Thursday, December 20, 2012


The farmer cooperative movement has a long and varied history in Vermont. Over the years farmer cooperatives have come and gone, influenced by the need for better pricing through joint marketing, collective buying of supplies, changing demographics, and challenges brought about by the ever changing market environment. At the state, regional, and national levels, the politics behind this cooperative movement has always been significant.  This blog reviews, very briefly, the history of the farmer cooperative movement, and its status in Vermont today. An entire book could be written on this rich history.

Why the European Model was Appealing to U.S. Agriculture and Rural America:
It is said that the model for the cooperative movement in the United States came primarily from Europe, and the heritage that many of the original settlers brought with them.  Often cited is the Rochdele Cooperative (weavers) and the resulting Rochdele cooperative principles, the primarily ones being “member owned, member controlled, and for member benefit.”  These principles, and the development of U.S. cooperatives are rooted in the upheavals that characterized the Industrial Revolution in England during 1750-1850 (see Univ. Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, Cooperatives in the U.S.). Accordingly it is stated that dairy cooperatives were among the first type of agricultural cooperatives organized in the U.S. with the first creamery being built in Goshen, Connecticut in 1810 (see Cropp and Graf, History and Role of Dairy Cooperatives).

In the United States a very extensive infrastructure has been developed at the federal level around the cooperative model for farmers and rural America.  Under the American and U.S. Commission of 1913 (see Senate Doc. No 214, Parts I, II, III, 63rd Congress) several U.S and Canadian representatives made an extensive trip throughout all of Europe in the spring and summer of 1913 to investigate the cooperative structure for rural credit. The Federal Loan Act of 1916 resulted, creating the Federal Land Bank (part of the Federal Farm Credit System) for farm mortgage lending. Other federal laws were also enacted.  These included the Clayton Act of 1914, and the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922 (giving limited anti-trust immunity to farmer marketing and bargaining cooperatives).  The Cooperative Marketing Act of 1926 created a division within USDA to promote cooperatives. The Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929 was created to deal with the supply and demand imbalance that existed in the United States at that time. It was seen as a way to increase farmer prices during the depression period.  It did this by creating a Federal Farm Board, which saw cooperative marketing as being essential to bring about economic relief to agriculture.  One quote from that time stated “at the present time nearly everyone from President Coolidge down is talking of Co-operative marketing as a cure for the ills which American agriculture faces.” (See: Fourteenth Biennial Report of the Vermont Commissioner of Agriculture, 1926-1928.)  Other laws soon followed to further aid rural America and cooperative development.  Some of these such as the Rural Electric Administration and the Rural Telephone Act are easily recognized. Both helped to bring electricity and communications to rural parts of the United States that were not well served by privately owned utilities, and thus encouraged further development in these regions.  Others, such as the Farm Loan Act of 1933, created a structure, through the Farm Credit System, to provide immediate short-term credit to farmers and a process for lending to farmer cooperatives (Bank for Cooperatives were established in the twelve Farm Credit Districts in the United States).

Support and Advocacy Structure:
Besides the infrastructure created through federal laws, a strong trade organization structure still exists that embraces the cooperative model as a way to transact business.  For example, the dairy cooperatives across the United States organized the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) in 1916. Diary cooperatives are said to be among the first type of agricultural cooperatives organized in the U.S. (see Cropp and Graff, History and Role of Dairy Cooperatives)).  The National Grange and the Farm Bureau Federation have been strong advocates for farmer cooperatives from the beginning of these two organizations.  The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, and the National Cooperative Business Association are likewise strong advocates for their member cooperatives, as is the National Rural Electric and National Rural Telephone Association, and the National Farm Credit Council, and the National Credit Union Association. In the Northeast region, Cornell University has established a Cooperative Enterprise Program; there still exists the Northeast Cooperative Council that grew out of the N.Y. State Council of Farmer Cooperatives that was organized in 1940. The dairy cooperatives have the Council of Northeast Farmer Cooperatives that primarily represents its members on national dairy policy issues. In Vermont the Green Mountain Dairy Cooperative Federation represents the dairy cooperatives on legislative issues within the state.  This list is not meant to be exclusive as there are other support organizations at the national and regional levels such as state and regional cooperative councils that also support the cooperative model.

