7 Self-sufficiency and Simple Living Lessons from the Amish - Melissa K. Norris

7 Self-sufficiency and Simple Living Lessons from the Amish

By Melissa Norris | Homestead-Life

May 22

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These self-sufficiency and simple living lessons gleaned from the Amish are things any of us can embrace. I think you’ll love these tips and find the story as fascinating as I do!

antique butter churn on table

Today’s guest is Glenda Ervin, Vice President of Marketing for Lehman’s. She’s the daughter of the company founder and is a fount of knowledge not only on the products that the store carries but on the Amish community with which they interact with on many levels, from customer to supplier of many of their products.

“Get your farm cred on” is her mantra, whether that means a small backyard garden, or raising livestock and homeschooling your nine children.

Go to lehmans.com/PIONEER from May 22 to June 30, 2020 to receive 10% off any order $50 or more. Enter code PIONEER at checkout.

Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #258 7 Self-sufficiency and Simple Living Lessons from the Amish, of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen, and life you want for your family and homestead.

Melissa: For those who may not be familiar with your store, could you give us a little bit of Lehman’s history and mission?

Glenda: Lehman’s was founded in 1955, 65 years ago, by my father, Jay Lehman. His goal was to provide the local Amish with the products they needed to maintain their way of life, living off the land and without electricity. His thought was that if there were no butter churns or wheelbarrows, then nobody would know how to use those products anymore.

The big thing that made a difference is that he also had a desire to preserve the past for future generations. What that means is those old-time skills, like the one’s you’re teaching. If you weren’t teaching them, who would? If your grandmother didn’t have a garden and your mother or father didn’t can or garden, how do you teach the younger generation?

We’ve really seen this coming true over the years because he continued with his mission of selling simple, practical, old-fashioned products…people powered products. Even though the world changed around us we continued despite people telling us in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, that it wasn’t a sustainable business model, nobody wants these products anymore. Everything’s going digital, online, that sort of thing. We’ve seen just the opposite to be true that the more people are involved in tech, the more they like to get their hands in the dirt.

Melissa: I am so happy that your father followed his heart.

The internet has allowed us to do so much including teaching others these old-fashioned skill sets. It’s funny that we’re using very modern tech to be able to do so. I find though that I too need that balance of getting off the tech and grounding myself by getting my hands in the dirt, by making sourdough bread from scratch and using tools that are more old-fashioned and simple.

Five Pillars for a Simple Life

You have four pillars for a simple life, what are they?

Preparedness

Glenda:  You know, we’ve just added a fifth one because of the situation that we’re in now and we see people really wanting to be prepared. So preparedness is the newest pillar and that means, relieving anxiety and stress because you’re ready for what might come, whether it’s a power outage, natural disaster, or in the situation we’re in now with the pandemic.

Satisfying

Human beings were created to create and there’s a real satisfaction in it. I know my daughter, who is 20, and I have been baking, gardening, and cooking. To be able to give something made from scratch to someone like my father, it’s satisfying.

Comforting

Being with family. I know many of us miss our loved ones right now. Having a big family group sitting around the table enjoying a meal, playing cards. Comfort and happiness and pleasures we yearn for come from loved ones.

Understandable

So much in the work we can’t understand. For example, I rely on my cell phone. If it doesn’t work, I need to get help to get it fixed. Products that we have are very understandable. For example, we have a push mower and if it’s not working, you’re not walking.

Sustainable

The last one is sustainable. Doing things that are sustainable, like heating with wood or growing your own food.

If you put all of those pillars together, comfortable, satisfying, sustainable, understandable, and being prepared, it relieves a lot of stress from your life.butternut squash in basket on garden bench

The Push to Better Preparedness

Melissa: I completely agree with those. It’s been really amazing during this time and eyeopening. I realized that I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was. It’s given me the opportunity to fix those holes and to begin working on the areas where we weren’t as prepared as I thought that we were. I’m assuming you’re probably seeing that happen with your customers too.

