Expansion of Amish dairy farming in Wisconsin

Expansion of Amish dairy farming in Wisconsin

John A. Cross

ABSTRACT. Amish farmers now manage over 5% of Wisconsin’s dairy herds. In contrast with the steady declines in the total number of dairy farmers, the number of Amish dairymen in Wisconsin has increased by 80% since 1989. Drawing upon Dairy Producer License data, a recently published Amish directory, and surveys of local agricultural officials and Amish ministers, this paper examines the current status and distribution of Amish dairy farming in Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota. The changes in the dairy farm landscape resulting from the rapid expansion of the Amish, which are most conspicuous near cheese factories that accept milk in cans, are also described.


The landscape of “America’s Dairyland” is undergoing fundamental change. The number of dairy herds has dropped dramatically with Wisconsin and Minnesota together losing over 43,000 dairy farms, nearly two-thirds of their total, between 1982 and 2002 (WARS 1982; USBC 1984; WASS 2002a; MASS 2002). Although industrial-scale dairy operations have appeared and undoubtedly will account for an increasing share of the milk output, agricultural experts predict “that the future of dairying in Wisconsin … [includes] the continued presence of a large segment of medium-sized family-labor dairies” (Jackson-Smith and Barham 2000, 136). As my paper shows, an increasing share of Wisconsin’s family-oriented dairy farmers will be Amish. This paper explores the impact of the Amish expansion upon the cultural landscape of dairying within the traditional core of America’s Dairyland.

Skeletal frameworks of dilapidated and collapsing barns dot the Wisconsin landscape, yet there are areas where vacant farmsteads are being rehabilitated, sometimes divided into smaller farms, and new barns and large farmhouses are being built. In studying the losses of dairy farms in Wisconsin between 1989 and 1999, a period when declines averaged nearly 40% statewide, 21 towns (Wisconsin’s equivalent of a township), each with over 30 dairy herds in 1999, were conspicuous in that they had experienced either small increases or declines of under 20% (Cross 2001). Six had changes of less than 10%. In seeking an explanation for the vitality of their dairy farming, it was noticed that these towns generally corresponded with locations of Amish communities (Jacobs and Bassett 1995; Luthy 1997). Wisconsin now has more Amish settlements than any state except Pennsylvania, and has one more than Ohio (Luthy 2003).

These findings prompted this study to determine the extent and impact of Amish dairying in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the states with the most and third largest number of dairy farms, respectively. In particular, this paper describes the present status and spatial distribution of Amish dairying in Wisconsin and evaluates the importance of dairying to the economy of Amish settlements (Fig. 1).



An Amish directory published in 2002 provides information for 1,770 households scattered among 36 communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota (Miller 2002). Besides genealogical information and addresses for each family, the directory lists the occupation for most households. Because directory information regarding at least six additional Amish settlements in Wisconsin and one in Minnesota is missing, the annual listing of Amish church districts and their ministers (Raber 2003) aided in the identification of other Amish settlements. In addition, a survey of county-level U.S.D.A. Farm Service Agency officials throughout Wisconsin and a survey of Amish bishops and ministers in Wisconsin and Minnesota supplied data on Amish dairying. Responses were received from 86% of the agricultural officials and from 39% of the Amish ministers or bishops.

Amish dairymen were identified by comparing household listings in the Amish directory with dairy producer license data, and by noting dairy farmers with distinctive Amish surnames (Smith 1968; Kent and Neugebauer 1990; Cross 2003) in settlements missing from the directory. Cross-referencing the Amish directory listings with dairy producer license data from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection identified 723 Amish dairymen in 2002. Similar comparisons with data from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture revealed 77 licensed Amish dairy farmers, 60 of whom were in southeastern Minnesota. In addition, 100 dairy producer license holders with distinctive Amish surnames in known Amish communities omitted from the directory were identified in Wisconsin. These additional dairymen included 19 Amish ministers, who were listed in Raber (2003).

