Will Low Milk Prices Force Amish Out Of Dairying?

I sat down Sunday with a Lancaster Amish dairy farmer friend. He soon handed me a copy of local paper LNP, containing this article.

Low milk prices are making it tough to make a living on the farm. So some are selling their cows at auction.

From the article:

“The first cow is Pepper. She’s got a good udder and 85 pounds of milk and ready to go for you,” barked the auctioneer to almost 200 Amish dairymen squeezed under a tent on a farm in southern Lancaster County.

Thus, on a gray and cold afternoon on Tuesday, 28-year-old Levi Stoltzfus Jr. watched as all 66 of his milk cows were paraded past bidders and sold one by one.

After three years, it marked the end of the dairy business for the Colerain Township farmer, who began a new job this week building sheds away from the farm.

His was the second public auction for a young Lancaster County farm family exiting dairy in a week.

Sam explained how they had weathered low prices before, citing 2009 as a bad year. But this four-year stretch of declining prices has been particularly long and hard.

It must be a gut-wrenching feeling as the your milk check slowly decreases in size with each passing month, while your considerable debt payments and expenses remain.

Sam is well-established as a farmer, with a couple of his children already married. But it can be tough for young farmers in particular.

A farmer’s success, Sam explained, can be in part a matter of timing – if you take on a lot of debt early by getting in at the “wrong” time, it can weigh you down for years.

Out of a job?

Sam is currently milking 61 cows, out of a herd of around 70. Like other Lancaster Amish, Sam also raises tobacco as a cash crop.

He recently began providing tobacco wrappers – a labor intensive process which means finding and packing only leaves without holes or other damage, to use as wrappers for cigars – but which brings a significantly higher per-pound price. Sam is contracted for several years at $5.50/pound.

That will help, and with several children still at home, Sam has the labor to make it work. But the Amishman has to hustle harder now, especially since he recently helped his oldest son purchase his own farm. On that note, he had to cut our talk short as 5 o’clock rolled around, with 61 udders needing to be milked.

On the auction, Sam pointed out that there are so many cows coming on the market, those selling their herds are getting depressed prices there as well. The Amish buying the animals are well aware of this, and bid with their neighbor’s situation in mind:

Most of the farmer’s cows were purchased by fellow dairymen, some of whom had come in solidarity to help out one of their own.

“I’d rather give him a decent price than take the cow home like I stole it from him,” said a neighboring farmer.

It has to be deflating for an Amish person to lose your vocation, especially something like farming that has been done by many generations before you.

Both Amish and Old Order Mennonites have farmed Lancaster County for generations

Those who came to the auction probably realize that, but for the grace of God, they could be in the same shoes:

After the auction, Stoltzfus said the sympathy and goodwill of the 260 almost entirely Amish bidders who rode buggies to the farm were palpable.

“I could just feel that. I didn’t feel worthy,” he said.

This hits emotionally on more than one level. Amish people develop an affection for their animals, which you can tell when they talk about their buggy horses, or in this case, a particularly special helper:

Stoltzfus was satisfied with the money he will receive from the auctioning of his herd, seven mules and milking equipment. But he said it won’t free him of debt.

He said the saddest part during the auction was watching the sale of Jewel, a 9-year-old red sorrel molly mule that was the lead mule in a team that plowed his fields.

“This here is a mule you do not find every day,” the auctioneer said as Jewel and another mule pranced up and down between two long rows of black-clad farmers.

The mules stopped on a dime, made graceful turns at the end of imaginary rows of corn and stood waiting orders in a gravel opening between two barns. Jewel sold for $5,600, more than any of the other six mules.

“I hope she performs for the other guy like she did for me,” Stoltzfus said Wednesday, right after the mule had been hauled away by her new owner.

Mules at the March 27 auction. Photo by Dan Marschka

There are still plenty of active Amish dairies in the Lancaster community, easily noticed if you point your car and drive in any direction from Intercourse. But this phenomenon is likely most acute in this settlement, where land prices are sky-high.

Young Amish from Lancaster County who would like to farm either need financial help from parents or other sources, or look outside the community for land.

On that note, I drove another Amish friend to visit a farm they had purchased in a neighboring county – a bit distant from Lancaster, though an idyllic spot of land – where he plans to move in the next couple years. They sacrifice proximity to the community to have their own land. Hopefully more will join them, but it is a big move.

The article rather depressingly notes that some experts predict a “major exit” from dairying across Pennsylvania – this year.

I don’t expect the iconic Lancaster Amish farm to totally disappear. But farmers are having a tough go of it, with some life-changing effects already.

Get the Amish in your inbox

Join 15,000 email subscribers. No spam. 100% free

    Similar Posts

    Leave a Reply to Erik/Amish America Cancel reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


    1. Debbie H

      Sorry state for the Amish culture and farmers everywhere. Corporate farming and developers have wiped out family farms.

