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Published August 29, 2010, 12:00 AM

Amish ways take root in northwestern Minnesota, as migration expands

In northwestern Minnesota, a new community of about 70 Amish people have settled on farms southeast of Fertile 16 months ago. They’re the second settlement in Polk County. Another group has lived near McIntosh, Minn., for about three years.

By: Tammy Swift, Forum Communications

FERTILE, Minn. — Edwin Lambright stops in his tracks and looks down at the ground. He stoops over, parts the grass with his hands and points out three eggs cradled in a round, perfectly constructed bird’s nest on the ground.

Behind him, cream-and-black Holstein cattle graze along a green hill. Rows of well-tended vegetables sway in the breeze. A loon calls from the distance.

“I really feel at home here,” says Lambright. “It’s like where I grew up.”

Lambright may feel at home, but as a member of the Amish faith, his lifestyle is still relatively new to northwestern Minnesota. The locals here are still adjusting to the sight of horse-drawn buggies.

The Lambrights are part of a new community of about 70 Amish people who settled on farms southeast of Fertile 16 months ago. They’re the second settlement in Polk County. Another group has lived near McIntosh, Minn., for about three years.

These young settlements represent an ever-expanding segment of Amish people who are pushing westward in search of more affordable farmland, a rural lifestyle and proximity to other Amish families.

Their decisions to leave are often prompted by suburban sprawl, land costs, tourism or other intrusive activities, zoning or similar governmental disputes, the local business climate and employment needs.

Minnesota, especially, has become an Amish magnet. Last year, the state saw a 9 percent increase of that population, the second-highest rate of growth in the nation.

Edwin and his family moved from southwestern Wisconsin. That area has grown increasingly crowded, making it difficult for younger family members to expand and buy land, says Polk County Extension agriculture educator Jim Stordahl. And Wisconsin’s farmland can cost $4,000 to $5,000 per acre, compared to the $1,500-per-acre average in northwestern Minnesota for good, fertile farmland.

Their new home’s sandy-loam soil and a year of ample precipitation have helped the family’s vegetable business quickly take root. “It seems like if you threw seed on the ground and stood out of the way, it just grew,” Edwin says.

Stordahl has worked extensively with both Amish groups, and says they are a welcome addition.

“These are the most delightful people you can imagine to have in town,” he says. “They’re gentle, honest, forthcoming. They add a lot to the community.”

At the helm of the Fertile community are Edwin and his wife, Edna. Their Amish settlement, or church unit, also consists of their 12 children, their children’s spouses and their grandchildren.

The Lambrights are polite but reserved around outsiders. Their faith values humility and rejects arrogance and pride, which they call “Hochmut.” It’s fear of “Hochmut” that makes them avoid photographs or being singled out.

The Lambrights are dairy farmers by trade, and provide about 2 tons of milk per week to the bulk market. Their herd of 17 Holsteins is milked by hand and with impressive speed. They also raise 7 acres of vegetables, which they sell to local residents and through community-supported agriculture shares.

The Amish are known as respectful stewards of the land, and the Lambrights are no exception. Their gardens were certified organic in Wisconsin. They haven’t gone through the paperwork to gain official organic status in Minnesota, although they essentially farm the same way. If any chemicals are used, they choose natural formulations like Pyganic, derived from chrysanthemum flowers.

Mostly, they rely on good old-fashioned sweat equity and ingenuity to keep crops free of pests and weeds. The children are paid a penny for each bug they pick off a plant. Edna says she didn’t care for gardening as a child; now it’s her favorite thing to do. “I love it so much that I would neglect my housework,” she says, smiling.

Since moving here, Edwin and his sons have worked to improve their 120 acres. There are tentative plans to tap into a lake to install a drip irrigation system. They also rely on crop rotations, composts and green manures, in which crops like rye are planted and then plowed into the soil to nourish it. “It makes the soil sweet,” Edwin says. “Things grow better and have a better taste.”

Rye also has an alleopathic effect, meaning it attracts beneficial bugs and releases certain chemicals so weeds don’t grow. Such practices are trendy today, but the Lambrights have always done it that way. “We grew up with this knowledge under our fingernails,” Edwin says.

As a result, the Amish have become CSA darlings by producing whole, fresh, healthy food. They eat that way themselves, too.

Edwin shakes his head as he talks of once buying beautiful, red tomatoes from a grocery store as a special treat for his family.

“That was such a disgrace,” he says. “It was like chewing on cardboard.”

As many Amish settlements do, the Lambrights have hired non-Amish liaisons, who can use 21st-century tools such as blogs, websites and Facebook posts to market their old-school produce and wares.

Neighbors Matthew and Patricia Erickson have purchased produce and sold hay to the Lambrights. Patricia says she and her husband enjoy getting a handwritten note from the Lambrights whenever they need to buy hay or are requesting help. “It’s a simpler life,” she says. “I think it’s wonderful.”

In working with the Amish, Stordahl is most struck by one thing: They seem more content than most other people he meets. He thinks they might be onto something. “We’re all looking for something that will make us happy. I think they do understand what it takes to be happy.”

Tammy Swift works for the Forum of Fargo, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.