Because other dairy producer license holders with Amish surnames were identified in several communities included in the directory, but who themselves were missing from the directory, the actual number of Amish dairy farms in Wisconsin was probably close to 865. Overall, Amish farmers operated over 5% of all dairy farms in Wisconsin in 2002.

Wisconsin’s Amish dairy farmers include both Grade A and Grade B operations. Amish Grade A dairy farmers, of whom 157 were identified in Wisconsin, must meet higher standards of refrigeration and inspections and store their milk in bulk tanks. Grade B milk producers, who store their milk in either cans or bulk tanks, are held to lesser standards. In Wisconsin approximately 85% of the Amish dairy farmers producing Grade B milk store and ship their milk in cans. In Minnesota, all of the Amish dairymen had Grade B operations.


Farming is the most frequently given occupation for Amish households listed in Miller’s (2002) directory. In Wisconsin, farming employed 56.5% of the Amish households (Fig. 2). As John Hostetler explains, “the charter of Amish society requires that members make their living from farming; if not from farming, then from occupations of a rural or semi-rural character” (Hostetler 1987, 285). The most prominent other occupation is woodworking, including operating sawmills, carpentry, and furniture making, which employs 32.5% of the Amish households in Wisconsin.


Four-fifths of Wisconsin’s Amish farmers have dairy herds. Although a minister of one newly established settlement in northwestern Wisconsin indicated that members of his congregation had eschewed dairying (relying upon woodworking instead) and fewer than half of the Amish farms near Wautoma, Blair, and Loganville had dairy herds, dairying is the way of life for most Amish farmers. Considering statistics provided by Amish bishops and ministers for their church districts, in only 11% of them do fewer than half of the farms have dairy herds, while half of the districts reported figures of 88% or higher. The sale of milk provides at least half of total farm income within 77% of the Amish districts.

Amish settlements are scattered throughout the two states, yet the greatest concentrations of Amish dairy farmers are found in western and north central Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota (Fig. 3). The largest centers of Amish population are located in Vernon, Monroe, and Sauk counties of southwest and west central Wisconsin, and in Clark and Taylor counties of north central Wisconsin.


The biggest Amish settlement in Wisconsin, which contained 12 church districts and had 134 licensed dairymen among its 273 households in 2002, is located in southwestern Monroe and north central Vernon counties, centered south of Cashton (Fig. 4). The more recently established (1985) settlement near Hillsboro in northeastern Vernon County had at least 46 licensed dairy operations. Three smaller Amish settlements in Vernon County that were established during the 1990s included an additional 18 Amish dairymen. The Amish settlement established in 1969 near Wilton and Tomah in Monroe County had a 2002 population exceeding 900 and included 101 dairy operations. Overall, Monroe and Vernon counties had about three hundred Amish dairy farms in 2002.


The second largest concentration of Amish dairy farms is found in Clark County, which is also the home to about 200 Old Order Mennonite families, many who are engaged in dairying. In May 2002, Clark County had 135 dairy farms that shipped their milk in cans and 178 Amish-surnamed dairymen. Its largest Amish settlement is Granton, which had a population of 744 and 82 licensed dairy farmers. Loyal, with a population estimated to be just under 400, was the county’s second largest Amish settlement and included 38 dairymen with distinct Amish surnames. Within Clark County both the ultraconservative Swartzentruber Amish and the New Order Amish, who are among the most accepting of modern technologies, have dairy herds. Taylor County, immediately to the north, contains the oldest (1920) Amish settlement in Wisconsin, located southwest of Medford. Twenty-nine licensed dairymen were there in 2002.

Other large clusters of Amish dairy farmers are found near Augusta in Eau Claire County, which had 68 licensed dairy farmers; near Kingston in Green Lake County, where 43 Amish dairy farmers were spread among seven church districts in a settlement of 963 Amish that overlaps into adjacent Columbia and Marquette counties; and between Canton and Harmony in Minnesota’s Fillmore County, where 48 Amish dairy farmers were located. Smaller groups of Amish dairy producers are scattered throughout Wisconsin, which saw the successful establishment of 23 new Amish communities during the past 15 years. In contrast, Minnesota’s Amish settlements have not experienced the growth of Wisconsin’s communities.


