer a great off-the-grid living alternative. Solar panels and solar generators are also widely used by some Amish communities. Some Amish have jokingly called their solar power usage as “connecting to God’s grid.”
4. How to Identify Plants and Trees – The Amish understand the environment which surrounds their home just as well as America’s original pioneers. They can easily rattle off details about the types of grasses which will produce specific types of crops and livestock feed. If their food ever ran out, which would require a long-term disaster of epic proportion, the Amish can easily walk into the woods and quickly identify which berries and other wild-growing items are safe to eat. Know your wood! My husband embarked on this type of training with me, and I felt quite proud to show of my wood identification skills when talking with members of the Amish community. From a young age, the Amish are taught to how to identify and understand why different types of wood are good for fires, cooking and building.
Horses are considered equipment on an Amish farm. But this does not mean the animals are mistreated. I have ridden and purchased horses from the Amish, and they are extremely well-trained and rarely ever startle when exposed to new environments or traffic. Amish children learn how to not just ride and care for horses by the age of five, but can also saddle, harness and cart the ponies and miniature horses used during their training. When we purchased a mini for our oldest grandson, Crosley, I paid Ezra’s 5-year-old son and asked him to teach it how to cart and to “ride it out” since my grandson was a novice.
5. How to Use Hand Tools – The Amish take extremely good care of their tools. Think how closely you guarded that one special present you opened on Christmas morning as a child, and you get the idea how much the Amish care for their wood-hand planers, leather punches, blacksmithing equipment, horse tack, generators, and hand-powered farming implements. Investing in, and learning how to use hand tools was highly recommended by my Amish friends. Building and repairing what you need on the homestead or during a disaster without power is essential.
6. How to Homeschool – The Amish were perhaps the original homeschoolers. Educating your children at home, or in a small community environment, offers the opportunity to teach not only academic basics thoroughly and at a pace which suits your children or grandchildren, but also gives you the ability to tailor the curriculum to include hands-on learning while engaging in practical homesteading tasks at a young age. I toured the Amish schoolhouse during my visit to Ezra and was extremely impressed with the workbooks for use by children in Amish communities. As a former educator, I can attest that the students were at the very least one grade level above area public schools in reading, writing and math. The workbooks infused faith-based learning with the building blocks basics, as well as farming-specific lessons. The children, unlike many in public schools, still learn cursive writing and even had a classroom pet. Non-Amish can order the educational materials used by the community from the several publishers who print the texts and workbooks via the Internet.
We could all pick up some pointers from the Amish community which could make our day-to-day life more rewarding, but also enhance our chances of survival if disaster strikes.