Brief History of the Farmer Cooperative Model in Vermont:
The first cooperative market statute or state law was passed in Michigan in 1865 (see Univ. WI Zeuli and Cropp), and other states soon followed. The twenty-Sixth Annual Report of the then Vermont State Board of Agriculture in 1906 (before the establishment of the State Department of Agriculture) states that “unity of action ought or should be the watchword all along the line of farmers today.  Is it not possible for farmers of Vermont to unite to such an extent as to establish a market under their own supervision and in their own New England markets? The State Grange and State Farm Bureau were strong advocates behind the farmer cooperatives, as were Commissioners of Agriculture during this early period. “ For example, E.S. Brigham, Vermont Commissioner of Agriculture in 1914, stated in Sixth Annual Report of Agriculture for that year that “…it is good business for the state to assist in the formation of producer associations of permanent character, and to assist the associations in finding a market which will pay the highest price for good produced. The first step should be the enactment of a law similar to laws of Massachusetts, New York, and Wisconsin defining how cooperatives shall be organized.”  In 1915, the Vermont legislature enacted a law authorizing cooperative market association of farmers. Numerous local cooperative creameries (many towns had one or more) were formed in Vermont from 1915-1923. Cooperatives around other non-dairy products were created as well, such as the Vermont Maple Products Co-Operative Exchange, and the Shoreham Apple Cooperative. As cities reached out further for their milk and other farm-produced products, farmers joined together to leverage higher pricing for their products. 

There has been an attempt over a long period of time to build better cooperation among farmer cooperatives.  Cooperative organizations that existed in the past to provide joint marketing for price enhancement and market stabilization included the New England Milk Producers Association in 1922, Vermont Cooperative Creameries from 1920-1924. The New England Governors and many dairy leaders in the past worked to establish New England Dairies Inc. in 1932 as a way to eliminate destructive competition that deprived milk producers in the region of their “rightful share of the profit.”  The Boston Chamber of Commerce, in a study of the New England Dairy Industry during this time, recommended joint cooperative marketing as a way to assure better farmer prices.  Some of these challenges for the Vermont dairy industry have been discussed in past Whatceresmightsay blog postings (see May and August of 2012).

Cooperation among farmer cooperatives has often remained a challenge.  Commissioner of Agriculture E. H. Jones stated (see Thirteenth Biennial Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, 1924-26) “…Vermont producers must cooperate in delivering products of high quality if we expect to receive good prices.”  He went on to say, a few years later (see Nineteenth Biennial Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, 1937-38) “with eighty percent of dairy products exported from the state, the most important issue at stake is a system of marketing that is both equitable and workable.  This is a matter which has confronted Vermont dairymen for two or more decades and is still far from being settled.” (At that time there were twenty-two cooperative creameries in Vermont operating fifty-three plants).

Today’s Vermont Dairy Farmer Cooperatives and the Challenges Ahead:  Cooperatives have been an essential part of the marketing of milk and further processed dairy products in Vermont and the region for many years.  Consolidation has continued within the cooperative community at the state, regional, and national levels as the number of dairy farms have continued to decline.  Examples include the formation of Dairy Farmers of America and its affiliated DMS (dairy marketing services, and its relationship with St. Albans Cooperative), the acquisition of Cabot by AgriMark Cooperative in the 1990’s, and the growth of the organic dairy cooperative, Organic Valley.  Serving both large and small producers continues to be a challenge for the remaining cooperatives (treating members equally or equitably based upon size and milk volume), as does the need for additional capital beyond what is available from member equity.

There have been many studies and reports on agricultural cooperatives throughout the years. Some of the more recent studies have dealt with those cooperatives that still exist today.  (See USDA Cooperative Information Report 60).   For example, these and other reports state “consolidation of firms at the processing, wholesale, and retail levels of the U.S. food marketing system continues unabated and the market influence and bargaining strength of even the largest cooperatives are limited as a consequence.”  Other studies have reached similar conclusions relative to the challenges.  “The ability of cooperatives to access sufficient capital for their operations is of course, one of the most discussed issues among co-op leaders and researchers.  As agriculture becomes more industrialized, the need for capital at the processing and marketing levels increases.  The question by case studies is whether cooperatives are able to access sufficient capital from their members to be able to compete in these markets.”(See Centre for the Study of Cooperatives Report).

