St. Lawrence County may be losing population, but there's one group that keeps growing: Old Order Amish. They've moved to northern New York because of cheap, available farmland. But in order to maintain their lifestyle, the Amish need a market for the milk the produce. So they've turned to an unlikely partner: dairy co-op Agri-Mark.
Drive down some roads in the county, and it’s like stepping back in time. Traffic comes from buggies, not cars. Children in dark clothes and straw hats and bonnets play in neatly kept farm yards.
These are Swarzentruber Amish communities. They’re the most conservative Amish sect. Over the past thirty years, around 2,000 of them have migrated from Ohio, seeking cheaper land and a place to farm.
Their first language is old German. They have their own schools, their own churches. The Amish live in a different world – and they like it that way.
Karen Johnson-Weiner studies Amish culture and language and teaches at SUNY Potsdam.
"The Amish think that farming is really the ideal way to live a Christian life," she explains.
Most Amish families grow their own vegetables. Many keep small dairy herds. The Amish may keep apart for religious reasons. But they’re highly involved in the local economy.
For years, the Amish around Canton and Ogdensburg sold their milk to the Heritage Cheese plant in Huevelton. They produced grade B milk, and stored it in cans. But in 2008, the cheese plant closed. And the Amish didn’t have a market for their milk.
"I came home one day and Dan H. Miller from Heuvelton was sitting on my picnic table waiting for me," remembers Dave Elliot.
Eliot lives in Canton and works for Agri-Mark, a major dairy cooperative across the northeast that owns Cabot and McAdams Cheese.
"Dan was one of the area leaders, He wasn’t a bishop, he was a deacon. He said, ‘We got big problems Dave, Heritage is closing their doors and we need place for our milk.’ and he asked if Agri-Mark would be interested in helping ‘em."
So Dave decided to talk to Agri-Mark’s board of directors. It was a hard sell – members from New England weren’t familiar with Amish culture.
Then, there was the issue of milk quality. Agri-Mark wasn’t sure if Amish farmers could produce grade A milk.
"They’ve never used bulk tanks, they’ve always put their milk in cans, and cooled it with well water and never shipped grade A milk," Dave explains.
And it wasn’t a sure bet for the Amish either. The milk houses needed refrigeration. And it’s against the Swartzentruber’s religious code to use electricity.
Johnson-Weiner says it presented a dilemma.
"Since the dumping stations are built on Amish property could you have dumping station collected to the electricity that was on an Amish farm? And other Amish have answered no," she says.
But Swartzentruber leaders realized that to stay in St. Lawrence County and keep their young men farming, they needed to find a market for their milk.
So here’s what they decided to do: the milk houses would be built on Amish property. Agri-mark would lease the milk houses, and the electricity would be in Agri-mark’s name. The money for the electricity would come straight out of each Amish farmer’s milk check.
It’s a fine line, one that Johnson-Weiner says makes sense.
"It’s typical of the types of negotiations that go on in the Amish world over how can we interact with the world and not have the world intrude too much into our homes and communities," she says.
That was five years ago. Now, there are 35 electrified milk houses in St. Lawrence County, and Amish farmers make up about 20 percent of Agri-Mark’s northern New York members.
They don’t produce a high volume of milk – but they’ve been able to meet and surpass the quality standards.
Joe D. Miller is an Amish farmer in Macomb. His parents moved to the North Country when he was two. Now he is nine kids of his own, and a tenth on the way. He’s in the shed, building a headboard for a bed when I arrive at his farm.
Joe’s a friendly guy. Inside his house, he sits at the long kitchen table. His wife Maddie brings coffee. Little kids scamper around, blowing bubbles.
Joe lights a cigar and talks about dairy.
Right now he’s milking 13 cows. He says that initially the thought of bringing electricity onto his property made him, in his words, skittish.
But over time, he’s done well with Agri-Mark. He’s just finished paying off his share of the milk house equipment purchase. It’s taken three years.
He likes the co-op model of profit sharing at the end of the year, and the bonuses for butter fat and protein.
He says that when the cheese plant closed, he was worried about making a living.
Not all Amish can run a sawmill, or have a furniture shop — there’d be no outlet for it. But Joe says they can all ship milk.
And he says more and more in the community are getting into dairying now that they have a steady market with Agri-Mark.
The milk house is a short walk from Joe’s barn.
There are eight steel milk tanks, one for each of the nearby Amish farmers. It's cool in the milk house. Joe opens the bulk tank — and inside, a big blade churns frothy, white milk.
Other than this milk house, Joe’s farm is like really old-fashioned. And you can see that he’s glad to be able to make a living and work at home, with his family.
Dave Elliot from Agri-Mark says it’s been a good partnership. An Amish family just bought the farm he grew up on in Canton, and he’s glad someone will be milking cows there again.
"The Amish will farm forever, as long as there's a market."
For now, in Saint Lawrence County, the Amish are doing just that.