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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Holy Cow! A River of Milk

The face of area dairy farming is represented by the Newmont Farm of Fairlee and the other two neighboring farms pictured below. Established in 1988 by Walter and Margaret Gladstone, the Newmont Farm was named Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year in 2003. Its groomed lawns lead to the free stall barns that house over 1000 animals.




Knoxland Farm on the Lower Plain in Bradford has been owned since 1997 by Paul Knox and Mary Pitman. Part of their herd is kept at the round barn on the Connecticut south of Wells River. They currently have 1,150 milking and dry cows.




The Martin Farm on the Bradford-Fairlee line is tucked between these two much larger farms.


Owned by Larry Martin who milks 30 cows, this one-man operation was honored as a Dairy of Distinction for its well-kept farmstead. The farmyard is made more attractive by Sue Martin's English-style flower garden.



As late as October, 1939 at least one area dairy farmer was still delivering milk to market by wagon. This horse was "parked" in front of what is now the Bliss Village Store on Main Street in Bradford and was photographed by FSA photographeer Lee Russell. (Farm Security Administration)



In the second half of the 19th century, Vermont became known for its championship milch cows. Cheese, butter and later fluid milk became major exports to urban markets. (Courtesy Vermont Historical Society)







Appeared in the Dairy Month edition of the Journal Opinion
June 10, 2009

“Come-boss, come-boss.” For well over a century that call or some variation thereof sounded as area farmers called their dairy cows from the pasture. The role that dairy farming has played in Vermont and New Hampshire history has been long and pervasive. Dairying is so much a symbol of Vermont that a cow appears on the state seal.

The first white settlers in our area were farmers. They wrestled fields from the forest an acre at a time. The land supplied most of their needs. The few necessities they could not produce were purchased with cash secured from the sale of a few products, including maple sugar, hides and potash.

Most families kept several “non-descript scrub”milch cows that provided milk, cheese and butter for personal use. The History of Corinth points out that an annual yield of 125 lbs of milk per animal was considered good. Cows were allowed to go dry during the winter as it was believed that milking year round was injurious to the animals.

Those areas of Vermont and New Hampshire that were accessible to Boston or Albany began, in the early 19th century, to supply farm products such as grain and livestock to the urban markets. Animals were driven overland. It has been suggested that Corinth’s Goose Green got its name from the poultry it marketed.

After 1800, some Vermont farmers began to raise livestock such as pigs, mules, beef cattle and horses for export to regional markets. Some attempts were more successful than others. But eventually, these farmers lost to the competition from the newly developed land in the west.

Of all the early experiments with livestock, sheep-raising was the most wide spread.
The Marino strain was introduced into Vermont in 1811 and “sheep-mania” spread throughout the two state area. Those who were more successful bought out their neighbors' farms. By the 1830’s, many towns in the Connecticut River Valley had at least 10,000 head of sheep. However by the 1860’s, sheep raising was on the wane. While Piermont and Lyme continued to raise sheep for wool or mutton, farmers in other towns
either sold out or sought a change.

This vacuum was gradually filled by the dairy industry. Butter and cheese had been a small industry, one conducted largely by farmer’s wives. These two dairy products allowed farmers to make use of highly perishable excess milk. “Butter season” normally extended from the time cows were let out in spring pastures until fall. Butter was churned at home, stored until cooler weather and then taken to market.

Harold Wilson’s The Hill Country of Northern New England is a major source of information on the history of agriculture in Vermont and New Hampshire and for this article. He writes that the shift from wool to dairying was not an easy decision for the average hill-country farmer. He did it only because he had to.

“The care of cows was a much less attractive task than the herding of sheep.” Milking was more confining and tedious, but for many it was “dairy or nothing.”

The spread of the railroad in the 1850’s provided better access to urban markets for area dairy products. Spurred on the attraction of better and surer returns, farmers “literally made a rush into the dairy.” By 1860 there were 175, 000 milch cows in Vermont, many of which were of a pure breed that would produce more and higher quality milk. There was increased attention to the care of animals and winter dairying was common. The Vermont Board of Agriculture reported that by 1870 there were 4.3 cows for every person in the state.

Raw milk was still highly perishable and so most of it was made into cheese and butter in commercial creameries. The introduction of the refrigerator railroad car led to the development of the Boston butter market. Between 1850 and 1865, cheese production increased to almost 2 million pounds per year and butter to over 3 million pounds per year. The St.Albans Creamery produced more butter than any other plant in the world. State production would peak at 22.4 million pounds of butter in 1899.

All the accounts of local towns describe this transition. Miller and Wells’ History of Ryegate states: “From the very first this has been a dairy town.” It was the source of wealth not only for Ryegate, but neighboring towns on both sides of the river.

The number of farms in Vermont peaked in 1880 at 35,522 with an average acreage of 138 acres. According to the 1888 Orange County Gazetteer, Orange County had 3,460 farms with 13, 072 milch cows producing 31,612 gallons of milk, 105,360 pounds of cheese and over 1.4 million pounds of butter.

After that, according to Wilson, Vermont farming passed from “a system of extensive farming to that of specialized and intensive dairy farming.” The number of farms began to decrease as farmers bought out their less successful neighbors. At the same time, rail connections with the mid-west meant that the butter and cheese industry faced stiff competition from Wisconsin and Minnesota.

At the turn of the 20th century, hill-country farmers turned to fluid milk as the one product that could stand in the face of competition. As farms closer to the northeast urban centers turned to truck farming, the increased demand for milk was met by area producers. By 1900 the number of cows in Vermont had increased by half over the 1870 figure, while New Hampshire experienced a 27 percent growth. One half of the farms in Vermont and one-third of those in New Hampshire had dairy as their largest “crop.”

