Milk Cooperative Joins With Amish to Open New Markets

6/15/2013 7:00 AM
By Amy Halloran New York Correspondent

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — In the northwest corner of upstate New York, Agrimark is working with Amish farmers to help get their milk to market.

“I knew a good many of the Amish were looking for a way to ship milk,” said Dave Elliot, who inspects milk for the cooperative.

These farmers once sold their milk to a cheese plant. Once it closed, they lost a source of income, and Elliot wanted to find a way to help his neighbors. The motive was more than altruistic.

“When I look around the community I look at the little feed mills, the mom-and-pop stores, and they spend their money locally,” Elliot said. “If the Amish community collapses in northern New York and they all move out, it’s going to hurt our economy.”

These neighbors have been coming to the area since the late 1970s and early 1980s, first from Ohio. Amish people from elsewhere, such as Lancaster County, Pa., continue to seek land in New York.

Elliott knew of a settlement south of his territory in the Mohawk Valley that shipped to one of his competitors, Dairylea. Based on the model the community established, he made a plan to have dumping stations with multiple bulk tanks in close proximity to the farms, calling for new construction on each site.

The idea was that the Amish would build the buildings and Agrimark would add and maintain the equipment and modern conveniences, like bulk tanks and the electricity servicing them. While Elliot believed in the project, it was a tough sell to the cooperative’s board of directors.

“Agrimark is a coop with 14 board members,” he said. “Probably only three live in areas where there are Amish.”

Those three introduced the concept of working with the Amish, assuring the other board members that the enterprise, with its shared investment and shared risk, would work.

Though unusual in its scope, the plan was not entirely unique. If someone wants to put a bulk tank in, Agrimark will finance it for three years. However, setting up 100 bulk tanks for people that didn’t even have income from a milk check was a stretch. Still, the cooperative took that chance in 2009, and now, 130 farms in the area are shipping to the cooperative.

The Amish in the area are now flourishing. They never got paid much for their milk because of Grade B pricing, and often they went two to three months without pay. Cost of production on these small farms is less than other dairies, so the difference is significant.

The biggest station has eight bulk tanks and the smallest has just one; most have four. Every farmer is responsible for cleaning and maintaining their own tanks. Agrimark inspects each farm, which Elliot said is a simple prospect because there’s not much to look at.

“You’ve got a strainer and stainless steel pans,” he said. “There’s not much to clean keep track of.”

Four years into the venture, there have never been any problems. The money for the bulk tanks has been repaid, and the milk quality has been good. The New York project has 42 stations and it has worked so well that a parallel setup has been established in Aroostook County, Maine. This is where some Amish farmers from northern New York have moved, attracted by inexpensive farmland as former potato ground is freed up. Currently, there are six stations in Maine.

“Finding small enough bulk tanks has been a bit of an issue,” said Doug DiMento with Agrimark. However, field reps have sourced bulk tanks from members who have expanded their own operations.

The majority of these farmers milk their cows by hand and herd size is small, ranging between five and 20 animals. Despite the scale, working with these farms makes sense to the cooperative because the Amish farms are grouped in small rural neighborhoods, not spread out like other farmers, keeping the hauling route tight.

“As a co-op we try to provide farmers a market for their milk,” said DiMento. “They’re just like any farmers if they’re on our milk calling route. If they make good quality milk, if they meet all state and federal regulations in terms of having enough milk in the bulk tank to reach the agitator and so forth, we’re glad to have them as members. I know they’ve won some milk quality awards as well.”

Dairylea and Organic Valley also buy from Amish farmers. Organic Valley reports that 35 percent of their 1,600 members are Amish or Mennonite.

“Since the co-op originated in 1988, members of vegetable pool were leaders in Amish community,” said Jim Weideman of Organic Valley. “In this area we’ve had a relationship with that community from the beginning.”

In New York state, members of the Organic Valley cooperative have a similar setup to Agrimark, hand milking and transporting the milk to a collective bulkhouse.

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