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Amish Seek Help From Machines After Storm

October 5, 2003

GORDONVILLE, Pa. (AP) _ Elam Zook puts a caller on hold, removes his headset, and hurriedly confers with two bearded men beside him in the local dialect known as Pennsylvania German.

Zook is trying to help Elmer Esh, one of dozens of Amish farmers worried about losing their crops. Zook tells his companions that he has secured a tractor, two wagons and a blower, nearly enough equipment to send a crew to Esh’s farm.

With the blessing of their bishops, Amish farmers are desperately rounding up heavy farm equipment to harvest cornfields left vulnerable when Tropical Storm Isabel blew through central Pennsylvania last month.

The Amish typically shun large machinery, believing that traditional farm methods foster interdependence and keep the outside world at bay.

But Isabel cut a wide swath across Lancaster County’s 175,000 acres of corn on Sept. 18-19, just as the fall harvest got under way. The county has about 26,000 Amish people, about 40 percent of them in farm families.

``Our bishops are broad-minded, if the need arises. We do need to feed our families,″ said Zook, a carpenter who spent Friday taking calls at a hot line set up in a small room near the Gordonville Fire Company.

Isabel’s high winds knocked down tall, golden fields of feed corn, making it impossible for some Amish farmers to steer their horse-drawn wagons and gas-powered corn binders down the battered rows.

Each passing day increases the chance the downed corn will dry out or get moldy. After about a week on the ground, the corn starts to lose its quality.

``Some of it is almost too dry now to put in silos. A lot of them probably won’t get their silos filled,″ said Martha Zook of Gordonville, no relation to Elam Zook.

Combined with last year’s drought-weakened crop and depressed prices for milk, dairy farmers are anxious about this year’s corn. Buying feed for a 40-head farm can cost $10,000 a year.

Martha Zook’s family is among the fortunate, having stored their corn in silos before the storm. So the family, who belongs to the more modern Mennonite church, is lending its tractor to neighbors. However, the old machine can’t easily navigate the mangled fields, she said.

Many farmers would gladly pay $1,000 to $2,000 to hire commercial operators, whose $200,000 combines can cut a typical Amish farm’s cornfields and chop it into grain in a single day. But most of the machines were already reserved for harvest time by non-Amish farmers.

``One custom operator, he had, in a day, 150 calls,″ Elam Zook said.

So last Monday, several non-farmers in the Amish community reopened their closet-sized emergency center, which was set up a few years ago after a tornado. The room has one desk, three chairs and three telephones.

On Friday, Zook and the two other men _ dressed in traditional dark, unbelted trousers and monotone shirts _ juggled multiple-line telephones with ease, hop-scotching between English and the Germanic tongue they use with each other. While most Amish do not have phones at home, some use them in their businesses, Elam Zook said.

Just down the road, in Paradise, Amos Smucker, 22, was out on his small harvester Friday helping his neighbors clear their fields. Even with the machine, it was slow going, with three days of work behind them and two more ahead. They planned to rest Sunday for the Sabbath.

Amish bishops can be flexible on rules about electricity and other modern conveniences, especially involving medical or other emergencies, according to Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown College, a sociologist who wrote ``The Riddle of Amish Culture.″ The rules, adopted after the Industrial Revolution, promote a cultural lifestyle as much as a theological rule, he said.

``They’ve kept horses in the field to help limit the size of their operations and to keep work there for their children and to maintain the separation somewhat from the outside world,″ Kraybill said.

``It’s not really breaking any of their rules, it’s really adjusting their rules in a particular emergency,″ he said.

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