Saturday, October 29, 2011


At the 1st Annual Farm-To-Plate Network Gathering at Lake Morey Inn on October 3rd and 4th of 2011, I was asked to address the above subject.  While the flood of 1927 is considered by many to be the greatest natural disaster in Vermont in the last 100 years, the recent storm called Irene created great damages to farms, buildings, businesses, bridges and highways, and travel.  It is difficult to draw comparisons, as when individuals’ lives and livelihoods are disrupted, it does not matter if it is 1927 or 2011.  Nevertheless, we can learn from the past as well as from current events, and this is the purpose of this comparison.


In previous blog postings I have covered the history of Vermont agriculture from the settlements that began after the French and Indian War.  From the early period when the settlers were subsistence farmers, to the growth of cities and towns and early commercial agriculture, Vermont agriculture was always in a condition of change.  Vermont farmers were diversified farmers from the beginning, and adjusted their production over the years according to the needs of nearby and regional markets.  Waterborne transportation was important, on both Lake Champlain and, with the connection to the rest of the U.S., through the Champlain Canal, and also down the Connecticut River through the locks to Hartford, Connecticut. Until the beginning of the railroads after the late 1840’s this was the main means of transporting Vermont’s products to market.


Vermont was primarily an agricultural state with about thirty percent of its population of over three hundred and fifty thousand engaged in farming or related industries.  Of the then twenty-seven thousand farms in the State, over one half received their income from dairy farming.  After the early 1900’s, Vermont farmers had become major suppliers of milk to regional markets, with eighty-five percent of the milk produced going out of state, with railroads being the major means of transportation. For example, fifty percent of Boston’s milk came from Vermont.  Vermont had the highest level of dairy production per capita of any state, and was the most dairy dependent.  Also, since the demise of the merino sheep industry in the 1850’s, dairy production had further migrated to the better river valley lands.

Much has been written about this period (see references). There was not any advance warning system like today, nor any long-range radar, cell phones, TV, instant messaging or facebook.  Not all rural towns had electricity.  It had been a very wet October in Vermont.  On November 2, 3,and 4th, two great storms collided over the state.  One came from the Gulf of Mexico and the other from the Great Lakes, dropping up to nine inches of water on a already water drenched land mass in a forty-five hour period.  In one comparison, it was said that it was like “one cubic mile of the Atlantic Ocean being deposited on the State.”  According to records from that time, “in a single day, Vermont was deprived of all modern conveniences; mail, telegraph, telephones, lights, gas, piped water, highways, railroad connections.  The State had been set back a Century.” (See Vermont of Today by Arthur Stone).

There are many tragic stories from this period, and stories of heroism too.  Neighbors helped neighbors, communities helped other communities, and strangers helped those in need.  President Coolidge dispatched his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to the State, where he made the statement “I have seen the worst of Vermont but the best of its people.” Federal assistance was requested and provided.  The Red Cross took full responsibility for finding housing and medical relief.  Some eight thousand Vermonters were provided with food, shelter and medical relief.  Over one million dollars came in from contributors in other states.  New England banks pledged one million dollars in capital stock to guarantee low interest loans to farms, businesses, and other industries.  The State legislature appropriated eight million for two hundred miles of new roads.  It is said that Vermont officials did not hesitate to cut red tape to deal with immediate needs.


The Flood created a spirited sense of partnership at all levels within Vermont. While work was immediate to repair infrastructure, there was a yearning for developing a vision and plans for the future, to use all the positive energy to move Vermont forward.  This was to build upon the strengths of the past, but with an enlightened plan. “The great flood of November 1927, and the magnificent response to the call for concerted effort awakened in Vermonters a fuller sense of their powers and gave them a new impulse which will be felt for years to come.” (Country Life Commission Report). Thus in the spring of 1928, just six months after the flood, the Vermont Commission on Country Life was organized.  Chaired by Ex Governor Weeks (who had been raised on a Salisbury dairy farm and was Governor during the flood), it was the first time a group of Vermonters formally assessed the State of the State and planned for the future.  Funded by the Social Science Research Council and the Rockefeller Foundation, it was a plan for rural rejuvenation and development in Vermont, thus a blueprint for the future.  Its Executive Director was Henry C. Taylor, one of the noted national agricultural economists of the time, and later to become the first Executive Director of the Farm Foundation.  Some three hundred Vermonters were asked to participate in the effort over a three-year period. (My wife’s grandfather, Dr. E.H. Bancroft chaired the dairy committee).  It was a very thorough and comprehensive assessment of all aspects of Vermont: people, soils and climate, agriculture, forestry and the woodworking industry, summer residents and tourism, fish, game and the preservation of wild life, land utilization, rural home and community life, recreation, medical facilities for rural people, education facilities for rural people, the care of those in need, rural government, and other topics.  The report set the agenda for the next few decades.


What then U.S. Secretary of Commerce Hoover said about Vermont in 1927 is true today as well.  “I have seen some of the worst of Vermont, but the best of its people.”  The response at all levels to the damages caused by Irene was immediate, with help being provided to those in need.  The stories of heroic actions are known, people risking their own lives to help.  In agriculture, land was flooded and many crops were destroyed, and in a few cases animals were lost. The response from many was immediate: The Governor, like his predecessor, Governor Weeks in 1927, requested federal assistance.  Unlike 1927, procedures exist today for requesting disaster declarations from the federal level, and a very extensive network of agencies, organizations and others exist to provide assistance to those in need too.