Glenda: We are. It’s interesting, there are three categories that we’re seeing:

  1. Typical Preparedness Products such as water pumps, oil lamps, wood cook stoves…a lot of the things that we saw selling during Y2K, when people were concerned the grid would collapse.
  2. Comforting items, like puzzles, croquet sets, cookie sheets and baking items, are another category of things that people are buying.
  3. The third, which I find most interesting, is people looking to make long-term changes to their lives. For example, we’ll hear from a customer that they’ve never gardened before and they rent a small apartment and want to know what to do. We suggest container gardens, or even just a bucket and plant some tomatoes in it. The question they’re asking tells me that they’re learning new skills because they don’t want to be in this situation again.

Melissa: I love that you mentioned wood cookstoves because a lot of folds probably didn’t grow up with a wood cookstove. I know a lot of homes in the US, even today, use wood as a heat source, but not as many people cook on a wood cookstove, even if it’s being used as a heat source.

Amish Influence

I’m curious about the products that you carry and where you get them from. You mentioned that your dad founded the company in an effort to be a source for the Amish community. How has influenced what you provide to your customers and do you carry products that are made by the Amish?

Glenda: Yes, at the beginning the Amish were a large percentage of dad’s clientele. However, in the 1950s in rural Ohio, a lot of non-Amish did not have plumbing and things like that. Over the years the number of Amish that shop with us has remained consistent but what was once made up 80% of our business is now probably 6 or 7%.

They do make product for us, which was one of dad’s original goals…to help them maintain their way of life, which for an Amish person means working at home. Many of them farm, but there’s not enough farmland to go around. An Amish gentleman told me he wants to put his feet under the table three times a day. What that means is eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with his family, which is what he would do if he farms. Many of them have shops where they build things.

So now we continue to help the Amish maintain their way of life by allowing them to work at home. We have a hickory rocker that is made by the Amish and the gentleman that was making it has taught his son and grandson how to make it too. Perhaps if he’d had to go work in a factory that skill of making those hickory rockers would not have been passed down from generation to generation.

They like working with us. We understand their culture. My dad even speaks Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a version of German. He can communicate with them and we have a long history of supporting them and some of our product ideas come from them. And of course, if they’re making a product, they’re not a factory running three shifts. So if we have a product, such as our well bucket, that we usually only sell one a week and during times like this we have demand for 50 a week… Well, he’s not automated. He will not work on Sundays. He’s not a capitalist, meaning paying him more money to work more hours, and they often only hire family. So you can see how some of our backorders occur when there is a high demand for an Amish made product.

The last time I looked, we had close to 300 vendors within 50 miles. Now, not all of them are Amish, but many are.

Repercussions of COVID-19

Melissa: How has COVID-19 impacted your ability to get products on the shelf and also shipping out to customers.

Glenda: It has really impacted us. To give you an example, March and April of 2019 we sold 30 puzzles online. This March and April we sold over 700.

We have a certain cookbook that we sold 4 last April and this April we’ve sold 50. So you can see the kind of unprecedented demand.

The number one thing that is out of stock that people want is canned meat. You’ve probably heard of the meat processing plants that are being shut down and what’s happening with the animals. So it just brings up a whole bunch of questions, like what is wrong with our food production system that this is happening. You have people who are hungry and then have all these animals that can’t get processed in time. So in addition to the canned meat canning and gardening supplies are out of stock too.

In the case of the puzzles, the factory actually had to close because of COVID-19. We do have a lot of puzzles left, but not the full assortment. We’re watching it very closely. We’re in touch with our vendors. They’re trying the best they can but they’re just seeing so much demand and in many cases they’ve added extra shifts as we have too in our warehouse. We now have a first and second shift, which we might do over the holidays, but we have never done in the springtime.

We’re just all trying the best we can and asking people to be patient. I know it’s frustrating as a consumer. I know it’s frustrating when you want a product and you find it’s going to be weeks out, but if you place an order and we can get the product, we will get it to you just as soon as we can.

