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AN UDDER MESS: How the Atlantic got it all wrong in St. Lawrence County


CANTON — Large-scale agribusiness is moving into St. Lawrence County, gobbling up acreage, driving up land prices and suffocating the economy of the area’s once-flourishing Amish community.

Forced to scour grocery store dumpsters to find enough to eat, many Amish families are starting to pull up stakes and move to other states.

The doomsday scenario was presented in an Aug. 20 online story for the Atlantic magazine titled “For the Amish, Big Agribusiness Is Destroying A Way of Life.”

But the truth has gotten in the way of the magazine’s very dramatic story.

All data show there are more Amish in St. Lawrence County than ever, and more are expected to move to the region.

St. Lawrence County land prices have experienced a natural rise in value over the years, but remain low by national standards and continue to attract more members of the agrarian sect from Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

And what about new agribusiness moving into the county? It hasn’t happened. The county’s largest farms — there are seven — are all owned by long-time area families that have over the decades grown their small dairy farms into operations having more than 1,000 cows.

“I can’t say that I am aware of the expansion of agribusiness; things have been relatively stable,” said Matilda M. Larson, a St. Lawrence County planner. “I know that we are seeing an increase in the number of smaller farms.”

Expanding dairy farms have become part of agricultural life in this vast and mostly rural county, which is more than twice the size of Rhode Island. But planners, real estate agents and other officials interviewed by the Times don’t generally view them as the competitors to the Amish or the land grabbers they were portrayed as in the Atlantic article written by Malcolm Burnley.

“The idea of big agribusiness destroying a way of life, I think that is a bit much,” said Brent Buchanan, agriculture team leader for the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Canton. “The Amish have fit in a niche. They’ve wedged themselves between medium-sized and large farms and they do OK, especially relative to the rest of the country.”

So if local experts say agribusiness is not driving the Amish out of St. Lawrence County and more Amish are arriving weekly, then only one question remains: How did the Atlantic, one of American’s best known and respected magazines, get St. Lawrence County so wrong?

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Malcolm Burnley, who is from Staten Island, graduated from Brown University in May and is an editorial fellow at The Atlantic. In February he made national headlines when he discovered in the school’s library a long-forgotten, 50-year-old recording of a speech given at the university by the late civil rights leader Malcolm X.

But before that, Mr. Burnley worked for a time on Brian Bennett’s Bittersweet Farm in Heuvelton.

Mr. Bennett, who was the primary voice in the Atlantic story, is a familiar sight at farmers markets and is well known in the region for his commitment to organic and ecologically friendly growing methods.

“I’m not the most objective person,” Mr. Bennett told the Times when asked for a comment on the Atlantic article. “I am prejudiced and biased towards the small farms. I would much rather see 1,000 farms each with 10 cows than 10 farms with 1,000 cows. I much prefer diversity.”

Mr. Bennett said Mr. Burnley agreed with many of his views.

“He suggested to me that he thinks it is going to turn around,” said Mr. Bennett. “He said at some point this can’t really be efficient to drive 28 miles around a huge farm to spread manure and haul feed back.”

The article, said Mr. Bennett, correctly portrays his views on the incursion of industrial agriculture and the plight of the county’s small farms, including those owned by Amish families.

“What I believe is that large agribusiness is contributing to the small farm collapse,” he said. “I know the opposite story is around — that there are more small farms and more small farmers.”

Shortly after the article appeared, editors at the Atlantic began systematically correcting typos and errors in the story, sparked in part by emails from Watertown Daily Times Managing Editor Robert D. Gorman. Among the more serious mistakes corrected was that new agribusiness was moving into the county.

“The writer didn’t know the difference between bail and bale, teats and udders, DePeyster and Canton, and wrote that huge agribusinesses have moved into St. Lawrence County, which is simply not true,” said Mr. Gorman. “Despite acknowledging Mr. Burnley’s factual errors, his editors are still convinced he methodically unraveled an incredibly complex socioeconomic trend in regional farming. I have told them Mr. Burnley got that wrong, too, but to no avail.”