The lack of available farmland within and near the nation’s largest Amish settlements in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois (Olshan 1994; Meyers 1994), combined with excessively high prices for those lands that are placed on the market in the oldest settlement area in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Ericksen, Ericksen and Hostetler 1980; Luthy 2003) have forced young Amish families to either seek non-farm employment (Kreps, Donnermeyer, and Kreps 1994; Smith et al. 1997) or to move to areas where land is available. In the Holmes County, Ohio, Amish community, the nation’s largest, the proportion of its households engaged in farming fell from 47.5 to 21.4% between 1973 and 1997 (Lowery and Noble 2000). With a growing population and little land available near their largest settlements, those who wish to retain an agrarian lifestyle must often leave. Indeed, Luthy (1994, 244) notes, “the search for cheaper farmland … is always a major motive for Amish migration,” even though it is not the only inducement.

Several Amish contributors to the directory described their search for new farmlands. One wrote that the first Amish settler near St. Anna in Calumet County, Wisconsin, “moved from Milton, IA to this farming country to keep the young people on the farms” (Miller 2002, 143). Amish from Pennsylvania who established the Athens settlement in Marathon County, Wisconsin, “were looking for an area where farms were less expensive and a good milk market … [and found] there were quite a few farms for sale in a reasonable [sic] small area” (Miller 2002, 19). The Amish who chose the site for the Utica, Minnesota “settlement were looking for a location close to a good bus line and a good milk market” (Miller 2002, 419). The Granton, Wisconsin Amish community was established in 1981 by several families from Ontario who wished to start a new community where they could ship milk in cans (Miller 2002), inasmuch as Ontario had begun requiring that all milk be cooled in bulk tanks in 1977 (Luthy 1985).

Amish settlements in Wisconsin are concentrated within those counties where agricultural land values are moderately low (Table 1), although the counties with the cheapest farmlands, largely in the northernmost part of the state, have been avoided. The number of Amish dairy farms in various Wisconsin counties is significantly related to both the average farmland values and the change in farmland prices within the counties (Table 2).

The four counties with over 50 Amish dairy farmers had average farmland sales prices (for land remaining in agricultural production) in 2001 that ranged from $893 to $1,248 per acre (WASS 2002a). Furthermore, even though farmland values had risen within these counties since 1989, as they have statewide, the mean increase in value of $489 per acre was below the statewide average of $1,054 (WASS 1991; 2002a). Eleven counties had between 11 and 50 Amish dairy farmers in the spring of 2002. Agricultural land prices in these counties ranged from $779 to $2,320 in 2001, with the average acreage prices having increased by $765 since 1989 (WASS 1991; 2002a).

In contrast, in the 13 Wisconsin counties where agricultural land sales averaged over $2,100 per acre in 2001, only two have an Amish church district, and the size of one of those settlements is small. The number of Amish dairymen in the small settlement astride the Rock/Green county line between Brodhead and Evanston declined slightly over the 12-year period. Rock County, where countywide agricultural land sales averaged $3,007 in 2001, had only three Amish dairymen, down from four dairymen with Amish surnames in 1989. With agricultural land values averaging $2,320 per acre in Columbia County, the number of Amish dairy farms there grew from 11 to 13 between 1989 and 2002. That settlement’s growth has largely moved into adjacent Green Lake and Marquette counties, where farmland sales in 2001 averaged $1,777 and $1,518 per acre, respectively (WASS 2002a). With the shift of the Amish population center, the Amish name for the settlement has changed from Pardeeville (in Columbia County) to Kingston (in Green Lake County).


Eighty percent of the Amish farmers in Wisconsin have dairy herds, a larger proportion than among the state’s other farmers. By mid-2002, only 22% of all Wisconsin farms had dairy herds (WASS 2003), yet four decades earlier three-quarters of Wisconsin farms had cows (Cross 2001). Thus, as Amish dairymen establish themselves, they are largely reshaping an already existing farm landscape, but one in which many dairy barns had become vacant.

