Journal Opinion June 28, 2023
YOGURT MAKER: This recent photograph shows Diane Wyatt of West Newbury pouring Jersey milk into the pasteurizer to make Sweet Cow Yogurt. The Wyatt family as been producing yogurt for sale since 2004. The yogurt is available at local outlets. )Courtesy photo)
The first European settlers in our area were farmers. Most of these farm families kept several “non-descript scrub” milch cows that provided milk, cheese, and butter for personal use. The now antiquated term milch referred to those animals kept explicitly for milk production.
The History of Corinth indicates that an annual yield of 125 pounds of milk per animal was considered good in the town’s early days. By 1800, some Vermont farmers began to raise livestock such as pigs, mules, beef cattle, and horses for export to regional markets. Of these experiments with livestock, sheep-raising was the widest spread.
Eventually, these efforts were lost to the competition from newly developed land in the west. But by the 1860s, even this was on the wane.
The dairy industry gradually filled this vacuum. The following examines some of the dairy products produced from the milk produced by New Hampshire and Vermont dairy farmers. As most producers mixed the making of butter and cheese, the history of those dairy products overlaps.
At first, butter and cheese production were minor industries, conducted mainly by housewives. These products allowed farmers to make use of highly perishable excess milk. Butter and cheese preserve the fats from milk for use in the winter. Many farms had “cheese house” outbuildings.
“Butter season” generally extended from when cows were let out in spring pasture until fall. Butter was churned at home, “put down” until cooler weather, and then taken to market.
The railroad’s arrival in the 1850s provided better access to urban markets for area dairy products. Spurred on by the attraction of better and surer returns, farmers “literally made a rush into dairy.” By 1860, there were 175,000 milch cows in Vermont.
Introducing breeds such as Holsteins and Jersey led to the production of larger quantities of high-quality milk. There was increased attention to the care of animals and winter dairying was common.
Raw milk was highly perishable and so most of it was made into cheese and butter in commercial creameries. The introduction of the refrigerated railroad car led to the development of the Boston butter market.
Between 1850 and 1865, Vermont’s 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. As the number of creameries doubled in the decade after 1890, state production peaked at 22.4 million pounds of butter in 1899.
Creameries were opened in Lyme and Bradford in 1888, serving farmers from surrounding towns. Soon Bradford Creamery was making nearly 2,000 lbs. of butter per week, much of it shipped to Boston. .
By 1900, Haverhill had three creameries. The following year a another opened in Woodsville. All of these creameries produced butter and/or cheese at first.
Miler and Wells’ History of Ryegate states: “From the very first, this has been a dairy town.” Dairy was the source of wealth for Ryegate, and neighboring towns on both sides of the river. A new co-operative creamery was created in Newbury in 1892, and four creameries were established in Ryegate the following years.
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 cheese annually.
Grafton County’s 1888 gazetteer reported 4,794 farms with 14,190 milch cows producing 153,104 gallons of milk, 1.4 million pounds of butter, and 201,455 pounds of cheese.
After that, Vermont farmers passed from “a system of extensive farming to that of specialized and intensive dairy farming.” The number of farms decreased as farmers bought out their less successful neighbors.
At the same time, rail connections with the Midwest meant that the butter and cheese industry still faced competition from Wisconsin and Minnesota. In response, the Vermont Butter and Cheese Makers’ Association was formed in 1898 to promote the sale of those dairy products.
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 center turned to truck farming, the increased demand for milk was met by area producers.
By 1900, the number of cows in Vermont had risen by half over 1870 figures, while New Hampshire experienced a 27% growth. One-half of the farms in Vermont and one-third of those in New Hampshire had dairy as their largest “crop.”
Famers made the daily trip to the local creamery or railroad shipping station, their milk transported in 10-gallon cans. It was then transported to market in iced railroad cars on the daily “milk train.” The flow of fluid milk to market became a “river of milk” by the 1920s.
The years that followed brought both positive and negative changes to the local dairy producers. The introduction of electricity allowed for the use of milking machines and improved refrigeration. There were significant fluctuations in both the price and sale of fluid milk, causing many farmers to reduce their herds. Economic problems of the 1920s and 1930s dramatically impacted dairy farmers. The flood of 1927 was “the most staggering blow that Vermont agricultural interests had ever received.”
The number of dairy farms has declined every decade since. In 2021 there were only 56 dairy farms in Orange County and 583 in Vermont.
During the heyday of dairy farming, The United Opinion frequently mentioned the price that local creameries paid for farm produced butter. In the 1890s there were also advertisements for homemade butter. Local butter box and tub manufacturing operations met the creameries’ needs.
As most milk was delivered from nearby farms, creameries were established in several locations within local towns. The East Topsham’s Green Mountain Creamery was organized in 1892 but closed in 1896 “for lack of patronage.” The more successful West Topsham Creamery began operation in 1893, and within a year, was producing 95,000 pounds of butter annually. It closed in 1929.
There were creameries in West Newbury, South Newbury, and Newbury village. Over the years, they consolidated with other local creameries. The Wells River Creamery produced butter and delivered it to both local stores and urban markets. It was later converted to cheese production.
In 1919, Cabot Co-op was formed. Their first product was Cabot butter, often sold under the Rosedale Brand. Today, all their butter, including that made from Vermont milk, is manufactured by Agri-Mark in West Springfield, MA.