      1. It was sad to read about this Levi’s situation. I don’t know enough to say what’s causing it economically but hopefully the milk prices will edge back up. I promised Sam I would boost my personal consumption to do my part 😉

    2. Alice Mary

      Sad times

      It’s truly sad to see dairy farms halting operations. It’s gotta be heart-wrenching for those Amish whose heritage has included dairy farming for generations.

      Too bad an “adopt-a-cow” program (like some public zoos used to have, or still do, to help raise money for the care & feeding of their animals) can’t be implemented.

      Just an aside–my daughter and her husband said that their usual brand of milk (a name brand) has been tasting “off” for the past couple months, so they switched brands. Any comments? Just wondering. I still drink skim milk (though not much anymore) but my husband has switched to almond “milk” or sometimes soy (both bleah!, in my opinion). I grew up loving milk so much that I considered it my favorite drink well into my 20’s. Even when my kids were in their teens, we’d easily go through 4-5 gallons a week.

      I guess the “got milk” ad campaign wasn’t enough, huh?

      Alice Mary

      1. Alice Mary I’m not sure about what I’m drinking being “off”, but I really notice a difference in milk brands, so I stick to a few tried-and-true producers. I’ve also become a regular whole milk drinker as the 2% just tastes kinda watery after you get used to whole milk 🙂

        I’ve never heard of adopt-a-cow, but Lancaster has a farmland preservation program to prevent farms from being sold for development. Maybe adopting a cow would be in the same ballpark. Having real working authentic Amish dairies is of some value to the tourist industry at the least.

    3. Amish and Mennonite in Northern Ontario

      In the 1960 era, a lot of the Amish and Mennonite farmers moved to Northern Ontario. Where land was cheap but needed working into something more than swamp. We now have signs of carts on Hwy 17. There are a few communities there where they have settled. And they have stands outside the farm gate selling certain produce. I welcome them, sometime when we have more time in the north, I would like to visit their stores. Right now, we have a little place in Elliot Lake, and the time we spend up there is all spent fixing the place up, and we cannot take any time doing other things.

      1. Neat to hear that you have Amish neighbors around Evelyn, I did not grow up around Amish, though I wonder if I had, if I’d have become as interested in them as I did later in life.

        Just curious which N. Ontario Amish communities are you near? While visiting Elizabethtown College, I recently saw a book I wasn’t aware of on Amish in Canada, though I believe it was pretty out of date. Would be a neat topic for a book.

    4. Alte Kaker


      curious ——How many out there even know what a “molly” is?

      1. N. O. Slack


        evidently alte kaker & I re the only ones who even have heard of a molly. & no one else is even curious. Now that is interesting. 1000s of people read this article, see a word they have never seen before in that context and do not wonder what it means.

        1. Molly mule

          Well, we may have had some that wondered, but didn’t write a comment 🙂 This is what I’ve got from Wikipedia, is it accurate?


          A female mule that has estrus cycles and thus, in theory, could carry a fetus, is called a “molly” or “Molly mule”, though the term is sometimes used to refer to female mules in general.

    5. Gary Daily

      New Cheese House

      In central Michigan Amish communities are facing the same issues with low milk prices. Amish communities are pulling resources in central Michigan to construct a brand new Cheese House called “Natural Way cheese”. Natural Way cheese will be a Artisan Style batch pasteurization facility. The facility will have the highest food safety possible SQF. You can see pictures and take a video tour of how close they are on Facebook just searched natural Way cheese – sales. Natural Way cheese is a Beacon of Hope for all surrounding communities they would like to continue with the tradition of hand-milking and can collection.

      They are taking milk prices into their own hands as this facility is 100% Amish owned. There is no electricity or electric generators with the exception of construction. It is the most unique Cheese House in the world!

      1. Sounds great Gary, thanks for sharing this. I like anything to do with cheese. One Amish family I stay with always has some new type at hand, we snacked on a huge half-wheel of some Swiss-style cheese when I visited last week. There is also an Amishman in Lancaster County who does “cave aging” of cheeses, he has an interesting facility. Which Michigan communities are involved in this?

    6. Diane Sattazahn

      Drink More Milk

      Reading this article made me feel sad. Milk is a major basic food that we all need, whether we drink it straight from the bottle or use it in cooking. It supports life from infancy. I would not mind paying a little more for milk if it would help the farmers.

      1. I feel similarly Diane. I feel bad for those who like dairy but are lactose intolerant.

    7. John H Amey

      Reaching out

      How does an Englishman reach out to Amish interested in a new location

      1. John you might consider “old fashioned” methods, like writing a letter or putting an ad in a paper they might read, depending on what you would like to do. Just guessing, are you interested in promoting land to potential Amish buyers?

    8. steve crouse

      Katahdin Area of North Maine

      Many Amish that moved here, recently, started milking, and when prices plummeted, they switch over to beef critters.
      Some also did what Stoltzfus did and went into construction to make ends meet.

    9. Ken McGarry

      Will Low Milk Prices Force Amish Out Of Dairying?

