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Amish learning to balance commerce and culture
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Business owners on Main Street in Harmony, Minnesota, rely on the Amish residents who live in the area, because most of their customers come here to see the Amish. (Photo courtesy of town of Harmony)
Last fall, the state forced a group of Amish families in southeastern Minnesota to stop selling their baked goods to tourists. The move was a blow to an increasing number of Amish businesses in the area. It was also a blow to the town of Harmony, which depends on the Amish for business. Now, both communities are joining efforts to fight back. The battle is a symbol of how the Amish balance commerce with culture.

Harmony, Minn. — Scattered rays of spring sunlight flood through the colonial-style windows of Eli Yoder's furniture shop. Yoder's straw hat shadows his face. All you can see is a long, bushy beard over his hand-powered drill.

It will take Yoder two days to finish making this end table. He's shyly boastful of his work, comparing it to big furniture makers.

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Image Vernon Michel

"You probably heard of Ethan Allen already ... my prices are way below theirs," says Yoder. "I imagine they have to mark it up becuase they have an overhead expense. "

Yoder is making furniture because his family can't sell baked goods anymore.

Last fall, 10 tourists from the Twin Cities became ill after eating food at Amish shops in the area. The state cracked down, prohibiting Amish families in Harmony from selling baked goods.

Yoder estimates the ban will eliminate more than 10 percent of his yearly income, and maybe more for other Amish families.

The ban also worries non-Amish business owners in Harmony, because most of their customers come here to see the Amish.

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Image An Amish farm

"You can try all your life trying to market your product. But the Amish have this charisma that sells their wares, and they haven't even spent a nickel creating it," says Vernon Michel, who owns a business in Harmony.

Michel is so concerned about the ban, he's helping Eli Yoder come up with a solution. They want to start a farmers market on Yoder's property. Merchants at a farmers market don't need a state license to sell their goods, as long as they make less than $5,000 a year.

There's no limit on how many merchants you can have in your family, so each member of a large Amish family could make $5,000. It's a plan Amish leaders support.

It's become harder to make a profit in farming. So the bishops of Harmony's five Amish districts now realize that business with the outside world will help them survive.

The Amish rarely talk to reporters. One bishop agreed to an interview, but didn't want his name used. He chooses his words carefully, and admits the Amish can't just depend on themselves.

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Image Amish buggy

"If we depend on just our side of the community, we'd be starving," the bishop says.

But the need works both ways. Business owner Vernon Michel says Harmony needs the Amish. Michel owns a gift shop and an Amish tour company in Harmony. During peak tourist season, his company guides between 12 and 40 car tours a day. A handful of businesses on Harmony's Main Street depend on these tourists, too.

Michel says a cooperative business venture will be good for the Amish, who used to be wary of outsiders -- or as they call them, the "English."

"Contrary to what they thought might happen, they're not losing their young ones to the English lifestyle, and I think it's because they see a future in the Amish lifestyle," says Michel. "They're able to fix their teeth, do their eyeglasses. The ones that aren't in tourism have a hard time making ends meet."

Last week, Michel, along with Eli Yoder and his wife, brought the farmers market proposal to the Fillmore County zoning commission. The commission supported the plan, and has recommended the county board approve it at the next board meeting on May 28.

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