Wandering in York County

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For the first time, Amish preserve land in the Farm and Natural Land Trust

In the Glen Rock area, where there are more large animal veterinarians than doctors, Omar and Esther King live on 63 acres with their six children. 

They purchased the farm back in January 2017, and they recently preserved 55 of those acres with the Farm and Natural Land Trust of York County (FNLT).  

For the first time in York County history, an Amish family have officially preserved their land with the nonprofit. 

The King’s farm in Glen Rock. Sean Kenny Photo.

There are reports of as many as 500 or more Amish in York County.

Working from 5 A.M. to late in the evenings, the Kings take care of their herd of cows, 7 horses, and 20 chickens. Over the course of the year, they grow strawberries, asparagus, lettuce, carrots, onions, corn, alfalfa, and cover crops of rye and triticale (wheat and rye hybrid). They even repurpose moldy hay (that can’t be fed to animals) as mulch for the gardens to smother weeds.

Omar figures if he can do something himself, why pay someone else? So, the family has reached a level of uncompromising self-sufficiency that few others achieve.

I drank in the picturesque homestead. Pink petunias and canas lined their flower beds, cows down by the stream, and a faceless scarecrow guarded the strawberry patch. 

A scarecrow protects the strawberries. Sean Kenny Photo.

The children, in their maroon and teal clothing, gathered around their father, eagerly listening to our conversation. Susan, the oldest at ten years of age, picked up baby Ephraim and sat him on the gray, tile-topped kitchen table. He gurgled and cooed as his blonde curls bounced, having not yet grown into the bowl cut of his brother. The others – Ezra, Ana, Merium, and Dorothy – seemed to absorb every detail of their English visitor. 

This – their children – is why Omar and Esther King preserved their land. Safeguarding the land “for future generations,” Omar told me, is what prompted him to contact the Trust via snail mail when he received their newsletter.

The King’s new barn looms in the background of their newly preserved farm. Sean Kenny Photo.

Preservation is in the heart

As we chatted by their garden, overlooking the rolling hills, Omar admired his farm knowing it would stay the same for the next hundred years. In exchange for maintaining the farm and natural land around his home in perpetuity, the family received a small sum of money. As a people who values tradition, the Kings keep their children in mind so they have a place to call home, to live their way of life on York County soil for a long, long time. 

Omar told me he doesn’t even mind the Farm and Natural Land Trust inspector checking on their land every year. “I’m not concerned,” he told me. That’s because he has a five-acre building envelope and expansion isn’t in their plans. That’s the point of land preservation: limit building to protect the soil, streams, and pristine farmland for the sake of our descendants. 

Fresh laundry hanging by the garden. Jamie Kinsley Photo.
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Showing constraint is a part of the family’s life. Valuing community over individuals, I found no pictures or mirrors in their home (not that I was creeping too much). These vain symbols of individualism, the Amish believe, prompt people to focus on themselves – not their family, not God, not the land. This is also why you will see no photographs of the Kings themselves in this newsletter/blog. 

The King’s telephone shed that they share with their neighbor. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

This close-knit community attitude is the hallmark of the Amish. Most Yorkers have a cellphone. But, the Kings share a single landline with their neighbors. The telephone sits in repose halfway between their properties, alone on a dirt road with open, screenless windows. 

“It’s going to be a hot day,” he said with a little but of the Pennsylvania Dutch accent trailing out of the “o” in “hot.” He knew because Omar uses the phone to check the weather forecast every morning since they don’t own a radio or television.

The phone also helps the family in case of an emergency, and when pesky bloggers call to schedule an interview – we may hold the county record for longest game of phone tag – something Sean Kenny, the Trust’s Executive Director,  said would happen. 

But, the phone didn’t stop the Kings from becoming the first property preserved in 2019 for the Farms and Natural Land Trust. In fact, the King’s property pushes the Trust over 11,000 total acres with 135 properties preserved in York County. 

