Thursday, March 31, 2011


Through the years many changes have taken place in Vermont Agriculture; the sheep industry was just one of those.  In last week’s blog posting, I discussed the reasons for the decline in the Merino sheep industry in Vermont.  The industry spanned a number of years, from the beginning of the 1800’s well into the early part of the 1880’s, with breeding stock being sold around the world, but that too eventually came to an end.  Transportation and production costs, the end of industry protective tariffs, and competition from distant locations all contributed to this collapse. Even in these early years Vermont farmers demonstrated a great ability to adapt to change.  The chart below captures some of the specific time periods of these changes:

                           Approximate Timeframes for Vermont Agriculture

                                    Product                            Timeframe

                                     Grains                              1790-1820
                                     Sheep and horses             1820-1850
                                     Cattle raising                    1830-1870
                                     Butter and Cheese            1840-1915
                                     Fluid Milk and Cream     1900-
                                     Maple                               1760-

                            (From “Studies in Vermont” by Robert Carter)

These changes happened over time due to many different factors although economics played a major role.  The early settlers practiced diversified and extensive agriculture as a means of livelihood for their families and their farms.  Most of what the early farmers grew was used on the farm.  Only the excess produce was sold or bartered to buy those necessities that could not be raised.  As urban areas grew and demand for products increased the farmers responded with increased production of farm products.  With the opening of the Champlain and Erie Canals, and then the railroads, their products could more easily reach distant markets.  These transportation modes also opened farmers up to more competition from those markets in other parts of the country.   For example it is stated, “by 1826 the State was importing 15,000 barrels of flour per year”.  Before this time, flour in the state had been made exclusively from Vermont grains.  Now having seen the loss of being the major grain-producing region of the Northeast, they were not only not exporting grains but were having to import much of what they used.  Vermont farmers had also seen the dire economic realities as western beef and wool, as well as grain forced a change in the production in Vermont of these commodities to other products of value such as butter and cheese.


One can find an example of the type of diversified production in the types of crops grown and livestock raised, practiced by most Vermont farmers on family farms in the diary of Roxanna Watts.  Her diary, in the year 1866 from Peacham, Vermont,  (see Roxana’s Children) records activities on the farm;  “sugaring in the spring; planting oats, wheat, potatoes, beans in May; shearing sheep and “drawing muck”—spreading of manure in June; harvesting hay in July and August and cutting oats and wheat; In September cutting corn, picking apples, and marketing sheep and lambs.  In October and November, husking corn, plowing and picking and drawing stone.   All this in addition to the daily chores.”

An additional example of this diversification can be found in The History of Vermont (Crockett, Vol. 3).  It states “in 1850 Vermont had 29,763 farms with an average value per acre of $19.09 (which in today’s dollars would be approximately $550.00 per acre).  In the State there were 146,128 milch cows (notice the spelling), 154,143 horses, 1,014,122 sheep, and 66,296 swine.  During this time, the following agricultural products were produced in the state:  12 million pounds of butter; 9 million pounds of cheese; 3.4 million pounds of wool.  Other products included: 2 million bushels of corn; ½ million bushels of wheat; 2 million bushels of oats; 42 thousand bushels of barley; 176,000 bushels of rye; 209,000 bushels of buckwheat; 105,000 bushels of field beans; 5 million bushels of potatoes 866,000 tons of hay; $315 worth of orchard products; 20 thousand pounds of flax; 288,000 pounds of hops; 260 pounds of silk in cocoons; 6 million pounds of maple sugar; 5.697 gallons of maple syrup; and 249,000 pounds of honey.  In the Fourth Report of the State Board of Agriculture in 1877 it is stated “ that 90% of what is consumed is raised in the State of Vermont.  The State exports 50% of its oats, 80% of its potatoes, 2/3s of its butter, but imports 40% of its flour and 50% of its meats.”

The above diversity of production in early Vermont agriculture illustrates that farmers have always realized that their existence depended and still depends upon their ability to adapt to the pressures of changing economic times.

