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Tools hang on the wall in a barn formerly used as a dairy operation by an Amish farmer in northern Lancaster County.

DAN MARSCHKA | Staff Photographer
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Has a slow exodus of Plain Sect farmers from the dairy business in Lancaster County already begun?

The sad specter of dairy farms going on the auction block, or a farmer selling his herd of cows, is increasing, observers say.

“There’s more and more farms just being run empty,” says Emmanuel Lantz, an Amish dairy farmer from northern Lancaster County and a deacon in his church. “I see lots and lots of empty barns — they just are living on the farm.

“Our family values are going to disappear if small farms are lost. It means better, stronger values if we have a diversified farming community.”   

Steven M. Nolt, a senior scholar for the Young Center for  Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, knows of Amish dairy farmers either getting out of dairy or talking seriously about it.

They are switching to produce or renting out their land and going into other types of work, Nolt says.

“Where they feel squeezed is in being small operators. The small herd farmers feel they don’t have much leverage with the milk industry.” He maintains milk cooperatives don’t want to take on more small-production dairy operations.

“So small Amish farmers are wondering if they will have a market for their milk even if they want to stay in the business,” Nolt says.

Not only  is the current  milk shake-out making current Plain Sect dairy farmers ponder giving up, the uncertainty threatens the next generation, Nolt says.

“Younger people are looking at the scene and saying, ‘There’s no way I can start into dairy. Not only is the price of a farm, a herd and so on more than the current price of milk could pay off, but I likely couldn’t sell any milk, at any price, because the dairies are not taking on any new farmers, any new accounts.’ ”

Christ Taylor, a Realtor and auctioneer for Beiler-Campbell Realtors, which handles farm sales in 30 counties, has seen a half-dozen dairy farms in Lancaster County sold in the last year. Most, he added, were bought by other dairymen.

“There’s too much up and downs and in too short order,” he says of local dairy farmers under pressure.

Pat Fasano, who works with Plain Sect dairy farmers in the southern end of Lancaster County as part of the Octoraro Watershed Association, said: “We have seen a number of dairy farmers discontinue their dairy herd, and have empty barns in the last year.

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An Amish barn that has been repurposed from a former dairy operation. Wednesday, September 13, 2017

“The milk prices are low and they do not understand how they are regulated.”

Adds Jeff Stoltzfus, a Penn State Extension food safety educator who works with Plain Sect farmers, “Some are going out of business. Tobacco and produce are carrying a few farms the last few years.”

The Center for Dairy Excellence, a Pennsylvania dairy trade group, recently conducted a survey of dairy farmers around the state. Of 1,000 who participated, 14 percent said they expected to exit the dairy business in the next five years.

“The bottom line on the minds of many dairy farmers’ minds right now is, ‘Am I going to make a go of it for another year or is it time to get out?’ ” says state Rep. John Lawrence, who represents portions of Lancaster and Chester counties.

This article originally ran on lancasteronline.com.