Shale boom may let Amish return to agrarian lives

Farming has not always produced enough money to survive, but now natural-gas leases bring wealth.

Posted: February 11, 2013

PITTSBURGH - Late last year, representatives from one of the world's largest energy companies went to the home of Lydia and Sam Mast. The company planned to drill a gas well on an adjacent property and needed to test the Masts' water.

By November, the access road had been paved and the rig was drilling day and night into the shale formation thousands of feet below the Masts' seven acres in Lawrence County.

"That was the first I knew there was a company called Chevron," Sam Mast said.

The Masts and many of their neighbors are Amish, part of a community that has lived in white houses along New Wilmington's back roads for decades. They shun technology and embrace a family-based, agrarian lifestyle, even though many can't afford to farm anymore and instead support their families with construction businesses and shops run out of their homes.

A new source of money, however, has come to the Amish of Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

They own some of the most coveted land in the nation, and rapid-fire leasing by gas companies is creating millionaires among them - and disturbing communities worried about greed and envy.

Though many wells have yet to be drilled, the signing bonuses that come with leasing land are life-changing sums. Experts say the gas drilling could subsidize a farming career that hasn't been economically viable for the Amish for a long time - a technological means to an agrarian end.

The hydraulic fracturing technology unlocking the oil and gas reserves under their land is the latest energy activity to enter the Amish community, which has long allowed shallow well drilling and strip mining. As a result, Amish homesteads are joining non-Amish landowner groups and fielding appearances from land men eager for a signature as the tiny, tight-knit communities become mini-boom towns.

Ask 10 Amish people what the ideal career is, and nine will say working on a farm, said Erik Wesner, author of Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive. He also created www.AmishAmerica.com.

The percentage of Amish farmers who can earn a living off the land has plummeted, and alternative careers have their drawbacks: Construction takes the father away from the family, and tourism invites the "English" world to enter freely.

Millions of dollars in leasing bonuses and royalty checks, though, could start to subsidize a return to that idealized, agrarian lifestyle, Wesner said. By allowing gas drilling on their property, farmers could return to working the land without the worry of profiting from it.

"The technological mix that the Amish accept is quite rational with the goals of what they hope to preserve in the community," he said.

Andy Byler of New Wilmington had three days to decide whether to join thousands of Amish and non-Amish property owners in the Mount Jackson Landowner Group, which represented landowners across several counties. He leased his 90 acres for $2,750 per acre, using the money to pay off bills and the farm.

The rest of the money was invested with the American Equity Investment Life Holding Co. in Des Moines, Iowa, chosen for its good interest rates and lack of affiliation with the stock market.

"There's good and there's bad" with leasing, he said, pausing from readying cattle for the weekly New Wilmington livestock auction. He worries about the easy money, telling his four children, "You still need to go to work."

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