Melissa: I’ve noticed that. I actually purchased some canning lids from you back in March. They showed out of stock but I placed my order thinking that as soon as they are in stock that you would fulfill those first rather than just go on a waitlist. They came a few weeks later. I’ve been recommending that people do that. I hope that’s ok and not inaccurate advice.

Canning Lids & Jars

I’ve had people ask me, and I honestly didn’t know the answer, but who makes your bulk canning lids?

Glenda: I am looking into that now. I know that they are USA made. I’m pretty sure it’s a factory in Pennsylvania, but I will have to get back to you on that.

You are correct though in telling people to place their order to get in line. What happens in some cases is that we have so many backorders when the product comes in, we fulfill all the back orders but we’re out of stock again. We are filling them as quickly as we can. We have an unprecedented amount of backorders right now.

Melissa: I can only imagine. For those who are interested in purchasing bulk canning lids, in either regular or wide mouth, go to melissaknorris.com/canninglids.

I’m really excited to hear that the canning lids are made in the USA because I didn’t know for sure. I know that they’re not Ball lids. Some people have asked me if they work as well. Do they seal as well as the Ball lids? I’m sure I’ve processed probably close to 600 jars with the lids and they’ve been fabulous. I’ve not had a single seal failure with them.

How are the supplies for the canning jars? Are they on backorder too?

Glenda: The lids are about a week behind the jars. I’s day the jars are two weeks and the lids are three weeks. That’s provided the factories can stay open. We never know what’s going to happen, these things are out of our control.

I read someplace that we need to have a high tolerance for ambiguity. When you run a business, you’re planning ahead, looking at the future, watching trends and now things seem to be changing day by day. Not knowing what’s going to happen and adjusting accordingly has been a real challenge in business today.

We are very fortunate though our retail store has stayed open and it’s been deemed an essential business, but it’s a large store. We can handle large crowds, which of course are not appropriate now, but our store traffic was down as much as 80 to 90%. It’s about 50% right now. But direct sales are making up for that, which also allowed us to take some of the store staff that we didn’t need and move them over to packing orders, which kept them employed. So we felt good about that.homemade pastry dough on floured counter top

Other Kitchen Gadgets

Melissa: I want to circle back to the Amish stuff and their lifestyle. You have supplies like kitchen supplies, garden supplies, etc. but you also sell food too, which I find really interesting as well. Do the Amish provide food that you sell or just non-food items?

Glenda: We do have some Amish produced food items. 10 to 15 years ago we didn’t sell food. We sold the products for you to preserve your own food. Then we started thinking about the simpler life and how you can always take the next step on your journey to a simpler life. So perhaps you want locally made or handmade soap or candles and you’re not ready to make them yourself.

We have all the supplies for you to make them yourself or you can buy ones that have been handcrafted for you. The same with food. Perhaps you want homemade egg noodles or locally made potato chips, but you’re not ready to make them yourself. We can provide different products to help you on that step. That’s what we want to do…help people take the next step by providing simple solutions to life stresses.

Melissa: Speaking of supplies, what seem to be some of the better selling small kitchen tools among the Amish or that are Amish made.

Glenda: The Polish dough whisk (or Danish dough whisk). It’s not Amish made, though we’re looking at getting an Amish vendor to make it, but they use it. It’s an odd-looking little tool. When using a regular whisk the dough gets caught up in the whisk. The dough whisk is a circle within a circle within a circle. It’s hard to explain but works very well. I don’t know if there’s an Amish kitchen around that doesn’t have one.

They also purchase large containers. They have large families and family is very important to them. So if you’re making three meals a day for 10 people, you’re going to need a large skillet, a large stockpot.

Garden Tools

Some of the garden hand tools too are very popular. One that’s made by the Amish and used by the Amish would be the Amish push pull hoe. It has a triangular tip on it so you can pull weeds out and you can push the dirt around. That would be a great example of something used by the Amish, made by the Amish, that came to us from their suggestions.

