Hardships on the Homestead: Plain-Sect Farming in the Great Depression
August 31, 2023
Pennsylvania is known for many things: the city of brotherly love, the great battle of Gettysburg, and beautiful, looming mountains. However, Pennsylvania is arguably most known for its agricultural heritage, particularly among Amish and Mennonite groups. Tales of their extraordinary ways of life span generations.
The Great Depression became a time of resilience and community for Amish and Mennonite sects in Lancaster County. The groups' rich history prepared them for this devastation, allowing farm families in Lancaster to weather the storm relatively unscathed. So, what was farming like in Pennsylvania during the Depression? How did farmers manage to survive so well?
My great-grandfather was a plain-sect Mennonite farmer in Belleville, Pennsylvania, during the Great Depression.
"He was crazy; that's why Mother married him," my grandma giggled, remembering her father.
Known for his upbeat attitude and work ethic, he and his family worked hard to maintain their family farm during the Depression. My grandmother, remembering some of the desolation, explains how her family, and many other Amish and Mennonite families, survived.
Plain-Sect Communities: A Short History
Amish and Mennonite means of survival date back to the 1600s-1700s. Living in Europe, these groups were greatly oppressed, forcing them to adapt to alternative methods of agriculture and family roles. By the 17th century, plain-sect farmers began immigrating to Pennsylvania, bringing many of these methods with them. These acquired methods span centuries and laid the groundwork for farmers' survival during the Great Depression in Pennsylvania.
ISOLATION AND FAMILY LABOR
Due to their oppression in Europe, plain-sect groups learned how to operate farms in isolation from other communities. Even dating back to the 1600s, Amish and Mennonite families relied heavily on family, rather than village, labor. This work ethic would become a tradition, utilized even today. Because family members supplied most, if not all, farm labor, Amish and Mennonite groups avoided the expenses of large machinery and external employees during the Depression. Both parents, all children, and often extended family worked on the farm.
Work was also divided equally: while men worked in the fields with the crop and livestock, women worked in the home, gardens, and poultry barns. Women crafted all clothes by hand. My grandmother, for example, helped in the house, made the clothes, and milked cows in the barn. This extensive family labor helped communities in Pennsylvania sustain themselves and make extra profit during troubling times.
LIMITED EXTERNAL EXPENSES & FOOD PRESERVATION
Because plain-sect families grew food, made clothes, and avoided heavy machinery, numerous external expenses were avoided during the Depression. Meat, dairy, poultry, and vegetables were rarely bought at stores.
These families also worked to limit consumption all around. According to Agricultural History, the wives of the house were typically in charge of recording and limiting consumption in the family during the Depression. Because the women oversaw the cooking and serving, it was easy for them to place limitations to cut costs. My grandmother remembers preserving food and saving gas, rarely driving their measly car, and rarely splurging on goodies.
Finally, most Amish and Mennonite families have had some history or experience of canning foods. The durability of canned goods allowed families to save food for longer, limiting external grocery costs.
EFFICIENT FORMS OF INCOME
Among income from produce sales, plain-sect communities often had multiple forms of revenue during the Depression. Other than produce sales, Lancaster's most efficient forms of income were from dairy, livestock, and poultry sales.
While my great-grandfather's farm was mainly a dairy operation, he and his family owned and ran a butcher in town to bring in a little extra cash in hard times. They often sold poultry, pork, and beef products. My grandmother noted that she strongly believes this is one of the reasons her family farm survived the Great Depression.
Farming is vital to Lancaster County's history and culture, especially among Amish and Mennonite communities. Today, other threats put pressure on agriculture in Pennsylvania. At LFT, we aim to preserve farmland and support our farming community. Many farm families hope to keep their land for generations, fostering deep history and family tradition. We want to protect this history, but this is only possible with your help.