Vermont and regional cooperatives are not immune to these and other challenges.  Cooperatives continue to provide an essential role in marketing their member-owner’s milk (all size farms in all locations, and 86 percent of all milk marketed to plants and dealers in U.S. was by cooperatives in 2002). Nevertheless, securing milk while providing member benefits as envisioned by cooperative principals, especially in a more deregulated marketing structure, continues to be a major challenge.  Other forces are in play as well.  The larger producers who supply the majority of the milk, may seek other outlets to include longer term contracts with processors, bypassing their cooperative all together thus reducing the pricing advantage of the cooperatives. Larger producers may also feel that they are unfairly subsidizing the transportation costs of the smaller producers.  Some smaller producers may elect to further diversify into value added.  This has been a growth sector in Vermont with eighty-six plants now processing less than five hundred pounds of milk per day.  Cooperatives, however, continue to provide an important marketing and balancing function in the market that cannot be easily over looked or ignored.

Much is expected from dairy cooperatives today, as in the past, but shielding dairy farmers from pricing risks in a more deregulated market is not easily achieved as has been noted by many studies.  The trends are not new, especially in a more deregulated market, and as milk production has been moving westward for many years, and the Northeast continues to be a milk deficit area.  Cooperatives continue to be challenged to demonstrate to ALL their members that the benefits of cooperatives membership and thus producer returns, outweighs alternative marketing structures or strategies and financial returns to the members themselves.

The June 14th, 2011 whatceresmightsay blog addressed many of these challenges.  As stated in that posting, markets and consumer needs are constantly changing. “In a future driven by technology, cooperatives face many challenges to include the need for more research and development, more aggressive product development and marketing, new manufacturing processing and technology, and equity financing to fuel these changes.  While Vermont dairy cooperatives are critical in the marketing and balancing of milk, they too lack the necessary capital for research and development of new products and their marketing. Entities such as O-AT-KA dairy cooperative in New York are often looked at as examples of the type of facility and the type of research and development in new products that should be coming from Vermont, with its brand recognition.  Some suggest that the current marketing approach by Vermont based dairy cooperatives may possibly lead to more fracturing of the milk supply within the dairy industry in the state as producers seek other outlets or alternatives to include direct long term contracts with processors, more on the farm value added production, and further movement to organic production.  Others may elect to discontinue operation due to costs and market volatility. To overcome these ever present challenges, many have suggested that the cooperatives need aggressive strategies that address an equitable balance between member and cooperative financial needs, as well as new forms of equity capital that does not take away from the farmer member control (these forms of equity ownership are now possible under new farm cooperative laws in many states). An extensive review of the literature and other studies and reports available, and cited in the reference section of this blog, raise many questions around the future role of dairy cooperatives in Vermont and the Northeast region, particularity around member financial benefits longer-term.  Cooperative members and others are asking many of the following questions today.

* Do the Cooperatives have a strategic plan or vision for the longer-term profitability of the cooperative that financially benefits their member owners? What is the strategic plan that addresses these issues in the next 5-10 years?
* How does the cooperative model, going forward, best benefit all sized producers in light of changing consumer demographics, changing consumption patterns and product demand as well as the impact of more open markets internationally?
* If dairy trade were opened between the U.S. and Canada, how would this impact dairy production and manufacturing in Vermont and the region?
* Do the cooperatives have sufficient capital to do the research, development, and marketing around value added products that can best financially benefit member owners going forward, and how does strategic partnerships with others work to the financial benefit of member owners?   If not what plans do they each have to secure such capital?
* What new initiatives are warranted to best assist in establishing and maintaining a viable dairy industry in Vermont going forward and are these advocated and supported by the dairy cooperatives?
*  Are the dairy cooperatives capable of reacting to market and other economic changes and reinventing their business strategies for financial success that benefits both their members and the cooperative?  What are these strategies?
* How does the continued consolidation within the dairy industry nationally, regionally, and within the State impact the current cooperative processing and marketing structure in Vermont and the region and how do these changes hinder or help, financially, their farmer members in the state and region?
*How can the cooperatives help their members as well as potentially new farmers to grow the region out of being a milk deficit area?
*  What role if any does or can the Land Grant System and Vermont Technical College provide in supporting dairy farmers and their cooperatives relative to new product research as well as related work around dairy farm and cooperative economic viability?
* What are other sources of equity besides member capital that a cooperative might access to achieve longer-term economic viability; and are these being considered?
Note: it has been stated in the USDA Report Agricultural Cooperatives in the 21st Century “perhaps the most important challenge facing cooperatives is accumulating equity capital.  Without sufficient equity, cooperatives cannot meet the external challenges they face or continue to grow and offer services members and consumers need.”
* Are there joint ventures and other forms of business structures that should be considered by cooperatives going forward in order to financially benefit their member owners in the future? (O-AT-KA model, for example).