The story remains online.

“The Atlantic stands behind this story,” wrote Natalie Raabe, communications director for the Atlantic, Atlantic Digital, and Atlantic LIVE, in an email to the Times. “We regret that some factual errors immaterial to the article’s conclusions were published online.”

Corrections made by editors are listed at the end of the article. The most recent, made after another Times email, changed the term “synthetic manure,” which does not exist, to “liquid manure.”

Mr. Burnley’s business relationship with Mr. Bennett was not revealed in his story — which is considered a breach of journalistic ethics — until after it was pointed out in an email from Mr. Gorman. The Atlantic then inserted the words from Mr. Burnley: “I first met Bennett as a college freshman when I spent a few weeks working on his farm through the program WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), trading labor for food and board.”

“I think Malcolm is terrific,” said Mr. Bennett. “I trusted him to do the labor here, and he did a fantastic job on the article.”

Attempts by the Times to interview Mr. Burnley were unsuccessful. The author did not return a request for an interview made via the social network Twitter. The Atlantic spokeswoman declined a request to put him in contact with the Times.

Mr. Bennett’s wife declined to give the Times Mr. Burnley’s contact information, but said she would relay the request for an interview to the author. He has not responded to that request.

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“After generations of relative prosperity and seclusion, the Swartzentrubers and their horse-drawn ploughs are losing territory to subsidized growers buying up St. Lawrence County’s clay-loam soil,” wrote Mr. Burnley in his story.

But anecdotal evidence abounds for the growth of local Amish communities — the frequency of seeing horse-drawn buggies along county highways has increased, and men in flat-brimmed hats and bonnet-clad women have become a fixture at farmers markets and roadside stands in the last few years.

Where the community was once cloistered in an area around the village of Heuvelton — where the first Amish settled in 1974 — their family farms now dot the landscape in a roughly 50-mile circle that includes the towns of Oswegatchie, Canton, Norfolk, Potsdam, Gouverneur, DeKalb and Depeyster.

Enos D. Miller, a 36-year-old Amish vegetable grower in DeKalb Junction, said that while some families have moved away, more are arriving than leaving. He also added that economic woes the Amish have are no different than anyone else’s in a nation coming out of a recession. Rising property taxes and escalating costs of goods are not problems exclusive to the Amish.

“We’re all in the same boat,” he said. “Everybody is in a crunch because the economy is not well.”

SUNY Potsdam anthropology professor Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, who has spent years interviewing Amish families, agrees with that assessment, but added that the Amish lifestyle might actually give them some advantage during hard times.

“They have a community to draw on if they’re in trouble. They have fewer expenses,” she said. “The big benefit is that they are family-based and they have stronger community ties. They are making their own clothes. They’re doing preservation of their food. A horse provides fertilizer that a tractor does not. They have lots of help with their children, lower overhead, and it is a family all working together.”

Mr. Miller, the father of 11, estimated that compared to a decade ago, about 100 more Amish families now reside in DeKalb, Heuvelton, Rensselaer Falls, Morristown, Brier Hill, Lisbon and other locales in the western part of the county.

Known as the “Heuvelton community,” the families are part of the conservative Swartzentruber sect.

He estimated that 60 percent of the latest arrivals came from other states, while the remainder grew up here, married and then purchased property to start their own families.

Ms. Johnson-Weiner told the Times her research charts the arrival of three new multifamily settlements in St. Lawrence County since 2010. She also named five families who for various reasons left the area — one being competition for land with large farming operations, she said.

Mr. Miller and another Amish man interviewed by the Times don’t put much stock in the idea that numerous families are leaving because of land issues created by agribusiness.

While large farming operations have purchased land that Amish may have been interested in over the years — and it is true that large farms need a lot of land to operate — Mr. Miller said he doesn’t believe the pressure is driving his fellow Amish away from the region.

“Some are moving for other reasons. They’re not moving because of big agribusinesses,” Mr. Miller said as he took a break from cutting wood for his handmade baskets. “The community is getting larger and that creates problems within the community. That’s more of the reason some leave.”