In 2002 at least one dairy herd was found in 1,117 of Wisconsin’s 1,265 civil towns (the equivalent of a township), with 889 of the towns counting at least five dairy farms. Amish dairymen were found in 123 towns, with 46 towns having at least five Amish dairy operations. In 36 Wisconsin towns the Amish accounted for at least one-quarter of all dairy operations and within 14 towns the Amish operated over half of the dairy farms (Fig. 5). Thirteen years earlier, Amish dairy farmers had managed over a quarter of all dairy herds in only nine Wisconsin towns and over half of the dairy operations in only four towns. In southeastern Minnesota in 2002 the Amish operated at least half of the dairy farms in four townships, while at least 25% of the dairy farmers in an additional five townships were Amish.



The maintenance of a market for their milk is critical to the Amish, particularly for those Amish who continue to ship their milk in ten-gallon cans. Milk that is stored in cans for transport is classified as Grade B, and it can only be used for manufacturing. Although subject to a less stringent refrigeration requirement (below 50[degrees]F) than Grade A milk, Grade B milk in cans requires more handling and brings a lower price. By August 2002, 589 Wisconsin dairy operators used cans (WASS 2002b). (Minnesota dairy statistics and license data do not indicate the number of producers using cans.) Of the 424 Wisconsin herds whose milk was shipped in cans in 1994, the last year in which publicly available license data differentiated between Grade B operators using cans and bulk tanks, over 92% of those using cans had distinctive Amish surnames (Cross 2003). While the use of milk cans was much more widespread two or three decades ago, then it was simply an indicator of a small producer who had not invested in a modern bulk storage tank. Today, the milk can is rarely used outside of Amish communities.

Two-thirds of the Amish dairy farmers in Wisconsin ship their milk in cans. For milk to be classified as Grade A, more stringent requirements for farm inspections and milk refrigeration must be met, including cooling it below 45[degrees]F and mechanically stirring it in a bulk tank (Wisconsin Administrative Code Chapter ATCP 60). To meet these conditions would require the adoption of several technologies that are unacceptable to the most conservative Amish communities. It has been observed that among the Amish “the most important criterion distinguishing a high church district from a low church district is the grade of milk” (Cong 1992, 207). Thus low church, or more conservative Amish, have fewer options for the sale of their milk. High church, or more progressive Amish utilize bulk tanks with mechanical cooling, (1) and their Grade A milk is suitable for marketing in either fluid form or for the manufacture of cheese. Because spring or well water is often used to cool the milk cans, the Amish have frequently needed to create their own market for this milk. Nearly three-quarters of the milk shipped in cans goes to Amish cooperative cheese factories.

The Amish-run Salemville Cheese Cooperative in Green Lake County near Kingston is a good example of a factory that receives its milk in cans (Fig. 6). This factory, which only manufactures blue cheese and Gorgonzola, advertises on its packages of blue cheese, “Salemville Cheese Cooperative is in business to sustain our way of life …'” A local Amish historian, writing for the directory, noted the necessity for this factory:

As the size of the community increased, so did the need for

a substantial milk market if the dairy farmer was to survive.

Some small milk plants were closing doors or merging with

large companies shutting off the can milk market little by little.

The Amish had an offer to purchase a local cheese plant and

a cheese maker was available (Miller 2002, 209).


Because the cheese factory has both electricity and telephone service, the building is owned by a non-Amish person, while the factory is run by the Amish (Dawley 2003). A non-Amish milk hauler trucks the milk cans to the factory (Fig. 7). Today, cheese making is the primary occupation for two Amish households in the Kingston community, and the factory provides “a competitive market for the community’s milk production” (Miller 2002, 209).


