On the porch of a white Lancaster County farmhouse set between corn and soy bean fields, an Amish woman makes apple sauce the old-fashioned way: She crushes fruit in a manual press. Chickens run across the yard. A long line of laundry dries in the sun.

But at her husband's dairy-equipment shop next door, the scene is quite different. Energy-saving fluorescent bulbs light the basement. And wiring has just been installed to run heavy machinery off the sun.

Despite their reclusion from the modern world, the plain-living Amish are leading the way when it comes to embracing solar energy.

On rural back roads where plain-clothed Amish still drive their horse-drawn buggies, small black-and-purple panels have sprung up on barns and houses. They twinkle in the sun, charging batteries that once got their power from diesel generators or gas-powered machines.

The Amish shun connections to the outside, including the power grid, to run their buggy batteries, electric fences, refrigerators and sewing machines. But within their religious framework, using the sun to charge their batteries is acceptable, at least for some purposes, says Donald Kraybill, an expert on the Amish at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.

"It's like tapping into God's grid instead," he said.

Ben Zook, 25, saw the light seven years ago, when he decided to sell solar panels instead of making cabinets.

"I believed that I could make a living out of electricity," said Zook, who was raised Amish. "But what I didn't imagine was that solar would become almost a mainstream thing the world talks about.

"My total business doubled last year, mostly because of the Amish," said Zook, who owns Belmont Solar in Gordonville, Lancaster County. "It's a pretty rapid growth rate."

Elam Beiler has been selling solar products for 15 years, but said he saw business jump by 30 percent in the last two.

"It becomes more popular with the way the fuel prices go," said Beiler, owner of Advanced Solar Industries in Ronks.

Fed up with gas prices, non-Amish customers are also hungry for solar. Last year, his business was 20 percent non-Amish. This year, it grew to 40 percent and he expects it will be 60 percent next year.

Another reason for the shift is that the Amish generally buy small systems, costing $3,000 to 4,000, while a large package for non-Amish could cost up to $500,000, he said.

Among those who are enthusiastically, though cautiously, turning to solar is a Ronks hardware store owner who along with muckrakes, clotheslines, gas lamps, push mowers and Kick Horse Feed Additive now sells solar-powered garden lights and fence chargers.

"Some years ago, people frowned" at solar power. "But now they see it as a necessity," said Esh, who asked that his first name not be used.

Esh for 15 years has used solar power to run his cash register and key-cutting machine. This summer, he upgraded from four smaller to six larger panels. His new paint-mixing machine, for one, needed a lot of energy.

"It would be very expensive to run the diesel [generator] all day long. And electricity prices are going to go through the roof in the next two years," he explained.

At his home among the bucolic green hills of Ronks, Esh's two buggy horses, Prince and Razor, grazed by a neat barn whose roof is adorned with solar cells connected to an energy converter in his garage.

A cord from the converter runs to a battery beneath the black buggy parked there. Running off the battery are the carriage lights - bright LED bulbs - charged enough for a night trip.

Esh's two daughters, schoolteachers, use solar power for copy machines at home, he said.

"Where it has really changed is that homeowners have it now, too," he said.

While the Amish are more liberal about using electric power for work than in their homes, the shift is causing gray areas to emerge.

"The Amish decide on whether to adapt to a new technology based on two implications: their separation from the world and the impact on the community," Kraybill said.

To protect their community from the influence of the outside world, the Amish sometimes wait for a bishop-council meeting before installing special solar equipment.

The Amish fear becoming too materialistic and worldly, which is why they do not use solar to power batteries for iPods, TVs, laptops but do use them for water pumps, washing machines, and battery-powered floor lamps.

"I could run a Game Boy on the same power I run the refrigerator," solar vendor Beiler explained. "But it's hard to maintain your culture if you have a TV. Then your kids are worshipping the latest rock star. Eventually, it would erode our culture and ultimately destroy it."

Instead, his children - three girls and three boys - play hide-and-seek in the garden or throw a ball around.

And as he stood in front of his buggy, with its LED lights, he said he had no intention of getting a solar car someday.

"If we would introduce cars to our society, we would not have a community for very long," he said. "It would rip our family apart."

Beiler recalls that once or twice, people in the community cautioned him about the direction of his solar business. But so far the church has not interfered. Beiler knows the line he is not willing to cross - installing electricity in his house. That could lead to excommunication, he said.

"That's definitively not something I would want," he said. "I am a firm believer in our lifestyle. It's an idea that has worked for centuries, and I don't see a reason to change that."

Contact staff writer Fabian Loehe at 215-854-5610 or floehe@phillynews.com

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