Apr 11, 2016

Can the Amish win over the Islanders? Cheap farmland triggers migration from Ontario to P.E.I.

Joe O'Connor
National Post
April 10, 2016

Brad Oliver describes himself as an “old hippie.” He plays mandolin and guitar with The Rubber Boot Band, a down-home, down-east-Prince-Edward-Island-way-trio formed in 1979. The band is famous for wearing rubber boats onstage during the island’s “mud season.” Their biggest hit — the Cardigan Song — includes the lyrics: “Come Saturday morning me throat she is dry; My wife says to me: “Let’s go shoppin’ b’y”; We went to JD’S and I said to her, “Dear, you go get the groceries and I’ll go get the beer.”

Oliver provides his hippie credentials as proof of his open-mindedness. By day, he is a real estate agent, and on a recent April morning he was doing his utmost to make his newest clients feel welcome by installing a hitching post — for horses — outside his office at 3 Rink Street in Montague, a small town 50 kilometres east of Charlottetown.

“I was sitting in my office two years ago when Tony Wallbank — Tony works as an agent for the Amish in Ontario, and the Amish all call Tony an English guy, because the Amish call everybody that isn’t Amish English — but Tony walks in here and says that the Amish were looking for a realtor in P.E.I.,” Oliver says.

“He said they might be interested in setting up an Amish settlement here. I have sold eight farms to them since, with eight more potential sales in the works.”

When P.E.I.’s legislature convened on April 5, the Liberal government’s throne speech spoke of increasing the island’s population to 150,000 by the end of 2017, for a gain of 3,500 residents. For decades, the story around the island has been one of young people moving elsewhere, with depopulation in rural areas and ballooning numbers of seniors as related themes.

Now along come the Amish as a potential solution to the island’s population woes. Or perhaps they are a new problem, only time will tell. Meantime: horses and buggies, men in wide-brimmed hats and women in bonnets, have been glimpsed in Montague, and on the rural roads thereabouts.

The newcomers are economic migrants. Farmland in Ontario, close to the group’s traditional hub of Waterloo, costs $15,000 to $25,000 an acre. It is $1,500 to $2,500 per acre in P.E.I., a bargain for a culture where farming is the preferred occupation and a father is obliged to give each of his sons — and there tend to be several per family — a 100-acre (or so) spread of their own.

Mark Beck owns the hardware store in Montague. He has made several phone calls to Ontario in recent weeks, asking business people there who deal with the Amish what, exactly, they want. Beck plans to build a run-in shed (think three-sided garage) for the newcomers to park their buggies in.

“They were in here last weekend and bought three sheets of plywood,” Beck says. “People are very curious about them. But everyone seems to be welcoming. I am impressed.”

Why? Because Beck knows everybody knows everybody on the island, or else they knew their grandmother, or went to high school with their Uncle Jimmy. Roots run deep in P.E.I. They identify people by identifying them with a place.

“It is an unusual social culture,” says Jim Randall, director of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island. “It is a place where, when you meet people for the first time, you can almost hear them thinking, ‘Well, where is this person from, who are their parents, who were their grandparents?’”

Transplants to the island are known as “come-from-aways.”

It is a label that sticks. Oliver moved to P.E.I. from Ontario in 1973, married an island girl and has island-born kids, but he is still “from away.”

The Amish don’t just come from away, they come from another century, where children leave school after grade eight, technology is shunned, outsiders are avoided — unless for commercial purposes — women have lots of babies and men make all the decisions.

“They are an insular colony within an insular colony in P.E.I.,” Randall says. It is a recipe for trouble, one would think.

But the only discernible push-back to date has been from some island farmers, who felt the land that was sold to the Amish should have been sold to a local. The problem: no locals were interested in buying.

Now that the Amish are buying in — 15 to 20 families are expected to arrive this year — the old farms are being revived.

Alan McIsaac, the province’s Minister of Agriculture, stopped by an Amish operation recently. He watched as the men “put up a greenhouse.” One of the newcomers is a blacksmith. He plans to operate an old-style forge. There is even talk of an Amish farmers’ market.

“These are hardworking people,” McIsaac says.

The government has taken steps to embrace them. Tweaking legislation around education to allow for one-room schoolhouses and lay teachers while installing yellow road signs — showing a horse and buggy — to alert drivers of the Amish presence on the roads.

Oliver, meanwhile, has enacted his own version of an official island welcome.

“I took them fishing,” he said. “They are camera-shy, they prefer that I don’t take pictures of them, but they will take pictures of each other. I don’t have a full grasp of them yet, but I am having a ball watching them.”


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