The Old Country Wisconsin Cheese Factory (K & K Cheese, LLC) in Vernon County, south of Cashton, is the largest Amish-owned cooperative cheese factory in Wisconsin (Fig. 8). In keeping with their prohibitions against using technologies requiring electricity from a utility, the factory building and the land upon which it sits are Amish owned, but all of the cheese-making equipment is owned by the non-Amish manager. The manager, who receives a share of the gross receipts of the cooperative, is responsible for paying utility costs (Grahn and Wingate 1988). Specifically designed to receive milk shipments in cans from Monroe and Vernon County dairy farmers, it was opened as the Hill and Valley Cheese Factory in 1983, initially serving 77 producers (Renner 1995). Four years later it obtained milk from 147 Amish farmers (Grahn and Wingate 1988). By 1998 it was receiving shipments from 230 Amish farmers “from the Cashton, Wilton, Tomah, Hillsboro, Readstown, Viroqua, and Chaseburg areas” (Calahan 1998, C-1). In 2002 these farmers sent 113,000 pounds of milk daily to the factory, which manufactures cheddar, Colby, brick, and Monterey Jack, among other cheeses.


The largest Amish communities in both states utilize cans and are located near cheese factories that accept cans. Wisconsin cheese factories accepting milk in cans, besides the Old Country factory and the Salemville plant, are located near Augusta, Granton, Greenwood, and Hustler, while a similar plant is located in the Canton area of Minnesota. Because fluid milk processors will not accept milk in cans, the existence of cheese factories that do accept such shipments is critical to the survival of the most conservative Amish dairymen.


The vicinity of several of the Amish cheese factories is marked by a dairy landscape that is not only overwhelmingly Amish, but marked by a high concentration of dairy farms. For example, four towns at the core of the Cashton settlement have Amish dairy farmers running at least half of their dairy herds. Amish farmers ran 81% of all dairy farms in the town of Clinton, just south of Cashton, which counted 88 herds in 2002, more than any other town in the state. Furthermore, with rapid growth of the Hillsboro settlement in eastern Vernon County, Amish dairy farms now account for 59% of all dairy herds in the town of Greenwood, and over a quarter of all dairy operations in two adjacent towns, including one in contiguous Sauk County that had no Amish residents in 1989. Similarly, the Amish operate 76% of the dairy farms in the town of Kingston in Green Lake County, which adjoins a town in Marquette County where five of its nine dairy herds are Amish. These two towns are surrounded by three additional towns where over a quarter of the dairy farmers are Amish.

The only cheese factory in Eau Claire County is reliant upon milk shipped in cans. Amish farmers near Augusta now run 71% of the 90 dairy farms in the towns of Bridge Creek and Fairchild in Eau Claire County. These two towns, which contain all of that county’s Amish farmers, experienced an increase of only 12% in Amish dairy operations between 1989 and 2002, but recently Amish dairymen have expanded into Jackson County, immediately to the south.

Two Amish cheese factories operate in Clark County, where the Amish operated over half of the dairy farms within two towns and over a quarter in at least three additional towns. Although the number of Amish dairy farms in the town of Holway in Taylor County (just north of Clark County and the location of Wisconsin’s oldest Amish settlement) decreased by 11 since 1989, the prominence of the Amish in the area’s dairying increased. In 1989 38 of the town’s 71 dairy farmers were Amish, while 71% of the towns remaining 38 dairy operations were Amish in 2002.

In the two towns in Waushara County where Amish farmers account for over half of all dairy farms, dairying is not common, yet the Amish operate both dairy farms in the town of Coloma and seven of the eleven dairy farms in the town of Richford. Unlike the other locations where the Amish are the dominant dairy farmers, there is no cheese factory near their settlement. Furthermore, no local milk haulers deal with can milk, but all of the dairy farmers in this community have Grade A herds. In the Wautoma settlement Amish households engaged in lumbering, woodworking, or carpentry exceed those milking cows by a better than two to one margin (Miller 2002).

Amish growth in other parts of Wisconsin has recently occurred, yet in only one of those towns do the Amish account for as many as a quarter of the dairy farmers. Within Grant County the number of known Amish dairymen increased from zero to 26 between 1989 and 2002. An additional 16 Amish dairy farmers moved to adjacent Lafayette County, where two towns that previously had no Amish residents, now have a fifth of their dairy herds managed by the Amish. Unlike those areas where larger numbers of Amish dairymen are concentrated, the Amish in these areas do not ship their milk in cans, and many of them have Grade A operations (Fig. 9).