Melissa: It’s funny because my husband and I, just this week, we’re saying that we needed to get one of those push-pull hoes. It’s one of the few garden things that we don’t have.

I completely agree with the dough whisk. I got one around two years ago. I cannot believe I operated my kitchen for that many years without one. It’s such a simple, small little tool, but it really makes a big difference when mixing up dough, especially bread dough and things that are thicker that aren’t necessarily batters. It’s really helpful.

Patience is Vital, Especially Now

Glenda: I’m afraid those are out of stock now too but we are getting more in. We have never had this many out of stocks on our website. As someone in marketing I just feel terrible about it, but it really is out of our control so I would just ask people to be patient. And by and large, they have been.

We went to do hot dogs over the campfire the other day and my husband wen to the grocery store. There was no meat, absolutely nothing. No bacon, no hamburger, no steaks. I’ve never seen anything like it. But I wouldn’t be mad at the grocery, I would just understand they can’t get it.

Melissa: The meat thing is very interesting. I know we were talking about it a little bit earlier with the canned meat. I raise the majority of our meat including beef cattle, pigs, and meat chickens. However, I supplement on occasion from Costco by buying organic pasture-raised chicken thighs or chicken breasts. I noticed back in February that they were having a hard time keeping it in stock. I have not seen it in stock the few times I have gone into town since March. What I’m seeing here, and I imagine it’s the same in all communities is that people are turning to local sources. I hope that when we come out of this that using local places is something that we do more of and support local businesses.

We don’t breed our own pigs, rather we get them from a pig breeder. Even they are sold out for this entire year and they’re starting a waitlist for 2021. That’s just if you’re not breeding your own pigs.

I’ve seen that butchers don’t have any dates left available. Even trying to find local meat is difficult. The supply can’t keep up with the demand. So I’m with you, we’re just going to have to learn to have patience. I know that nobody is intentionally not keeping things in stock right now.

Glenda: Exactly. Our vendors are trying as hard as they can. We do see people coming up with innovative solutions. I have a friend that has three school-aged children and now of course she’s feeding three meals a day. Each child takes a meal and it’s kind of like an iron chef deal that whatever’s in the house you come up with a meal. They’ve had some odd ones but they’re having fun doing it and staying healthy so it seems to be working.

Melissa: I really like that.

Keeping Busy

So not only are most of us doing more cooking than ever before, but we’re also doing activities rather than just watching TV or be on electronics. Sometimes that’s a battle when you have teenagers and younger kids. We’re practicing trying to find different things to keep us occupied and stuff. With the Amish, do they have any leisure time activities that are especially popular that we might adapt and use?

Glenda: Yeah, they have very active youth groups and often get together and sing. But two of the sporting activities they love are baseball and volleyball. We had a fun competition between young people, the Amish and the non-Amish, and they are incredibly good volleyball players. Like the kind of volleyball players you see on TV…you know, set, bumps, spikes, slam.

Melissa: That is fun. We’ve been doing a lot of volleyball without a net. My two children, husband and I pair up and keep volleying back and forth as long as possible without letting it hit the ground.

Glenda: I love that. I drove by an Amish school last summer and they were playing baseball, but they had no balls or bats. It was all imaginary.

Melissa: That is awesome. They’re definitely dedicated if they’re going to play it without a ball and a bat and just pretend that they’re playing.

Availability and Quality

You offer a lot of products. Are most of your items made in the US or are some made overseas?

Glenda: Yes, some are made overseas, but we have a high percentage of USA made items. Like our toy section. I would challenge you to find at any of the big box stores of keeping things sourced within the USA and with the Amish community.