Some interesting happenings from this period of the 1800’s:

  • The legislature in 1835 passed an act to encourage the growing of silk.  The State Treasurer was authorized to give a bounty of 10 cents for each pound of cocoons “raised or grown.”  Some, but a very little was grown in the years 1835 through      1850.
  • In 1829 “Fairbanks Brothers added a new line of business, the purchase and preparation of hemp.”  Due to the inaccurate method of weighing this product, the brothers invented the platform scale, which became their business.
  • Intoxicating liquors were an issue during the early part of the 1800’s according to documents (see Crockett History of Vermont, Vol. 3).  It is stated that cider brandy as well as corn and rye whiskey were made in large quantities.  There were said to be two hundred distilleries in the State of Vermont with many towns having one or more. In 1810 alone there were 125 distilleries in the State making 173,000 gallons of apple brandy (U.S. Census of 1810). This period came to an end with the Temperance movement with legislation in 1852 that prohibited the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor as a beverage but ‘permitted its use for sacramental purposes.”
  • Horse raising and trade was an important agricultural activity in the early years according to records.  For example, “Randolph and Royalton furnished many to export and to the driving-horse trade.  The cheaper grades being sold as streetcar horses.  Mule colts were also raised for the West Indies sugar trade.” (See Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future).
  • Hops was an important crop in the 1800’s as well.  According to data, by 1850 Vermont was second to New York in production.  That represented 8% of U.S. production (see History of Hops in Vermont).  Eventually this industry, due to economics, moved westward as well.
  • The legislature of 1779 required each town to care for the poor, and this was based upon the “poor laws of England.”  Poor farms were established throughout Vermont.  The intent was for these to become self-sufficient with crops sold as income, with labor coming from those sent there as being poor and paupers. (See  The establishment of these farms also demonstrated the importance of agriculture to local communities.

Blogger’s Comments:  Over time Vermont farmers have always shown an ability to adjust to changing economic conditions, and this was especially true with the decline of the Merino sheep industry.  There was a slow progression after that time to dairy farming with more specialization in butter and cheese production.  Next week’s blog posting will begin with information on how that specialization came about and what influenced the growth in butter and cheese production in the State in the mid to late 1800’s.

Sources and References for this week’s blog posting:

  • Vermont, A History of the Green Mountains by Edmund Fuller, State Board of Education, Montpelier, 1952
  • Remember the Poor”(Galatians 2:10): Poor Farms in Vermont by Steven R. Hoffbeck, the Vermont Historical Society, Vol 57, No. 4, Fall 1989.
  • Climate, Cropping, and Society in Vermont, 1820-50 by David Demeritt, Vermont Historical Society, Vol. 59, No. 3, Summer 1991.
  • Freedom and Unity, A History of Vermont by Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions and P. Jeffery Potash, Vermont Historical Society, 2004.
  • The Vermont of Today by Arthur F. Stone, Vol. 11, Lewis Historical Publishing Co. Inc., NY, 1929
  • Vermont, A Guide to the Green Mountain State, 3rd Edition Revised, Edited by Ray Bearse, Houghton Miffin Co., Boston, 1968.
  • History of Vermont by Walter Hill Crockett, Vol. three, The Century History Co., Inc. NY, 1921
  • Reports of the State Board of Agriculture:  1874, 1877, 1889-90.
  • Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future, The Vermont Commission on Country Life, 1931.
  • Studies in Vermont, History, Geography and Government by Robert M. Carter, Carter and Co., St. Johnsbury, 1937
  • The Road Less Traveled: Rural Northern New England in Global Perspective, 1815-1960, A dissertation presented by Christopher Harris to the Department of History In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy In the field of History.  Northeastern University, May 2007.
  • History of Hops in Vermont by Jeremy Perkins, a paper.
  • Vermont Railroad Timeline, Freedom and Unity, Vermont Historical Society
  • Roxana’s Children, The Biography of a Nineteenth-Century Vermont Family by Lynn A. Bonfield and Mary C. Morrision, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995

Last week’s trivia question:  What was the first railroad chartered by the Vermont legislature?

Answer:  The first chartered railroad was a line from Rutland to Whitehall, New York in 1831.  It was never built.  The first built was the Vermont Central in 1843 (see Vermont Railroad Timeline, Vt. Historical Society).

Trivial question for next week:  Which town in Vermont became the butter capital of the world in the latter part of the 1880’s?

Edition 5, April 1st 2011

1 comment:

  1. 1.6 million sheep in 1840 (per your previous post) and 1.0 million sheep in 1850 (above). Wow! What a decline in one decade! Maybe it was a bubble, like the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s. Let's hope we don't see bubbles like that in other Vermont agricultural commodities, like, say, maple taps.

    Answer to trivia question: "Butter production in Vermont reached its peak about 1899. In that year the state produced about 40 million pounds of butter and five million pounds of cheese. St. Albans, Vt., boasted the largest butter-making creamery in the world at that time, its output reaching two million pounds in a single year."

    From "This Milk Problem," Circular No. 95, by Harry R. Varney, published by UVM Extension, June, 1937.

    Roger, two questions. I know that it takes roughly 10 lbs of milk to make 1 lb of cheese. How many lbs of milk does it take to make 1 lb of butter? And do you know how many lbs of cheese are made in Vermont each year now?