The average Amish dairy herd in Wisconsin had 19 cows, while that in Minnesota was smaller. Indeed, 37% of the Amish dairy herds in Minnesota had ten or fewer cows. Among non-Amish, or “English” dairy farmers, average farm size was much larger. The mean herd size in Wisconsin for all dairy farms, Amish and non-Amish alike, was 73.2 cows in 2002 (WASS 2003). Excluding Amish dairymen, the mean herd size for all other Wisconsin dairy farmers was 76.0. Statewide, 41.6% of all Wisconsin dairy herds had fewer than 50 cows, while only 5.1% had as many as 200 (NASS 2003).

Significant differences in herd size exist between Amish settlements that permit the use of bulk tanks and those that rely upon milk cans. For example, the Amish-run Salemville Cheese Cooperative notes on its cheese containers, “[O]ur herds range in size from 4 to 25.” The typical dairy herd in Amish districts that utilize cans averages 15 cows, with herds ranging from as few as four to as many as 35 cows. In contrast, within districts that permit bulk tanks, the herd size averages 25, with herds being reported as large as 70 cows.

The use of bulk milk tanks is frequently associated with the acceptance of other technologies by the Ordnung of the local church district (Table 3). For example, 75% of those districts using bulk tanks are willing to utilize diesel engines, frequently a necessity to provide refrigeration of the milk. Similarly, those settlements permitting bulk tanks are more likely to use tractors at the barn and elevators in their barns (Fig. 10). Furthermore, half of those districts with bulk tanks permit the use of milking machines, a critical factor in enabling their dairymen to handle herds that averaged 37 cows.


The Amish communities where dairymen produce Grade A milk are typically the smaller, more recently established communities (Fig. 9). The larger communities, such as Cashton, Wilton, Augusta, and Kingston, which forbid the technologies necessary to produce Grade A milk, were established by Amish arriving from Ohio, Indiana, or Iowa. In contrast, many recent arrivals from Pennsylvania, known both for its Amish dairy farms and for its less conservative attitudes towards technology, established communities in Grant, Lafayette, Marathon, and Pepin counties where many of the Amish have Grade A herds. Other Amish communities dominated by Grade A milk producers are near Spencer, where residents are New Order Amish, and Bonduel.


The landscape of the Amish dairy farms, particularly of those Grade B operations using cans, is conspicuously different from that of their “English” neighbors, even when the Amish farms had been previously managed by an “English” farmer. The Amish dairy farm is typically much smaller, both in acreage and number of cows. Cows are more likely to be seen grazing in a pasture, unlike so many other dairy operations where the cows are now fed within the barn year-round. Amish cornfields following harvest are sometimes marked by rows of shocked corn (Fig. 2), while the glass-lined metal silos or huge plastic covered rolls of silage so typical of “English” dairy farms, are absent.

Motorized equipment is largely missing from the Amish farm, replaced by teams of horses that plow and harrow the fields or pull harvesting equipment. Instead of tractors or trucks parked beside the barn, the Amish dairy farmer often has wooden wagons, and only rarely will their vehicles have rubber tires. Only among the least conservative Amish dairy farmers, such as those in Grant and Shawano counties who produce Grade A milk, will any self-propelled motorized equipment, such as small front-end loaders, be seen. More commonly, if any mechanization is seen, it will be an engine mounted on a cart, the “Amish tractor” that can be used either in the field or at the barn (Fig. 10).

Amish farmsteads in Wisconsin share many diagnostic features with those described by Allen Noble (1986) in Ohio. Besides the black buggy parked in the barnyard or in a shed, Amish farmsteads often have operating windmills (Fig. 4) and conspicuous kitchen gardens. No electric lines run to the Amish houses or barns and no television antennae or satellite dishes are present. Within many, but not all, Amish settlements farms commonly display signs including the words “No Sunday Sales” that advertise their vegetables, baked goods, quilts, or wood products. Signs warning of “Horse Drawn Vehicles” are increasingly found along rural highways.