Glenda: Another thing that we run into is we can’t get a decent price on some things because we can’t buy enough. We’re not Walmart…we’re not going to buy 10,000. People have been asking for a stainless steel teapot. We found somebody to make them, but at the quantity, we felt comfortable buying, they would have been hundreds of dollars apiece and then, of course, they wouldn’t sell. So that is the challenge, sometimes the USA made products in the small amount that we can purchase becomes too expensive. And then the consumer doesn’t see the value in that. So we get caught in the cycle but we do, whenever possible, source locally.

Melissa: There’s always that battle of getting it local and doing your best to do that but also have it at a price point that people are going to pay. And I think as a consumer you have that battle too. I know I would love to do everything USA made and I know some people have that hard line in the sand, but I tend to be not quite that hard line in the sand. I do try to buy local and USA made but there are times when cost dictates that you don’t. Thank you for being very transparent about that.

Glenda: Sure. I have another interesting example. We sell some high-end grills. They’re the kind of grills that you keep for 20, 30 years. We had a man come in and every year he bought a cheap hibachi grill for $50 and used it and then threw it away. It didn’t even occur to him that spending the money on something that would last much longer made sense.

Some of our wood toy trains can be $40, $50. I’m sure you could get a little plastic train at Walmart for $5. But do you want a train that your child will play with for a month or do you want one that your child can pass down to not only his children but his grandchildren? Therein lies the difference.

Melissa: I completely agree on the quality. When my husband and I were first starting out there were many times we had to buy it cheap. It was either that or we couldn’t get it at all. I have come to realize that if you buy something that is made to last, you save money over the long run. And not just money but time having to replace it and then get rid of the item that’s broke and try to do so in a way that’s ethical. There is something if you’re able to afford it, to buy the thing that’s a better quality, which usually equals more money.

Glenda: Right. The Amish, who tend to not have a lot of discretionary income, also have very little debt. They typically wouldn’t have a credit card. Some of them would have a checking account, but of course, they don’t have a house payment and they don’t buy fancy clothes and things like that. But they tend to be willing to spend more on quality things, like a wood cookstove that can be $3,000. You might think that’s a very expensive appliance but it would last for generations.

In a typical Amish family, the groom’s parents buy the new bride a wood cookstove. We’re on our third generation of some of those families. You see the parents and the young couple come in picking out the wood cookstove. It’s just a very heartwarming thing to see.

Melissa: Do you carry any hybrid wood cookstoves where it’s half electric and half wood?

Glenda: We don’t. We do have a hybrid of a wood cookstove and a wood heating stove, called the Vermont Bun Baker. Typically a wood cookstove you cook in it and on it. It’s designed to get hot fast to cook your food. It’s not designed to heat your home. That said, if you live in a tiny home like Off Grid with Doug and Stacy, you can use a wood cookstove to heat your home.

Melissa: My parents have a hybrid electric and wood cookstove in their house. They were fortunate it came with the house. My stove is electric but my would love to replace it with one of the hybrid models. I’d love to have the option to use the wood side in the winter to help supplement heat the house while I’m cooking and baking but in the summertime have the option to use the electric side so as not to heat the house since we don’t have air conditioning.

But they’re really hard to find. Even looking for older ones to refurbish has been difficult to find one that’s in good enough shape to actually refurbish and use.

Glenda: Maybe I should suggest that to our merchandising team to be on the search for one.

Melissa: I would love that!

Cultural Considerations

Are there any other cultural considerations when doing business with the Amish? Is there anything different than with most other American or just that’s unique to the Amish community?

Glenda: I find the Amish the most moral, least judgmental group of people that I have ever worked with. The only difficulty I’ve ever experienced is that they avoid conflict. Nobody likes conflict, but they avoid it. So perhaps if we were to ask, can we have this product by tomorrow, they would say, well, we’ll work on it, when in fact we really can’t get it tomorrow at all.

They’re very family-oriented and very eager to help. For example, if we go to one of our Amish vendors and ask if they have a specific product, he may sit and think and say, I don’t, but if you go up the road, talk to my brother, Eli, he has a friend that might make it for you. So we go on this chase, get to Eli, then his friend, etc. It gives us a real chance to interact with them.

