Amish Expert Sees Shifts in Plain Sect Dairy Farming

9/21/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

SUMMERDALE, Pa. — How do you help dairy farmers improve their operations when the way they operate differs from their neighbors because of their cultural and religious beliefs?

That was one of the questions a number of dairy consultants who work with Amish and other Plain Sect farmers posed to the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence as it was planning for this year’s Dairy Financial and Risk Management Conference.

To help them out, conference planners turned to Donald Kraybill, professor and senior fellow at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, who spoke Tuesday at the Penn College Conference Center in Summerdale about the trends he’s been seeing in Plain Sect farming.

Kraybill started by describing some differences among the three main Plain Sect, or plain dressing, groups of farmers — the Amish, and the Wenger and Horning groups of Mennonites.

Amish and Wenger Mennonites have Pennsylvania German as their first language, he said. These are also the two groups that travel by horse and buggy. Horning Mennonites drive cars.

In the fields, Amish farmers will use horse power, Wengers will use tractors with steel wheels, and Hornings will use rubber wheels.

In the dairy barn, Mennonites are on the public electric grid, while Amish operations are usually powered by diesel generators.

There are a total of 178,000 Plain Sect residents, or 36,600 households, in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. And Kraybill estimates that about 9,000 of those households operate dairies, with a higher rate among Mennonites.

The size of dairy operations varies within each group, but the largest herds typically will be Horning, followed by Wenger. The Amish tend to have the smallest herds.

New York’s Plain Sect communities are growing, Kraybill said, with many transplants from Pennsylvania and Ohio. However, the retention of local Plain Sect populations in Pennsylvania and Ohio also remains high.

With high birth rates, the population of Amish communities usually doubles every 20 years.

Kraybill said the future of dairy farming among Amish and Mennonite communities is “difficult to predict,” but he does believe it will continue.

Among the Amish, about one-third of the households earn income from agriculture, including about 20 percent from dairy farming.

“There is no church mandate that they must be in dairy,” Kraybill said, while also pointing out that more Amish farmers took up dairy farming after the church’s acceptance of bulk tanks and automatic milkers in the mid-20th century.

Herd sizes among Amish farmers range from 10 to 100 cows, although the average size tends to be 40 to 45 cows because of technology restrictions. The cows are milked in tie-stall barns, as most Amish communities forbid modern milking parlors.

If there is a factor working against the expansion of Amish dairies, Kraybill said, it’s the option of developing a small nondairy business that doesn’t require the large capital investment needed to start a dairy.

“The biggest threat to Amish dairies is you need a lot of cash on the front end,” he said.

In contrast, a small business can be grown gradually. According to estimates, Kraybill said, there are about 12,000 small Amish businesses nationwide.

Amish “branding is powerful,” he said, but “there is no Amish milk” along the lines of the niche markets that have been developed for other Amish-made products.

Kraybill sees several changes developing in Amish farming communities.

There are more multisource household incomes, he said, showing a photo of an Amish dairy with playhouses for sale in the foreground.

There is a shop on the farm, he said, and the family’s main income now comes from playhouse sales, not the cows.

Some Amish families are even renting out their dairies and cropland while they focus on alternative businesses.

There have also been some changes in dairy farming. In Ohio, for example, some Amish dairy producers are moving into grazing-based operations to improve feeding efficiencies, Kraybill said, but he has not seen as much of a shift along those lines yet in Pennsylvania.

There are also changes in other agricultural enterprises.

“In 1986, the first Amish produce auction was set up,” he said, speaking of the Leola Produce Auction.

Today, there are 75 Amish produce auctions across the country.

A produce operation “keeps them in the soil and is family-friendly, a perfect fit with Amish values,” Kraybill said.

Other Amish farmers are moving into organic production, niche markets and unusual farm enterprises, such as camels or deer.

“They are tradition-driven, but will experiment,” Kraybill said.

He said he expects Amish dairies will always have smaller herds, but we could see a jump in average herd size to 70 cows.

But Kraybill doesn’t expect that to mean an overall growth in Amish dairy farming because he also expects the number of herds to decline. The number of cows on Amish farms will probably remain about the same in total, he said.

On Mennonite dairy farms, on the other hand, Kraybill does expect growth, mainly because of Mennonites’ strong commitment to farming and openness to larger herds.

They also have “tractors in the fields and electricity in the barns,” he said.

As an example, Kraybill talked about Yeats County, N.Y., which has seen a rebound in its dairying community after several Wenger Mennonite families purchased land coming out of a USDA conservation reserve program.

The Mennonite families rehabilitated the farms, which revitalized the local dairy industry, he said.

As for advice for dairy consultants, Kraybill reminded them that Plain Sect culture and world view will be very different from their own.

Those “who are culturally sensitive will be the most successful,” he said, noting that some agribusinesses have a Plain Sect specialist.

The Amish place strong values in face-to-face relationships and oral communication, Kraybill said, “so get out of your office and do more face-to-face visits.”

He also cautioned the consultants to be aware that the rules governing Amish communities will differ between districts because decisions about those rules are made locally.

When wanting to discuss new dairy management ideas with Amish farmers, Kraybill advised the consultants to seek out the innovators, as they would with any other group.

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

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