With the exception of the Medford settlement, most Wisconsin Amish farmers occupy farms that were established by the “English” and have been operated by the Amish for less than a quarter century. Thus, they often display a mixture of Amish and non-Amish features. For example, an Amish dairy farm near Cashton may include a tobacco barn built by Norwegian immigrants or their descendents, yet the current Amish residents grow no tobacco and live in a large new frame house, built to accommodate their large families. Frequently, several Amish families or a multigenerational family either share a large house or build several plain white houses on the same farmstead. Because the Amish are limited in the size of dairy herds that they can milk and acreage they can plant with minimal mechanization, a preexisting farm is frequently partitioned following its acquisition by the Amish. This, inevitably, results in the construction of both new houses and new barns.

Even though the sale of milk provides the greatest amount of cash income, the production of Amish dairy farms is more conspicuously diversified than most other Wisconsin dairy farms. The Amish dairy farmer may butcher his own animals (Fig. 11) and often raises chickens or other poultry and grows a variety of vegetables, both for home use as well as for sale. In summary, the landscape of the Amish dairy farmer differs greatly from that of Wisconsin’s other family-operated dairy farms.



Substantial evidence indicates that the number of Amish dairy farmers in Wisconsin will continue growing rapidly. Between 1989 and 2002, the number of dairy farmers with characteristic Amish surnames rose from 478 in 1989 to 864. Since 1990 the number of farmers marketing their milk in cans has increased by 90%. If the number of Amish dairy farmers in Wisconsin continues growing at the same rates as they have since 1989, there could be 1,420 to 1,520 Amish dairy farmers by 2011. Farm Service Agency officials when surveyed by the author in 2001 estimated that by 2011 their numbers will likely exceed 1,500.

The majority of the Amish religious leaders who responded to my survey were reticent about predicting the future, yet those who did so were optimistic that the number of families in their districts would continue to grow. At the same time, many Amish bishops and ministers expressed concern about the impact of recent depressed milk prices upon their congregations. The consequences of low milk prices are exacerbated because the Amish decline government assistance and view the current milk price support system as being akin to insurance, antithetical to their religious beliefs. (2) Although many Amish communities anticipate growth, 35% of the responding bishops and ministers indicated that a smaller percentage of the Amish farmers in their districts will have dairy herds by 2012, yet overall the number of Amish dairy farms will grow.

Increases in Amish dairying are all the more conspicuous considering that Wisconsin has been losing over 5% of its total dairy farms annually for well over a decade. Given the loss of “English” dairy farmers and the Amish gains, it is possible that 15% or more of Wisconsin’s dairy herds will be Amish-managed by 2012. Undoubtedly, the number of towns where over half the dairymen are Amish will increase.

In contrast, Minnesota has not attracted nearly as many Amish dairymen, although it has townships where over half of the dairy operators are Amish. It is unclear why Wisconsin has received far more Amish dairymen than Minnesota; however one Amish minister in Minnesota’s largest settlement wrote: “The state is hard on the small farmer and some are already selling their cows.” Several of Wisconsin’s Amish settlements have received new arrivals from Minnesota, and the Wisconsin Amish communities of Taylor, New Auburn, and Readstown were established since 1990 by former residents of Minnesota. Conversely, former residents of Wisconsin established a new Amish settlement in northern Minnesota in 2001 (Miller 2002).

Regionally, Farm Service Agency officials projected the greatest growth in Amish dairy farming will occur within the north central and southwest Wisconsin agricultural districts. Increases of 69% and 86%, respectively, in these two regions were envisioned over the coming decade. This growth is entirely consistent with an observation made a quarter century ago:

If one wishes to plot likely future sites of Amish diffusion

within the United States, one should look for areas of small,

abandoned farms where the land is still capable of producing

reasonable crops without mechanized labor, and where public

school authorities can be expected to keep educational

harassment at a minimum (Crowley 1978, 363-4).

More recently, it was noted, “Newly settled areas tend to be marginal agricultural regions where the Amish can acquire relatively inexpensive farms in close proximity to one another” (Lamme 2001, 46). The more rolling western and cooler northern agricultural areas of Wisconsin both meet this description.