A 32-year-old Amish man — a dairy farmer in DeKalb Junction who asked that his name not be published —– added that the arrival of families in the area far outweighs whatever number have left. He said six families from Pennsylvania moved near his 96-acre farm in the last year.

“It isn’t true that many Amish are leaving St. Lawrence County,” he said. “The land prices are cheaper here than from where they’re coming from.”

About 236 Amish families from the Swartzentruber sect now live in the western part of the county, he said.

A separate, smaller and less-conservative sect, known as the Norfolk Amish, reside in Norfolk and its surrounding towns on the eastern side of the county.

The families moving here from other states can generally afford to pay higher land prices than long-time local Amish because they received high prices for their previous farms, the Amish men said.

The ironic twist is that the arrival of more Amish families brings its own problems to the group’s way of life, not only by competing for the same land but by bringing different interpretations of the religion into the fold.

A book, “New York Amish — Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State,” published two years ago by Ms. Johnson-Weiner, outlined the problems in a section titled “St. Lawrence County Swartzentruber Amish — Growing Pains.”

While noting the competition for, and rising prices of land, the author writes:

“Still, the people keep coming, and scarce land, rising real estate prices, and church division have combined to create competition and, at times, negative feelings.”

Logic dictates that more Amish vying for the same land is going to increase prices, perhaps more than they would increase under normal market conditions. It’s also true that there is a limited amount of land, and the amount of available land grows smaller each time a new family arrives and buys a tract to farm.

But Mr. Miller said any movement of families out of the area is more a product of the nature of the Amish community than it is about available land.

To paint the Amish as one big happy farming family ignores that the historically nomadic group is like any other community in America: full of people with differences that can cause conflict among its members. And moving is one way to avoid the conflict.

It can be difficult to ascertain just how many Amish come and go from St. Lawrence County, said Ms. Larson of the planning office. A push was made to more accurately include Amish in the 2010 census count, but in that realm, they lose their religion in a sense. Federal law prevents census-takers from asking about religious affiliation.

So when planners during the census found significant increases in population in several towns where there is an Amish presence — DeKalb, DePeyster, Hopkinton, Norfolk, Stockholm, Oswegatchie and Lawrence — it suggested an increase in the group’s numbers without being able to attribute the rise to the arrival of families from out of state.

“When you’re filling out the census form, there isn’t a little box to check off to identify whether you are Amish or not, and Amish is a religion as opposed to a race or ethnicity,” Ms. Larson said. “You can look at the migration patterns, but that is anecdotal at best because it won’t tell you if people moving into and leaving the area are Amish or not.”

The best source for how many Amish are in the area are the Amish themselves, said Ms. Johnson-Weiner. As an author of two books about the Amish, she has done a lot of talking with members of the various factions about their religion and their lives.

Ms. Johnson-Weiner says her research shows that a few Amish families are moving from the area to Maine, but not enough to counter the surge of families moving into the area. Other experts agree.

“The Amish farms that have come in, most of them have not moved on, they have stayed here,” said Arthur F. Baderman, a Cornell Cooperative Extension educator. “They’ve come from areas where the land is crowded or too expensive, and they haven’t had those problems here.”

A look at 36 property sale records published in the Watertown Daily Times shows the average sale price of land purchases by the Amish was $592 per acre in 2003 and rose to $869 in 2012.

Darren W. Colton, head of the St. Lawrence County Real Property Office, said farm values in the area have remained stable over the past decade — increasing as one would expect over time.

“Our values are not greatly increasing, but I would say they are on a steady incline,” he said. “Our farms are a good value compared to other places in the country.”

Mr. Colton estimated tillable land values at between $1,000 and $2,000 an acre here, compared to $3,000 to $6,000 in other parts of the country.

Lance M. Evans, executive officer of the St. Lawrence County Board of Realtors, reports the average rural land sales during the past five years have dropped to below $1,000 an acre. The spreadsheet Mr. Evans made available shows the average price peaking at just under $1,200 an acre in 2009 before dropping to $758 an acre in 2011.