In the 1920s, several local creameries were still making butter. In 1925, one article mentioned, “Vershire was right to be proud of her little creamery and the butter-maker.”
The introduction of oleomargarine after the 1870s brought a bitter conflict over its competition with dairy interests. Termed “bitter” or” bogus butter,” this product was promoted by the meat industry as a use for excess suet and by the cotton seed industry. The dairy industry conducted a campaign against oleomargarine.
One of the significant battles in the “Oleo Wars” was over the coloring of the bogus product to resemble real butter. Efforts by both New Hampshire and Vermont to require margarine to be colored pink, blue, or green were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court did uphold a special tax on the product itself.
By law, oleo was sold as a white block that looked like lard. Users had to mix the accompanying dye to make the product resemble butter. This federal regulation was overturned in 1950.
In the 1960s, health advocates began to promote plant-based alternatives to butter. This further damaged the butter industry.
Past and present, there are several examples of local home butter makers. Until the mid-1960s Bradford’s Golda Benjamin was known for what would now be artisan butter. Families would visit her home in what is now Farm Way’s gift shop to purchase molded imprinted butter.
Since 1988, Kathy Barrett of Lyme has continued a family tradition of butter making. On the River old-fashion sweet butter is produced from her 4-cow herd and sold at the Norwich Farmers Market and from her home.
Artisan or cultured butter is also currently being produced by other small operations such as Ploughgate Creamery in North Bennington. There is a growing market for butter, as recent evidence indicates that the moderate use of butter is not as harmful as previously thought.
Another dairy product that has risen in popularity is yogurt. It was introduced in Vermont and New Hampshire in the early 1950s. One of the first local yogurt advertisements appeared in 1951. It was for the Kilfasset Farms of Lyndonville.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the alternative food movement encouraged yogurt consumption. In 1972, a demonstration of Vermont yogurt making was featured at the Eastern States Exposition.
In 1969, Balkan introduced an electric home yogurt maker offering “fresh yogurt overnight.” In 1974 Salton Corporation introduced its popular household yogurt maker. It remained popular until commercial yogurt brands became more widely available.
Locally-made commercial yogurt brands began to be produced in New Hampshire and Vermont. Cabot brand yogurt was first advertised in 1971 and was widely distributed by the 1980s. Butterworks Farm of Westfield, VT began producing yogurt with milk from their Jersey herd in 1976. Stonyfield Farm of Wilton, NH began production in 1983 and, from its Londonderry facility, has grown to be the second leading brand of organic yogurt in North America.
In 2011, Green Mountain Creamery brand award-winning yogurt began production in Brattleboro. In 2013, the Vermont Yogurt Company of Orwell began producing yogurt from the thick butterfat of their Jerseys. Other New Hampshire producers include Huckins Farm in New Hampton, and Benedikt Dairy in Goffstown.
One local producer is Sweet Cow Yogurt of West Newbury. From a single Jersey the Wyatt family began to sell yogurt from a booth at the Norwich Farmers Market in 2004. In 2009, they became licensed and with an enlarged herd of three, they now sell 15 flavors of fruited yogurt in small cup containers at a number of local outlets.
Cheese-making has a long history in the area. At county fairs in the late 19th century, there were awards for the best homemade farm cheese. However, there was concern that skim milk cheese and “half-made cheese” were depressing the market.
In 1888, there were no local cheese factories, but by the 1920s several creameries produced cheese. The Bradford Creamery, established in 1889 as a cooperative, initially made butter from local milk, but changed to cheese production. Located on Creamery Road, it “enjoyed the reputation for producing the first cheese in this county.”
In October 1921, the creamery workers produced 250 boxes of Neufchatel and other fancy cheeses daily. The daily production of Greek cheese amounted to 600 pounds per day with shipments, to both domestic and foreign markets. Its dozen workers created these cheeses from a wide farming community. It was said that even after it closed, the odors of Greek cheese lingered.
In the 1930s, the Cabot Co-operative Creamery added the production of cheddar and cottage cheese. By the 1960s, their products were winning awards, including the World Champion for their sharp cheddar.
Country stores often featured a large wheel of country cheese, cutting wedges to meet customer requests. At home in Orford, we referred to this cheddar as “rat-trap cheese.” In typical kid fashion, we referred to softer cheeses as “stinky-feet cheese.”
In 1895 George Cochran wrote, “We hope the time will come when New England people will be able to detect good cheese and finding it will encourage it.”
That time has come. According to the Vermont Tourist website, there are more than 45 cheesemakers in Vermont. Using milk from sheep, goats, and cows, “the variety of cheese seems almost endless… more than 150 varieties available.” From the World Cheese Awards to the World Championship, Vermont cheeses are known worldwide.
There are several local cheese makers currently. Corinth’s Three Cow Creamery produces a variety of raw milk English and French cheeses for sale at the Norwich Farmers Market. The Robie Farm in Piermont produces toma and gruyere which they sell from their farm store on Rt 10.
Despite the sharp decline in the number of dairy farmers, there are still Twin State producers of quality cheese, butter and yogurt that make their products available at local outlets. Buying their offerings will confirm why so many of them are award winners.