      Our local grocery store in Fayetteville, Tennessee stocks milk and dairy products produced by the Mast family’s Mennonite-owned Sunshine Dairy of Crossville, Tenn. Their milk is sold in glass bottles, which you return to the store for a $2.00 deposit. They decided to go into the bottling business in order to have more control over their marketing and increase their income. They were featured in the “Upper Cumberland Business Journal” in October 2016 https://www.ucbjournal.com/sunrise-dairy-expands-retail-reach/ .

    10. Jess

      Goats milk

      In the last year, here in Becker County (Frazee) MN settlement, our neighbors got rid of all their cows. They now milk goats, and though they have to use a farther creamery for pick up, they are getting paid better than they did for cow’s milk.

      I do think the price of milk has dropped a lot and it will have the most affect on Amish and other small farmers.

      Side note, they’re goats have yet to escape their pen and barn, but they had some wise cows! They would go to the far back pasture and get through the fence and walk on the field road right to our yard. We walked them home on several occasions! One time even making an effective road block til we got them home. Ha!

      1. Jess

        Their. Not they’re. Sorry. I’m tired.

    11. Another farming selling off his cows in Chester County, PA

      Another article yesterday on philly.com, about an April 10 dairy auction in the Oxford area of Chester County (neighboring county to Lancaster, has an Amish population):


      At the Oxford sale last week, one of the auctioneers, Steve Schuler, said, “If you didn’t have everything in line before this price hit, it would be hard to make it through. This is really separating the men from the boys.”

      Hours earlier, the farm’s owner and his brother, both Amish, worked methodically from cow to cow, scraping off the dirt and loose black and white hairs from the Holsteins with a curry comb. They dipped brushes into a bucket of coat shine and slathered it on the cows in anticipation of the crowds to come. Each cow had a numbered sticker slapped onto her backside that corresponded with a resumé of sorts, details about her lineage and the percentage of butterfat she made, and when her calves were due.

      “It’s a little mixed feelings now when it comes to the point, but I’m looking to the future,” said the owner, who did not want publicity and spoke on condition of anonymity.

      When asked if dairy farming had grown more difficult in recent years, he stopping brushing and just smiled.

      “Difficult is an understatement,” his brother said.

      The owner, 35, moved to this farm on Lancaster Pike 14 years ago when he married and started a dairy operation. He believes the market has splintered, with competition from soy and almond products and consumers turning away from fat.

      [auctioneer Tim Weaver sounds like he’s been busy with this type of sale lately]

      When it was over, all 49 cows sold, the average price around $1,350. Truckers waited to haul them away to their new farms, but some cows were so full they needed to be milked one last time.

      In the dark fields, Amish farmers hitched their horses to black buggies and left quietly. Weaver was one of the last to go, after collecting the cash and dismantling his equipment.

      Next week, he’ll auction off another herd of dairy cows for another farmer who’s getting out of milk for good.

    12. OldKat

      Low milk prices

      I think a number of factors are at work here, not the least of which is the rise of the massive dairy farms in parts of the Southwest. A few years ago we were in Northwest Texas, just south of the Panhandle in an area where we lived as newlyweds nearly 40 years ago. At that time there were almost no dairy farms in that area. In fact I can’t remember seeing any.

      When we were there for a college football game about 3 years ago we drove around some of our old haunts and were shocked to see dairy farms that milk 5,000 or more head every few miles down the highway. Someone told us that some milk more than 10,000 head. That is a lot of milk coming into a supply mix that is now nationwide. This can’t help the situation for the smaller 60 to 70 head dairyman.

      About 25 years ago, our area of the state, which used to be quite a dairy area lost nearly all of its dairies due to a one-two punch of high feed grain prices and low commodity milk prices. Throw in government buy out program and the 100 plus dairies that operated in a nearby in the 1950’s county dropped less than two dozen by 1990. Today I bet there are not a dozen there.

      We buy whole, raw, milk; the retail sale of it has been legal here for about 12 years or so now. The wife of the dairyman that we buy it from told us that the only thing that allowed them to remain in business was that when the state started allowing on farm sales they quickly ended their commodity milk contract and started selling raw milk and on the farm made cheese for about triple what the milk co-op was paying.

      Also, they switched from a concentrated grain feeding program to an all-grass based program. So they dramatically increased their selling price and drastically reduced their input costs at the same time.

      Right now the spring grass and legumes are lush and growing rapidly, so the milk from his all Jersey herd has an almost golden hue to it. Liquid heaven!

    13. Bill Rushby

      Massification of Dairy Industry

      I visited an Anabaptist-owned dairy here in Virginia which has a herd of 1000 cows. It belongs to an extended family but operates like a milk factory. It is extremely difficult for a farm with 200 cows to compete with such massive dairy operations.

      A couple of years ago, I went with Old German Baptist friends to a retail “creamery” establishment on one of the primary roads leading to Smith Mountain Lake. It was started by two German Baptist dairymen to market their milk directly to consumers, especially by “further processing” their milk output. As far as I know, it is quite successful as a business.