In contrast, a 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture report put the average price of Ohio farmland at about $4,300 an acre.

In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is heavily populated by the Amish, land for dairy farms sell for $9,000 to $15,000 per acre, said Rudy DeLaurentis, a certified general appraiser for Concord House Real Estate in that state.

In short, higher land prices elsewhere are helping drive more Amish to the north country. And while they toil in the shadow of some larger farms, their way of life is being sustained.

“I don’t think their way of life is threatened,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. “They want to continue farming. The Amish draw a lot from farming; in farming, children can work with their parents, dad can be home to have meals with mom and the kids, there’s something for every child to do, you really learn reliance on God and nature, and you reap what you sow.”

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How did the Atlantic produce such a severely flawed story alleging that newly arrived big agribusiness is killing the Amish way of life in St. Lawrence County? And with regard to journalism ethics, did Malcolm Burnley have a story concept in his head and then use out-of-context quotes and mangle facts to support his premise?

Some of the people he talked to for his story say that’s the case.

The seed for the story was likely sown by Mr. Bennett, the staunch critic of large farming operations, when Mr. Burnley was working for him.

Mr. Burnley nourished the seed by talking to many of the players who should have been able to help him get his story right: an academic observer of Amish life, the owner of a large dairy farm, an Amish man and an agricultural expert from the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

So what went wrong?

“He definitely had an agenda,” said Jon Greenwood, owner of Greenwood Dairy in Canton. “He got a lot of things wrong in his story.”

For instance, Mr. Burnley wrote that St. Lawrence County stretches to the “suburbs of Montreal” even though Montreal is 70 miles away from the county line. He then misidentified by 23 miles the location of the Canton dairy farm of Mr. Greenwood, writing that it is in the town of DePeyster, an area where many Amish families live and a town very close to the Swartzentrubers’ original settlement in Heuvelton.

“He had a preconceived notion of the story he wanted to tell,” said Cornell’s Mr. Buchanan, who said he was interviewed by Mr. Burnley for about an hour.

Mr. Burnley also allowed Mr. Bennett to tell an anecdotal tale of a large dairy farm buying 100 acres for $250,000, or $2,500 an acre — land he said an Amish family wanted to buy for $30,000, or $300 an acre.

“I would like to know where you can buy 100 acres for $300 an acre,” Mr. Greenwood said after reading the article.

A search of property sale records published weekly in the Times did not reveal such a sale to the farmer Mr. Bennett named in the article. While some property sale records did not list acreage, making it impossible to figure cost per acre, those that did showed that four of the county’s large farms bought property in the last two years and none paid $2,500 per acre, the figure quoted in the story.

The highest amount paid — $1,727 per acre — was by Greenwood Farms for a parcel in Madrid in 2010. Adon Farms made the two lowest priced purchases per acre — $585 for land in Parishville and $717 for land in Potsdam. Both sales were made this year.

None of the sales found in the records came close to supporting the article’s suggestion that land is being purchased by farmers “willing to pay three or four times the market rate.”

Mr. Burnley did not attribute that claim to anyone in his story.

And what about “dumpster diving,” a term Mr. Burnley quoted Mr. Bennett as using?

The Amish, with their horses and buggies, are often seen at Aldi’s grocery stores. But Mr. Miller said families are not so poor that they no longer buy groceries but instead go to the back of the buildings to scrounge through the stores’ out-of-date and discarded food, as alleged by Mr. Bennett.

“It’s not because they don’t have enough to eat,” Mr. Miller said. “They hate to see good food go to waste. Bananas can still taste good even though they don’t look as good as before.”

County planner Ms. Larson panned the story for its lack of research.

“The thing that was really troubling was that they didn’t substantiate any of the claims made in that article,” she said. “There was no hard evidence. It was all secondhand information.”

Said Mr. Gorman, the Times’ managing editor: “If the Atlantic had written a story titled, ‘For Brian Bennett, Big Agribusiness Is Messing With His World View,’ they might have been on to something.”

Johnson Newspaper reporter Susan Mende contributed to this story.

Atlantic story:
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