There is a so-called “Renaissance of the Past” going on in local and regional food systems today as consumers develop an interest in knowing where their food comes from.  In Vermont this is being expressed in many ways.  These include but are not limited to: the growth of artesian and other specialist products such as cheeses, expansion of farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA’s), new vineyards with specialty wines and other spirits, the expansion of so called “food hubs” within the State, increased sale of local produced foods to institutions, more farm raised beef and other animal meats, increased vegetable production, pick your own fruit operations, a well known farm to school program, expanding maple operations, and other emerging products.  These enterprises come from existing farmers as well as a new generation of farmers. While dairy still represents over seventy-five percent of the gross revenue to agriculture, there is an increased degree of diversification taking place within Vermont.
This “new” diversification is reminiscent of the kind of farming our ancestors practiced.

Like the period following 1927 Flood, Vermonters want a vision for the future, something that can inspire them.  In agriculture it is fortunate that a lot of work has been taking place over the past to address longer-term needs for an economically viable agriculture sector within a working landscape.  The Farm to Plate assessment has identified a number of specific needs in its ten-year plan or vision for the future.  Likewise, the Working Landscape Council has developed a five point action plan for the future that if implemented would create jobs related to agriculture and forestry that are so important to what Vermont is known for.  Both plans require bold policy leadership going forward.  They both recognize that a majority of Vermonters surveyed want a Vermont that is economically viable and sustainable, with agriculture and forestry at its core.  As Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross stated at the Farm to Plate Fairlee Conference, “it will take capital, collaboration, and the willingness of all to roll up our sleeves for these common objectives.”  2011 is not 1927, but as President Coolidge stated when he returned to Vermont in 1928, “Vermont is a State I Love.”  To deal with the future, we too must understand the past.

Note:  It was just over two years ago that National Geographic rated Vermont as the number five place in the World to visit and the number one place in the United States to visit.  They attributed this to our landscape and quaint villages, and to the fact that there is a plan for the future.  Thus, it is time that we Vermonters collectively do something similar to what was done in 1928; develop a vision and a plan for Vermont’s future coming out of the period of Irene.


See information on Farm to Plate
See Working Landscape Action Plan at:


It is a time of significant change in Vermont agriculture.  The interest in food systems has created an excitement at many levels within the State.  While dairy still represents the major agricultural enterprise, and is subject to farm gate pricing challenges, there is still recognition that the State’s dairy sector is the anchor of the Vermont’s agriculture and working landscape while maple is the soul.  All types of agricultural production are important just as it always has been. The ingredients for success have been studied at many levels.  As mentioned in my blog posting “Tipping Points”, some of the leaders in agriculture in 1872 recognized the importance of the growing markets of the east to the economic health of Vermont’s agriculture.  They said, after witnessing the loss of the Merino sheep industry, the butter market, and the beef trade due to competition, that it was useless to compete with the West on a commodity basis. (“…. only those will prosper who use their minds in studying how to cater to the demands of this growing market and this changing state of things.”)  Catering to the local and regional markets with value added and other products that meet the needs of consumers is what will sustain Vermont agriculture longer term.  Many believe this is the case today. The Working Landscape five point action plan, as well as recommendations from the Farm-to-Plate assessment, provides some steps to take on investment, capital, infrastructure, and educational needs to achieve goals relative to a viable agricultural and forestry economy in Vermont.

References and Sources for this blog posting

  • Agriculture of Vermont, First Annual Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture of the State of Vermont, 1909.
  • Agriculture of Vermont, Fourteenth Biennial Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, State of Vermont, 1926-1928.
  • Chapter XI, “The Great Flood of 1927”, and Chapter XII, “How Vermont Came Back”, in The Vermont of Today, Vol. 1, by Arthur Stone, Lewis Historical Publishing Co., Inc. 1927.
  • Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future by Two Hundred Vermonters, The Vermont Commission on Country Life, Burlington, 1931.
  • New England Flood Disaster, November 1927, Official Report of the Relief Work, American National Red Cross, 1927.
  • 1927 Flood, Landscape Change Program, University of Vermont.
  • Vermont’s Greatest National Disaster, Vermont Historical Society.
  • Why Coolidge Said “I Love Vermont”, 2005-2009, Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 97, Plymouth, Vermont.
  • The Troubled Roar of the Water: Vermont in Flood and Recovery, 1927-1931, by Deborah Pickman Clifford and Nicholas R. Clifford.
  • “Vermont Commission on Country Life, 1931, in Vermont Today by Rutland Herald and Times Argus.
  • The 1927 Flood in Vermont and New England, November 3-7, 1927: A Historical and Pictorial Summary. Misinger, William Elliot.
  • A State of Nature: Readings in Harford History. Samuel B. Hand.
  • Doyle: A tale of two Vermont floods, by Opinion, September 12, 2011, in

Answer to Last Trivia Question:  When was the Vermont Department of Agriculture established?  A law was passed in 1908 that abolished the Board of Agriculture and replaced it with the position of Commissioner of Agriculture appointed by the Governor.  In his first Report (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture in 1909), Commissioner Orlando L. Martin recommended the abolishment of the Farmers’ Institutes that had been held by the Board of Agriculture, and in its place the establishment of Movable Schools of Agriculture such as have been adopted by some sister states.  Something of this sort, according to Commissioner Martin, was the First Annual Farmers’ Week held under the direction of the State Agricultural College and Commissioner of Agriculture, March 8-12, 1909.

Trivia Question:  Which counties in Vermont had the greatest hops production and in what years?

Edition No. 13, October 29, 2011