The Vermont dairy sector is an essential part of our farm economy and, by references, its working landscape.  While there is no silver bullet, there are some encouraging signs to include the fact that many consumers today are interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it is grown, hence the interest in local and regional food systems.  An example of this is the growth that has occurred in farmstead cheese production over the last few years.

The Vermont farm leaders of the past recognized these challenges and concluded in the late 1800’s that the future was not in competing with the West, but in developing those products for the growing markets of the East…. but it would take continued study and work…and today other sources of capital.  The solutions are not ultimately in Washington, D.C. or in competition with the West.  It will continue to take bold and visionary leadership to address these issues going forward.  The majority of dairy farms in Vermont are dependent upon their cooperatives for supply chain management and the cooperatives on their members for product. New and invigorated approaches are needed around the cooperative Rockdele principles, as the landscape is full of those industries to include farmer cooperatives that ignored or failed to embrace change or to reinvent themselves as viable business entities. One international study addresses these challenges (see Cooperative Conversions, Failures and Restructuring).

“As agriculture becomes more industrialized, the need for capital at the processing and marketing levels increases.  The question by case studies is whether cooperatives are able to access sufficient capital from members to be able to compete in these markets.”

Blogger’s Comments: 
Farmer cooperatives have been a large part of my professional life.  My grandfather shipped his milk and bought his feed grain through a nearby cooperative, as did other neighboring dairy farmers.  My wife’s grandfather, a respected Vermont vet in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, managed the Granite City Cooperative Creamery in Barre, Vermont.  He was also the President of New England Dairies, an organization that strived to coordinate joint marketing of milk in the Northeast in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s “…through one centrally controlled channel and with the elimination of destructive competition that deprived milk producers of rightful share of profits”.  I saw the changes and challenges to the cooperatives when I was a member of the senior staff of the former Farm Credit and Farmer Cooperative Banks for the Northeast, and again when I was Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets for the State of Vermont.  The challenges are not new in one sense (need for better farm milk pricing), but more complicated in other ways (consolidation at retail and wholesale levels and inability to leverage for higher farmer pricing). There has been greater deregulation in the dairy industry (parity concept was eliminated in 1982), and the federal price support level has been significantly reduced moving the dairy industry to more unregulated marketing.  Consolidation within the dairy industry continues both nationally and within Vermont. One research report states “as the dairy industry moves into the next decade, growth in milk production will come from large-scale agricultural enterprises located predominately between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.  Expanding operations in the Northeast and Upper Midwest may not be able to make-up for the number of exits of smaller operations.” (See Outlook of the U.S. Dairy Sector The Next Decade). 

Attempts to stabilize milk production within the state with dairy profitability teams and other initiatives have been met with mixed success.  Initiatives to provide over-order pricing incentives through changes in state laws have not been possible for various reasons to include challenges to the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Buyers at the wholesale and retail level have immense market power today that make it difficult to leverage higher pricing for cooperative milk and milk products. “Consolidation of firms at the processing, wholesale, and retail levels of the U.S. food marketing system continues unabated and the market influence and bargaining strength of even the largest cooperatives are limited as a consequence.”(See Agricultural Cooperatives in the 21st Century). Even in 1929 this challenge was recognized nationally when there was less consolidation at the wholesale and retail marketing levels (see Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929), when it was stated “that the Farm Board (created by the Act) is not blind…that unless producers are able to formulate and carry out a program of producer stability, much of the efficiency of cooperative marketing is bound to be wasted.”

