COOPERSTOWN -- New York's rural counties are outpacing the rest of the United States in the growth of the Amish population -- and places such as Otsego and Chenango counties are expected to attract even more members of the religious group, experts said Tuesday.

Amish settlements centered in Richfield Springs and New Berlin are among the 47 such settlements scattered across rural regions in upstate New York, said Joseph Donnermayer, a professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University.

"What makes New York interesting is the unprecedented fact that there are 18 new communities in just three years," Donnermayer said.

A recent census count undertaken by Donnermayer and his colleagues found 131 Amish people living in the vicinity of Richfield Springs and another 103 clustered in and around New Berlin. The latter settlement includes people living just east of the Unadilla River in Otsego County, he said.

Typically, Donnermayer said, an Amish settlement will have 25 to 35 families.

"If they get much bigger than 40, they divide in two," he noted. "It is their desire to stay small, which reflects their interpretation of early Christian groups."

The most recent Amish communities in New York tend to have migrated here from Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively, the leading and second-leading state in the nation for Amish population, he said.

A major drawing card for an Amish settlement, he said, is depressed land values.

"There is a constant search by the Amish for land," Donnermayer said. "Their whole history is a history of moving."

The census conducted by Donnermayer showed that there are nearly 251,000 Amish people and 456 settlements in the United States and Ontario, Canada. The latter number is up from just 179 settlements in 1990. Based on current growth trends, the professor said, there could be 1,000 settlements after 2050.

Donnermayer said the Amish, who do not actively recruit new members from other groups, are doubling their population every 22 years.

An expert on New York-based Amish groups, Karen Johnson-Weiner, an anthropology professor at the State University at Potsdam, said the growth in the Amish population is tied to their high birth rate. It is not unusual for an Amish couple to raise six or seven children, she said, noting she was recently visited by one couple raising 17 children.

"A lot of times they are taking on family farms that are no longer being farmed," said Weiner, author of "New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State." She said there are three new Amish settlements in the North Country, with two of them having relocated there from the Montgomery County community of Fort Plain.

"It's pretty amazing," she said of the Amish population spurt.

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