History shows that dairy started slowly in Vermont. The commercial dairy industry in Vermont did not begin until the demise of the world-renowned Marino sheep sector in the mid-1800s. It started slowly at first with butter being the main product produced on the farm. Dairy, from the beginning, has been well suited for our state’s grassland economy. By the mid to late 1800’s there was a growth in local creameries due to the fact that milk could not be shipped long distances. For example, by 1900 there were 186 creameries and 66 cheese factories in the state. By the mid to late 1800’s St Albans was known as the butter capital of the world, with one butter train per week leaving for the Boston Market. Buyers from as far away as New York and Boston came to the town each week to bid on blocks of butter, and by 1880 one-forth of the state’s butter production came from that area. There was increased attention to dairy cow genetics as many farmers came to realize that making good butter required good milk and more than milking the old family cow. Entire new support industries, like the butter tub factories in Montgomery and Stowe, Vermont, and the Vermont Machine Factory in Bellows Falls that made butter churns, grew up around the butter trade. During this period, Vermont butter won international awards for best butter in the world.
Laws were enacted at the state and national levels to protect this industry. For example, it was unlawful to serve any butter imitation product at any place of business in the state. When margarine was introduced, it was illegal to sell the product except in its original white color or form (some might remember the yellow coloring sold separately from the margarine in the way distant past.)
Changes in demand and in the industry itself took place when nearby cities reached out for fluid milk in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Producing and shipping fluid milk to urban markets in other states created some new challenges for dairy farmers in Vermont. They now depended on others for shipping and for marketing and they had to comply with new health requirements. This led to the establishment of dairy cooperatives within Vermont and nationally to better control pricing and quality standards. The first milk train left Bellows Falls, Vermont for Boston in 1890. By 1928 the profitability of Vermont’s dairy farmers was linked to the fluid market. Today about $400 million of sales come from fluid milk and $650 million from cheese, with the remainder of the $1.3 billion in sales from other products like yogurt and ice cream.
A lot has changed over the years and continue to change as in any industry sector linked to national and international markets. Today the 850 plus dairy farms are family owned with the majority having less than 200 cows. Five percent of the 321 million gallons of milk sold is certified organic, and dairy cooperatives are important to those sales. It is no wonder that dairy still is so revered in our state with 97% of Vermonters saying that this industry is important to the state, its beauty, and way of life.
In 1937, June was designated as National Dairy Month as a way of promoting the drinking of milk. As we think about Vermont’s dairy industry and its importance to our state today, join your neighbors across the nation, as well as the state, in celebrating June as dairy month.
By Roger Allbee, former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets
He does a blog on the History of Vermont Agriculture at: whatceresmightsay.blogspot.com