Dairy cooperatives provide an important function for their members, as farmers do not have to concern themselves with the marketing function or supply chain management and the costs and knowledge associated with gaining access to markets today. However, the expectations today, as in the past (see the Milk Problem), by members for fair and adequate pricing still exist.  Larger dairy farmers desire to be treated equitably based on size and volume, and not equally with all members regardless of volume or size. Cooperatives in a more deregulated and volitale market structure may not be able to depend upon member equity as in the past either.  Numerous studies on the future of farmer cooperatives in the 21st Century indicate that new and innovative business approaches will be needed in order to be successful in ever changing marketing structures that are occurring today and are likely to continue.


  • A Paper, “The Vermont Farmer’s Future”, by Rev. G. F. Wright of Bakersfield, Vermont, presented to the State Board of Agriculture at a meeting in St. Albans, March 6-7th, 1872.
  • A Paper, “Eastern and Western Farming”, by Lyman W. Peet of Cornwall, Vermont.  See Eight Report of State Board of Agriculture, 1883-1884.
  • First Annual Report, Agriculture of Vermont, 1909.
  • Agriculture of Vermont, Sixth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, 1914.
  • Agricultural Cooperation and Rural Credit in Europe. American and U.S. Commissions, 1913. Senate Doc. No. 214, Parts 1, 11, In 63rd Congress.
  • New England Grades and Standards Act, 1927, see Biannual Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, 1926-1928.
  • Thirteenth Biennial Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture of Vermont, 1924-1926, E.H. Jones Commissioner.
  • Fifteenth Biennial Report of Commissioner of Agriculture, State of Vermont, 1928-1930.
  • Nineteenth Biennial Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture of Vermont, 1937-1938, E.H. Jones Commissioner.
  • A Detailed Survey of Leading Markets for Vermont Products, see Eight Annual Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, 1916.
  • Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future, The Vermont Commission on Country Life, 1931.
  • This Milk Problem, by Harry R. Varney, The Vt. Agricultural Extension Service Cir. No. 95, June 1937.
  • Dairy Farming in the Northeast, Now and in the Future.  Springfield District Farm Credit Service, Nov. 1984. By James N. Putnam 11 and Raymond J. Nowak.
  • Agricultural Focus Group, Report to Governor’s Commission on The Economic Future of Vermont, November 1989.
  • The Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact Public Hearings Report, March and May 1989, by NY State Legislative Commission on Dairy Industry Development, June 1990.
  • The Evolution of Milk Pricing and Government Intervention in Dairy Markets, by Erick Erba and Andrew Novakovic, Cornell University Department of Agricultural Resource and Management Economics, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Pub. E.B. 95-05.
  • Vermont Farmstead Cheese Marketing Study, January-March 2006, Report by Jane Sakovitz-Dale.
  • Foundations for a Consumer-Driven Dairy Growth Strategy, by McKinsey & Company for the California Milk Advisory Board, Spring 2006
  • An Outlook of the U.S. Dairy Sector The Next Decade, by Keogh Ledman Associates, Inc., Mary Ledman, July 14, 2006.
  • The Impact of Globalization on the U.S. Dairy Industry: Threats, Opportunities, and Implications. Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, August 2009.
  • Vermont Historical Society, The Co-op Movement, Green Mountain Chronicles Radio Show.
  • Vermont Agriculture Viability Council Final Report, Vermont Council of Rural Development, January 2003.
  • Vermont Farmstead Cheese Marketing Study, January-March 2006, Prepared for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.
  • Future Structure of the Dairy Industry; Historical Trends, Projections and Issues, by Eddy LaDue et. al, Cornell Program on Agriculture and Small Business Finance, Department of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University, June 2003, R.B. 2003-01.
  • The Impact of Globalization on the U.S. Dairy Industry: Threats, Opportunities, and Implications, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, August 2009.
  • A Northeast Dairy Benchmark by Mark Stephenson, Cornell Program on Dairy Markets and Policy, 2009.
  • See Synergy LLC
