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As milk prices keep falling, more Pa. dairy farmers are calling it quits

Between 2012 and 2016, Pennsylvania lost more than 1,200 dairy farms. Dozens of herd auctions are set for the coming months.

In a small, white tent, Amish farmers take part in an April 10 auction of dairy cows – an increasingly frequent event as milk prices keep falling.
In a small, white tent, Amish farmers take part in an April 10 auction of dairy cows – an increasingly frequent event as milk prices keep falling.Read moreEd Hille / For the Inquirer

The Amish dairymen came by buggy and shuttle bus, and filed into the barn with cups of chocolate milk and whoopie pies, each man squatting down to eyeball every cow's undercarriage.

Udders are like crystal balls for dairy farmers, a way to glean the future and know with near certainty just how much milk each cow might produce for years to come. They spoke to one another in Pennsylvania Dutch and stroked their long beards, mulling the prices they'd be comfortable paying once the bidding started.

By night's end, this barn in Oxford, Chester County, would be empty.

Pennsylvania would have one less dairy farm.

"They're all pretty dang good cows," said Ken Hershey, 83, a retired farmer who lives across the street and was in the crowd. "It's sad. It's just bad to see this happening."

A full, well-proportioned udder might portend a valuable cow, but there's a glut of milk in the U.S. market and prices are too low for many farmers to skirt by. Milk is selling for $15.30 per 100 pounds. In September 2014, it was over $25.

More farmers in Pennsylvania, the nation's sixth-largest dairy producer, are resorting to auctions — the official name is "herd dispersal" — to liquidate assets before things get worse. The website lists dozens of them in the state in the coming months.

"The price farmers get paid for the milk they produce has been declining for three straight years and there is no indication that there will be any significant relief in 2018," said Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O'Neill. "Farmers have faced price volatility in the past, but this downward spell is more severe and lengthy than in previous times."

Hundreds of farmers have gotten out of the dairy business, though O'Neill said some may have stayed in agriculture. There were 6,570 dairy farms in Pennsylvania last year, down by 80 from 2016 and by 1,259 from 2012.

Ron Wood, a dairy farmer in Schuylkill County, is calling it quits for medical reasons, with an auction that took place last Wednesday.

"This is the hardest thing I'll ever do," Wood wrote on an auction website. "It's like selling my kids. I ask only one thing: Please treat my girls with love and respect, and give them a good home."

New Jersey is considerably behind Pennsylvania in milk production, ranking only 47th countrywide, but its situation is worse, Farm Bureau officials there say, because the properties are smaller and can't weather the prices like the larger farms. Fifty-three commercial dairy farms remain in operation in New Jersey, down from 86 in 2011.

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.

"Do you drink whole milk?" he asked.

He planned to grow corn and alfalfa and perhaps run a smaller dairy operation focusing on raw milk products. Others have moved to tobacco and vegetables.

"Tobacco creates a very good profit for a small amount of acres, and the Amish primarily have smaller farms," said Dave Bitler, a dairy farmer from Berks County who came to the auction early. "They have the labor to do it, and tobacco is labor intensive. They have the family to do it."

Bitler said the "English" farms — any farm not Amish-owned — have taken it harder because many children don't want to continue the business, milk prices aside.

While the owner and his brother readied the cows, Tim Weaver moved about the farm as if on fast-forward to finish setting up the auction. Weaver, 35, of New Holland, Lancaster County, is an auctioneer, and lately, a big part of his business has been helping farms turn cows into cash for the last time.

"It's definitely not easy for them," Weaver said. "This is something most of them have been doing their whole lives."

Last month, Weaver auctioned off 66 milk cows in Lancaster County.

He tows his office on a trailer. At Amish farms, he has to bring a generator and string lights in the barn with a ladder, something he manages to do while eating an apple and a hoagie. He speaks Pennsylvania Dutch, which helps. He erected a one-pole tent behind the barn, with haystacks as seats, and dozens of Amish children crammed onto the front rows, with their own cups of milk and bags of chips, hours before the auction was set to start.

One of the farmer's dogs, a 160-pound behemoth from South Africa, took a leak on the auction speakers and Weaver chased him off.

By the 7:30 start time, the tent was packed with over 100 people, mostly Amish and farmers in muddy boots and jeans. Amish boys had been roped into wrangling the cows out of the barn and into the chute that led to the pen. Sometimes the cows bolted for a tiny door at the front of the barn and the boys blocked them, fearlessly, prodding them out the back with sticks.

When the auction started, the cows came in quick, looking confused amid the chaos.

"Somebody give me fifteen. Fifteen hundred," auctioneer Dave Stoltzfus said before his words blurred into a frenzied jumble of numbers.

Bidders raised their numbered cards to get in on the action, but often a nod of their straw hats would do. Weaver kept it moving.

"Get her out, Enos," he said from a stage above the pen.

"Spin her around one last time and get her out."

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.