Melissa: So they’re not opposed to dealing with outsiders and doing business with them and helping them in that way?

Glenda: No. Now keep in mind, when we talk about the Amish, it would be no different than talking about Catholics or Jewish people. They’re all individuals.

In the Amish culture to there are many different levels. The Swartzentruber Amish tend to be very isolated, very rural, perhaps living on the edge of poverty. Then you have High Order Amish and New Order Amish. I’d say the vast majority are bilingual. They probably speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home but speak English outside of the home. They only have an eight-grade education but I wonder how many eighth-grade non-Amish, or English as they would call us, young people are bilingual these days.

Melissa: Yeah, probably depending on heritage. I think there’s probably quite a few within the Spanish speaking community.

We’re not knocking education by any means. I think education can be a great thing and there are lots of forms of education. My dad, for example, he only went to school through the 10th grade, but he had his own business. He was self-employed for a good majority of his life. Even now that he’s retired, even at 82, that he still has side hustles that he’s doing. In a lot of senses he’s one of the smartest people I know, even though he doesn’t have a college degree or even finish high school. I think there are lots of ways that we can be educated and not all of it is with a formal degree.

Glenda: Yes, my father quit school in the eighth grade, which back then was not unusual. You would need to help on the farm. We were just featured in the Wall Street Journal because of COVID-19 and he’s been featured in business books as a really successful entrepreneur and he had very little formal education.

Melissa: There are definitely many ways of learning and not all of it needs to be formal. Some careers it’s necessary but not all.

One last question, What are some of the 10 most common food that the Amish tend to keep in bulk?

Glenda: Anything to do with baking and cooking.

  1. There are a number of bulk food stores around here and things that are hard to get now, like yeast, would be something that would probably be in every Amish pantry.
  2. Different kinds of flour.
  3. Sugar
  4. They often grow, well in most cases, all of the food that they eat. Once in awhile you’ll see them in the grocery store. Things that they have grown themselves like potatoes.
  5. Jams and jellies would be on their shelves.
  6. Stuff to make a pie.

Those are some of the things that come to mind.

Melissa: They do seem to be really big bakers. Which, if you’re running a farm with that many kids and producing all of your own food, you are working a lot so you could eat a lot more big food without having the expanding waistline, than those of who are not living that lifestyle with that type of labor.

Glenda: Exactly. If you have a huge breakfast with bacon, eggs, and toast at 7:00 AM while you’ve been doing chores for two hours prior to that.

Interconnectivity

Melissa: I love that you’re supplying a means for those of us who don’t have a local Amish community a way to learn from them and get supplies. But also, not only are you supplying that, but you’re also creating a way for the Amish to make money as well as to buy their supplies. I really love the interconnectivity of that and feel that’s one of the things that old-fashioned homesteading did so well to benefit multiple people and keep that circle going.

Glenda: Yes, commitment to the local community, many of whom are Amish, is very important to us. We have a lot of respect for them.

Melissa: Are there any last thoughts that you would like to share?

Glenda: We would love to show people what we have in our store, which is much more than we have on the website. We’re a little unusual in that way. Some of the box stores will have less in the store than on their website. We are the opposite because we want it to be a place where you can learn and experience.

We have a very robust schedule of events we’re hoping to resume in July.

If you’re like me and have a wish list of Lehman’s products then NOW is the time to start crossing things off it. Go to lehmans.com/PIONEER from May 22 to June 30, 2020 to receive 10% off any order $50 or more. Enter code PIONEER at checkout.

But hurry because the code won’t work after June 30th!

Related Articles

Off Grid Living: What You Need to Know with Off Grid with Doug & Stacy

Resources

Bulk Canning Lids

Polish dough whisk

Amish push pull hoe

Vermont Bun Baker – hybrid wood cookstove

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About the Author

Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.

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