Farm Progress

Amish farmers in Illinois may use horses to plant GMO seed, but they’re facing the same labor and economic problems as other farmers.

July 19, 2017

5 Min Read
AMISH: “We’re faced with changes in labor and the economy. It’s affecting us like everyone else,” says Amish farmer Larry Diener, Arthur.

By Christy Allen

“There are a couple things I don’t like, and that’s weeds and rust,” says John Schrock, an Amish farmer from Arthur.

While Amish farming practices may differ from those used by modern farmers, at the end of the day, Amish farmers aren’t that different from conventional farmers: Everyone’s trying to make decisions that allow them to be good stewards of the land and maximize profitability.

Amish farmers, just like modern farmers, are tasked with feeding a growing population. To do so, they are constantly innovating and improving their farming practices to be as efficient as possible. While Amish farming operations still run differently than modern farms, many of today’s Amish farmers have seen major changes in the equipment and methods used to keep up with consumer demand.

But when it comes to selecting seed, they’re looking at the same things conventional farmers do. Larry Diener, an Amish farmer and dairyman, says it is important to consider what his farm needs, which tends to be longer-season corn varieties with drought tolerance that do well on lighter soil.

Genetically modified seeds are widely used by Amish farmers, including Schrock, who recalls their implementation as a “good thing.” Corn, beans, alfalfa and oats are common crops among the Amish. Cover crops are popular in their world, too, such as oats, rye, radishes and peas.

In the Arthur area, the average Amish field size is about 20 acres. During a full day of planting, one team of horses, usually Belgians, can plant up to 30 acres using mostly four-row 36-inch planters; some farmers have eight-row 20-inch bean planters.

Larry’s brother, Ernest Diener, is also an Amish farmer from Arthur who raises calves and pigs, and most of his own horses. His training method? Hook them up and have the horses learn as they go.

“There’s an art to know how to handle horses,” Ernest says, adding that there’s a difference between training a horse and wrestling with it. He begins using horses for work when they are around 2 years old.  Younger horses must be traded out more frequently during the workday until they build up stamina.

Amish fields are planted in wider rows because of the horses. Today, Larry plants 20-inch rows with an eight-row planter, but remembers his father and grandfather using a two-row corn planter. Schrock recalls one-row corn pickers being a big deal after being accustomed to hand-picking. Now, a two-row picker with an eight- or 12-row husking bed is more common.

“There’s a choice in how we want to do things,” says Ernest, while speaking about how Amish farmers operate compared to what he refers to as “mainstream agriculturalists.”

INGENUITY: Amish farmer Ernest Diener, Arthur, designed and built this horse-drawn corn picker.

Although it differs among Amish communities, around Arthur the Amish farmers are not allowed to use tractors in their fields, but can hire custom equipment for things like combining beans. They hire a custom harvester to combine all soybeans and a small percentage of corn. In some parts of the country, Amish farmers are allowed to use tractors for fieldwork if they have steel wheels and cannot hire custom work. For example, in Pennsylvania, Amish farmers do not plant soybeans because they do not have an efficient way to harvest them.

When it comes to corn, some hire custom machines while others use horse-drawn corn pickers and corn shellers to get the job done. Many prefer to rake their own hay, but custom mowers can be hired. For tillage, some Amish farmers use a diesel-powered horse-drawn tiller while others choose to disk and cultivate.

The number of Amish dairies in the Arthur area was about 35 in 2016 — down from an estimated more than 60 dairies in the 1990s. Many of the dairymen cut their own silage.

Many Amish use crop protection products like herbicides and seed treatments. Some Amish farmers do all of their own spraying with horse-drawn sprayers, while others hire local fertilizer dealers. Amish farmers also perform soil sampling in many of their fields. Hauling manure onto a field makes a clear difference, according to Schrock. He uses manure, anhydrous and lime, as needed.

Amish and organic?
“The more effort you put in, the more you appreciate the success,” says Floyd Miller, an Amish man who began farming in 1987. After farming conventionally for several years, he began transitioning into an organic operation. After three years of transitioning, Miller received USDA organic certification for both his grain and dairy operations in 2010.

“It takes dedication, determination and motivation to do it. We think it’s well worth it, but there’s extra work,” says Miller, who began the process of becoming organic when he learned through an organic company about the opportunity to reach a niche market while remaining profitable with a smaller operation. He grows oats, corn, soybeans, alfalfa and grass for grazing, and milks about 70 cows.

“If you can raise your own feed, it’s a no-brainer,” says Miller, who knows of three other certified-organic dairy operations in the Arthur area and at least one more in transition, along with an estimated eight to 12 organic Amish grain operations.

“Amish farms are designed as family farms,” says Larry Diener.  Labor has become tougher on Amish farms, too, he adds. Amish dairy and grain farmers usually farm full time, while those without livestock often have an off-farm job to supplement their row crop income.

“We’re faced with changes in labor and the economy. It’s affecting us like everyone else,” Larry describes.

Allen is a junior in agricultural communications at the University of Illinois. She is from Arthur.

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