This change was aided by a number of improvements. Silos came into use for storing forage crops. Agricultural experiment stations were created and state departments of agriculture were established. The milk separating machine was invented. As health regulations and testing procedures made milk safer, the drinking of milk was encouraged. Additional creameries and milk companies were established in most area towns.

Farmers’ organizations were created to inform producers of these scientific improvements along with better methods of marketing. They also sought to represent farmers’ interest in political issues. Local agricultural fairs allowed farmers to view new machines and learn of new methods while entering their livestock and products in competition. The creation of the Extension Service provided county agents as a valuable aid to farmers.

Farmers made the daily trip to the local creamery or railroad shipping station, their milk transported in 40-gallon cans. While there was a brief drop in milk production in the ten years following a high in 1899, the flow of fluid milk to market became a “river of milk” by the 1920’s. Pasteurized fresh milk was made available to households in sterilized bottles.

This growth was not without its problems. Diseases such as hoof and mouth disease and bovine tuberculosis decimated some herds. Control of the market by a few dealers often meant that farmers were underpaid for their milk. Other problems included the uneven production caused by seasonal surplus, the high rates for transportation and the introduction of oleomargarine. The independent nature of most farmers made it difficult to organize to deal with some of these problems. .

The economic problems of the 1920’s and 1930’s had their impact on dairy farmers. The flood of 1927 was “the most staggering blow that Vermont agricultural interest had ever received.” In New Hampshire the number of cows continued to decline, although the fertile valleys of Haverhill, Piermont and Lyme were still productive. In Vermont, the number of farms and farm acreage also continued to decline, but the value of farm products increased.

The early 1930’s saw the price and sale of fluid milk drop dramatically. In 1932 the returns that dairy farmers received for their milk was more than 50 percent below 1929 prices. The cost of production remained high. Weekly, the front page of Bradford’s United Opinion carried the news of attempts by area farmers to secure a more stable milk-marketing program. The establishment of federal marketing agreement in 1933-35 had a stabilizing effect on the price farmers received.

The 1930’s saw the introduction of electricity to some valley farms. This was a tremendous boost that allowed for the use of milking machines and improved refrigeration. As electricity did not reach more rural areas until the 1940’s, some farmers purchased generators or continued to milk by hand and cool with ice harvested in the winter. Harry Brainerd of Corinth, the fourth generation to farm his place, recalls that Rural Electrification Act was a “godsend.”

In the late 1930’s Rebecca Nailey, writing in West Newbury for the Federal Writers’ Project, described what she saw as the typical Vermont dairy farmer: “Four-thirty in the morning and no matter what the season nor the weather, all over Vermont, barn doors began to creak and milk pails to clatter, as some 40,000 farmers started their day’s chores. In low river farms sprawled out on the banks of the great Connecticut, in rich upland farms whose rolling fields clothe the nether hills and in high out-back farms where timid clearings cling among the out-cropping of shale and granite, life begins at four-thirty the year around”.

“In winter, the farmer, this servant of the productive cow, walks beside his shadow dancing from a dangling lantern or thrown by the high-arched goose-neck over shed and barn door. In summer he rises to the clarion call of cock flung challengingly from the barnyard fence”.

“In the early dews and damps of morning, in the late afternoon snow or heat these chores must be done, come what may. The farmer is tied to his farm day in and day out. The seasons bring their minor changes, but even these, with the repetition of year stacked upon year, become an old story.”

Much as changed in the seventy years since that description was written. Bulk tanks, artificial insemination and increased mechanization are just three of the changes that caused major shifts in the industry. The number of dairy farms has fallen in each decade although production per cow has steadily increased. In May, 2011, it was announced that the number of dairy farms in Vermont had declined below 1000. The best estimates place the current number of dairy farms in Orange County at 102 , 3 of which are in Fairlee and 4 in Bradford. Grafton County has about 40, with 6 in Piermont, 8 in Haverhill and 3 in Orford.

Some characteristics of dairy farming have not changed in the century past. Farming is still hard work. Farmers are still at the mercy of weather, disease and the market. Currently, a global milk glut has wiped away dairy profits.
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On the Bradford-Fairlee line there are three farms that represent the face of area dairy farming today. Larry Martin operates the small farm he purchased from his father and single-handedly milks 30 cows. It is tucked between two very large farms. To the north is Knoxland, operated by Paul Knox and Mary Pitman. To the south is the Newmont Farm, operated by Walter and Margaret Gladstone. Each of these milk almost one thousand cows. All three use land acquired from farms that no longer operate.
Despite the differences, these three farms are operated by those who grew up in and are sustained by a love for the dairying way of life. This month recognizes the continuing contributions of farmers like these to our area. Raise your glass of milk in salute to them.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the interesting history of dairy. Hopefully, farming will remain a viable option in our state. Danville has 9 farms still shipping milk, one a brand new one. I raise a glass of milk to salute them.
    Sharon

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  2. What about the farms that are struggling due to the price of milk? I raise my glass to them. They are barely keeping their head above milk and they keep going strong looking for hope at the end. Thank you.

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  3. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I think I will leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

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  4. Jen (Titus) JohnsonMay 18, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    Thank you - this is amazing! I grew up in Fairlee, and work at Dartmouth College where I'm currently taking a MALS course on oral history. My project is "Farming in Fairlee" and I have spoken with several farmers or former farmers including Larry Martin, the Ordways/Pakers, Herb Hodge and Pastor Dick Hodge. This is a great resource for me! Thanks again!
    Jen (Titus) Johnson

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