A group of Amish dairy farmers have lost their milk buyer, putting their livelihood and way of life at risk, as a crisis deepens in America’s dairyland.
Farmers across the nation are headed into their fifth straight year of low milk prices in a marketplace flooded with their commodity. About 700 Wisconsin dairy farms have gone out of business this year, an unprecedented rate of nearly two farms a day.
Now, a dozen or so Amish farmers in southern Wisconsin have been dropped by their milk buyer, Wisconsin Cheese Group, of Monroe, putting them in the tough spot that’s driven other farms out of business.
In a Nov. 28 letter to the Amish farmers, Wisconsin Cheese Group said that, effective Jan. 1, it has entered into a marketing agreement with Rolling Hills Dairy Producers Cooperative to purchase a milk supply for its Monticello plant.
Rolling Hills supplies milk to many dairy operations throughout southern Wisconsin.
“Unfortunately, the Cooperative does not accept Grade B or Amish dairy farm milk into their milk supply,” the letter said.
“You will need to secure a new market on or before” Jan. 1, said the letter, obtained by Pete Hardin, publisher of The Milkweed newsletter in Brooklyn, Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has hundreds of Amish dairy farms, including Old Order Amish who milk their small dairy herds by hand.
The Amish affected by Wisconsin Cheese Group’s decision could not immediately be reached to answer questions, but some close to the situation say it could be a dozen or more farms.
About six of them have formed a business venture to sell their milk to a cheese plant in Darlington, Hardin said Thursday, yet the fate of the others remains unknown.
“It’s hard to pin down the numbers … but come January 1st we will know the outcome,” he said.
A white knight for the Amish farmers is possible.
Walter Weber, cheese plant manager for Wisconsin Whey Protein, in Darlington, said Thursday the plant would take a load of the Amish milk to determine whether it meets the company’s quality standards.
If it does, he said, the company would become the farmers’ milk buyer, but he didn’t know for how many farms.
“Hopefully it will be a long-term solution for them,” he said.
By naming Amish, is it discrimination?
Wisconsin Cheese Group did not return a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel call asking about the letter sent to Amish farmers.
Elizabeth Rich, a Plymouth attorney and president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund Foundation, said the letter raises a religious discrimination issue.
“I think it’s a legal mistake to identify the group from which they will not pick up milk as being Amish,” Rich said.
“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion or national origin. One theory would be that the cooperative engages in interstate commerce and therefore cannot discriminate against a protected class of people, such as the Amish,” Rich said.
“I do not believe their actions are justifiable. … Discrimination against protected classes of people (race, religion, national origin) is simply not allowed,” she added.
Most milk is classified as “Grade A,” meaning it can be used as a beverage and for butter, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products. Grade B milk, not held to the same quality standards, can be used only for manufactured dairy products such as cheese.
Rolling Hills operations manager Mica Ends said there are several reasons why the cooperative didn’t want Grade B or Amish milk.
The lesser-quality product could contaminate the cooperative’s Grade A supply, according to Ends.
“It’s just a risk thing. We don’t want to risk losing markets or causing problems for our patrons,” he said.
The cooperative previously had quality problems with Amish milk, Ends said, and some of its customers refuse to accept it.
Also, for religious reasons, the Amish are reluctant to allow their milk to be picked up on Sundays, creating a logistics issue for the cooperative.
Rich says she has concerns about using that as a reason to exclude the Amish.
“This policy is potentially problematic, as many Christian groups refuse to transact business on Sundays,” she said.
Much of the nation’s milk supply comes from large dairies with thousands of cows. By contrast, many Amish farms have about 20 cows, milked in the way it was done a century ago. They have a strong presence in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
Of 40,000 dairy farms in the U.S., roughly 12,000 would be Amish, according to Hardin.
About 10 percent of Wisconsin’s dairy farmers, primarily Amish, still ship milk to plants in large metal cans — the way it was done by other farmers decades ago.
“These farms remind us of what life used to be like,” Hardin said.
‘It has to turn around sooner or later’
South of Cashton, home to one of Wisconsin’s largest Amish communities, K&K Cheese still processes milk produced by farms the old-fashioned way.
The cheesemaker supports about 300 Amish farms, most of them in Vernon and Monroe counties.
Amish own the building where K&K operates, but the plant is run by Kevin and Kim Everhart, who aren’t members of the religious sect.
“The Amish contract with us to make the cheese,” Kevin Everhart said, and it’s sold to the general public.
In a U.S. marketplace where there’s too much cheese, as well as milk, Amish farms are struggling like everybody else, according to Everhart.
“It has to turn around sooner or later, I hope,” he said.
Even if the Amish felt discriminated against by Rolling Hills or Wisconsin Cheese Group, they’re not likely to take legal action.
For religious reasons, they generally won’t sue someone.
“If wronged by another party, the remedy is prayer and meditation — not aggressive action,” Rich said.
The Amish trace their roots to hundreds of years ago in Europe. They are known for living simply, wearing distinctive old-fashioned clothing and shunning modern technology.
Although answering the question “Who are the Amish?” may seem easy, it’s wrought with complications, according to Joshua Brown, an associate professor of German at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Some groups allow limited use of technology to earn a living. For example, they may use a portable generator to power a battery for an electric livestock fence, but they won’t hook up to the electric grid.
“One Amish group does not always fellowship or intermarry with another Amish group. One group may have yellow buggies, while another may insist on black. In Wisconsin, most of the Amish are Old Order Amish, though there are some differences,” Brown wrote on his website.
“The Old Order Amish in Fennimore and Platteville are more progressive than the Amish in Cashton. The Amish in Loyal and Neillsville are some of the most conservative Amish in the world, rejecting even orange slow-moving-vehicle signs on their buggies,” Brown said.
Yet even as the Amish have found other ways to earn a living, they’ve held strong to their farming traditions.
“They want to farm. It’s very important to them,” said Erik Wesner, publisher of Amish America, a website about Amish communities, culture and beliefs.
“They’re still carrying on the small-family-farm tradition. … They feel it’s a good place to raise a family,” Wesner said.
However the dairy crisis that’s engulfed farms of many sizes across the nation has left Amish farms vulnerable, since the farms are small, and for religious reasons can’t be modernized.
“In some areas, such as southeast Pennsylvania and Holmes County, Ohio, many young (Amish) men who’ve come of age cannot find a farming career because farmland is scarce and expensive. One wise gentleman of the Amish faith explained that the community’s faith suffers when young men find off-the-farm employment,” Hardin said.
State officials, through the Wisconsin Farm Center, say they’re keeping an eye on what happens to the Amish farmers if they’re left without a milk buyer after Jan. 1.
“We are aware of the situation and have been monitoring it closely. We have been in communication with the farmers that are impacted, and the companies involved, and are standing by to help the farmers find new markets,” said Bill Cosh, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Some of these farmers have a really tough decision to make, said Mark Kastel, founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based group that studies the dairy industry and food policy issues.
“They sure as heck can’t afford to feed their cows, do all of the work, and then dump their milk on the ground,” he said.