Research has already demonstrated the importance of ethnicity in explaining patterns of success of new entrants into dairy farming among all Wisconsin farmers (Cross, Jackson-Smith, and Barham 2000). Undoubtedly, its importance is far more conspicuous when contrasting the Amish with all the other dairy operators. While the majority of Wisconsin and Minnesota dairy farmers bemoan milk marketing orders that place local producers at a competitive disadvantage, two groups have successfully expanded in an industry marked by a far greater contraction. These include those operators with hundreds or thousands of cows, utilizing large modern free-stall barns, and the Amish, many whom eschew milking machines, with their small herds.

Because the Amish view the avocation of farming very differently from other family farmers (Ericksen, Ericksen and Hostetler 1980), they have established vibrant communities of dairy farmers that should grow in prominence over the next decade. Their increasing prominence in Wisconsin is not unique. Amish dairymen account for an even larger share, albeit smaller number, of the dairy herds in Michigan, nearly one in seven of the total. Amish dairying is expanding in New York (Lamme and McDonald 1993), while the Amish involvement with dairying in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the states with the largest Amish populations, is well established. To overlook the increasing prominence of Amish dairymen in studying the changing landscape of America’s dairying will likely produce an erroneous picture.

Table 1.

Number of Amish Dairy Farmers and Mean Agricultural

Land Sales Price in Wisconsin Counties

Number of Amish Dairy Farmers

in County in spring 2002

Average Value

of Agricultural

Land Sold County-wide

in 2001 * 0 to 1 2 to 10 Over 10

Under $750/acre 4 1 0

$751 to $2,500/acre 26 13 15

Over $2,500/acre 10 1 0

* Data from Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service 2002a.

The two counties lacking any dairy herds are excluded.

Chi-Square = 8.823, 6 degrees of freedom, significance = .066.

Table 2.

Number of Amish Dairy Farmers and Mean Farm Land Price

Increase in Wisconsin Counties

Number of Amish Dairy Farmers

in County in spring 2002

Average Increase

in Value of Farm

Land between

1989 and 2001 * None 1 to 24 Over 25

Under $500/acre 8 2 3

$501 to $1,000/acre 18 14 2

Over $1,000/acre 20 3 0

* Data from Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service 1991,

2002a. The two counties lacking any dairy herds are excluded.

Chi-Square = 13.611, 4 degrees of freedom, significance = .009.

Table 3.

Adoption of Various Technologies in Wisconsin’s Amish Districts and

the Utilization of Cans or Bulk Tanks for Milk Production

Milk Storage

and Shipment


Technologies Permitted

by Local District Ordnung Can Bulk Tank

Milking machines 0 50%

Elevator in barn 8% 58%

Diesel engines (for barn usage) 31% 75%

Tractor (used at barn) 0 58%

Telephones in barn or barnyard 0 17%

Data from survey of Amish bishops and ministers.


The very insightful and constructive comments and criticisms of several anonymous reviewers and the editor are greatly appreciated.


(1.) Several types of mechanical refrigeration systems may be used to cool the milk in bulk tanks, and what is acceptable depends upon the Amish community. Some groups use electrical refrigeration (using a generator) while other districts use gas-powered refrigeration.

(2.) The milk price situation has changed dramatically since 2002, when the survey was conducted. Then milk prices were greatly depressed, and a Milk Income Loss Contract Program was authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill to compensate dairy farmers when milk prices fell below a fixed level. The regulations provided a procedure by which the Amish could receive the subsidy combined with their milk check, in that “MILC (Milk Income Loss Contract) benefits may be disbursed by a dairy marketing cooperative that serves special groups or communities, such as an Amish or Mennonite community” (USDA 2002). Although an agent of the cooperative would actually obtain the payment for the cooperative, rather than having it go directly to the individuals, it was uncertain how many Amish dairymen would accept such proxy payments. Because milk prices in 2004 reached all-time highs, this is now a moot issue.


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John A. Cross is Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI 54901.


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