When the Trust sent out their mailings in January, Omar walked the quarter mile to his telephone shed and called the same day he received it. Even with their communications-based limitations, they were the first Yorkers to apply in the county. 

A whole year’s worth of crops are grown on this farm for a family of eight. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Harnessing the power of progress

When it comes to technology, Amish differentiate between ownership and use. They may ride in a car, but they may never own one. However, farmers want the most out of their land to grow enough for their family and possibly sell surplus crops. In the case of the Kings, they raise 50 dairy cows to sell milk to Omar’s father, the owner of Pequea Valley Farm in Ronks, Pennsylvania. (If you’ve been to Shrewsbury markets, you’ve seen the farm’s yogurt for sale as well as up and down the east coast). 

But, sufficient production usually requires technology. So, they’ve compromised. 

The church condones limited technology when it helps make a living such as tractors (that must have metal wheels, no rubber allowed). However, anything that simply reduces labor shows laziness and runs contrary to their belief structure. 

When I asked Omar how he cuts his grass (Or mows his lawn depending on where you’re from), he pointed to an old-fashioned push mower. “No robots,” Omar told me, chuckling. In other words, if technology provides status, luxury, and labor-saving techniques for household chores it’s off limits. 

The family’s chicken coop. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

When I asked Omar about the rules of his community, he said, “Oh, there’s hundreds. I don’t know where I’d start explainin’.” But, he told me he understands the rules and thinks they serve a bigger purpose. 

The Amish rely heavily on the outside world. They frequent banks, use the roads, apply fertilizers, and seek out physicians and veterinarians. Also, contrary to popular belief, they do pay taxes (with the exception of social security and workmen’s compensation, which also means they can’t use these benefits either). 

In The Riddle of Amish Culture, Dr. Donald Kraybill of Lancaster described their strict code of conduct called Ordnung. “The rituals of interaction combine culture and structure into a social symphony in Amish life,” he writes.

This concept of yielding to a higher authority, called gelassenheit, ubiquitously runs through the culture like the faint manure smell throughout my visit. Farming, agriculture, and the land is a connection with God; so, calling up Kenny to preserve their land fits with the grand scheme of maintaining tradition. 

Dairy cows needs to be milked twice a day. Rochelle Black Photo.

Tires treads on a dirt road

This way of life gives people meaning, identity, and a sense of belonging.

About the same age, Esther and I live very different lives. But, at the end of the day we still collect eggs from our chickens, hand-pull weeds, and can our vegetables the same way. I think that’s what I love most about farm life – we can relate to our heritage and feel connected with our pioneer families who lived off the land before us. 

As I left the King’s newly preserved estate, I watched as my tire treads stampeded over the lean wagon wheel tracks on their dirt driveway. As much as I appreciate (and need) my small Subaru, I abruptly experienced a revelation.

I put 25,000 miles on my car every year, and I take it for granted. The four cylinder, all-wheel drive Impreza transports me all over the county and up to Hershey for work. Something so mundane yet crucial to my life, my car rolled in as a foreign object. The Amish drew a hard line – cars will not dictate their choices in life. Where is my line? Am I on the right path?

20 chickens provide meat and eggs for the Kings. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Near the end of his book, Kraybill criticizes modern society, saying our extreme individualism and cancerous desire for success at the expense of others isolates us. Instead, he wants us to find a middle ground between modernism and tradition – progress with the community in mind. 

Not only do I love writing about this awesome place on the map I call home, but I am drawn to the land myself and long to understand why we choose the muddy dirt path – both wagon wheel and rubber tires alike. 

With the exception of the Farm and Natural Land Trust of York County newsletter, no portion of this article may be printed as per the request of the family.

4 comments on “For the first time, Amish preserve land in the Farm and Natural Land Trust

    1. Reading this and seeing the pictures put a big ache of homesickness in my heart. Loved growing up there!

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