  • Dairy Farm Crisis 2009, A Look Beyond Conventional Analysis, by John Bunting, Delhi, NY.
  • Cooperative in the Dairy Industry, USDA, Rural Development, Cooperative Information Report.
  • An Evaluation of Cooperative’s Comparative Strengths and Weaknesses in a Vertically Differentiated Agricultural Product Market, Discussion Paper for the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, by Tina L. Saitone and Richard J. Sexton.
  • Cooperative Conversions, Failures and Restructurings, Case Studies and Lessons from U.S. and Canadian Agriculture, edited by Murray Fulton and Brent Hueth, Knowledge Impact on Society Centre for the Study of Cooperatives, University of Saskatchewan.
  • A Final Decision and Report on the Proceedings of the Vermont Milk Commission, January 15, 2008.
  • America’s Milk Business in Crisis, The Wall Street Journal, December 10, 2012
  •, Consolidation in the U.S. Dairy Industry by Brian W. Gould, University of Wisconsin, Dept. of Agriculture and Applied Economics.
  • Agricultural Cooperatives in the 21st Century, USDA, Rural Business Cooperative Service, Cooperative Info Report 60.
  • Dairy Cooperative Growth Challenges: Technology, Ingredients (Proteins), and Equity Financing, USDA Rural Development, Research Report 206, May 2005.
  • Dairy Cooperatives Bulletin: Structural Change and Operations, by Robert Crop, University of Wisconsin, Center for Cooperatives, Bulletin No. 4, October 2002.
  • New Strategies for Mobilizing Capital in Agricultural Cooperatives, in FAO Corporate Document Repository, Economic and Social Development Department.
  • Dairy Cooperatives and Their Role in the United States, by Robert Jacobsen and Robert Cropp, Dairy Markets and Policy Issues and Options, Cornell University, August 1995.
  • The History and Role of Dairy Cooperatives by Bob Cropp, Truman Graf, January 2001, Univ. of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives.
  • Remarks to the New England Dairy Promotion Board by Roger Allbee, Nov. 19, 2010.
  • Seeking to Ensure the Future Viability of Vermont’s Dairy Industry, Report of the Thirty-Third Grafton Conference, The Windham Foundation, Grafton, Vermont, March 6-7, 2008, and December 15-16, 2008.
  • “Wisconsin Facing a Dairy Deficit,” by Ann Marie Ames, April 25, 2011, in, May 27, 2011.
  • “Vermont Dairy Sector: Is There a Sustainable Future for the 800 lb. Gorilla?” A paper by Dr. Robert Parsons, Vol. 1, No. 4, Opportunities for Agriculture, Working Paper Series, UVM Center for Rural Studies.
  • “Trends in the U.S. Dairy Industry”, by Joe Horner, Dairy Economist, Commercial Agricultural Program, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri.
  • “Upstate Niagara”, by James Dudlicek, in Dairy Facts Corporate Profile, August 2008.
  • “A Perspective on the Northeast Dairy Industry”, a presentation by David Galton, Cornell University.
  • See “Farm to Plate”, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.
  • See “The Working Landscape Initiative”, the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
  • Program on Dairy Markets and Policy Briefing Paper Series, The Chobani Paradox, Briefing Paper Number 12-03, Andrew M. Novakovic, Cornell University.
  • Choices Magazine, 3rd Qtr 2011, and Theme Overview: Critical Issues for Agricultural Cooperatives by Phil Kendel and John Park.
  • Rural Cooperatives, USDA Rural Development, January-February 2003, Agricultural Cooperatives in 21st Century, Are You Ready for Tomorrow.

Date of Blog Posting: December 20, 2012

Saturday, June 30, 2012


This is a recap of a presentation I gave at the Vermont Environmental Symposium at Middlebury College on March 20th of 2012. 

Vermont has a rich history of land use and of various approaches that have been used over the years to address environmental stewardship.  Laws, as well as regulations, have changed over time based upon scientific knowledge and public sentiment.  This blog posting traces some of these changes and why they may have occurred.


The majority of white settlements in Vermont occurred after the French and Indian War when the English gained control over the territory.  It is hard for many to believe today that Burlington, Vermont’s most populous city, was largely a forested area in 1792.  The early settlers cleared the forests, and the first commercial enterprise was the sale of potash, in great demand in England at the time.  Based upon what took place in clearing the land, it is often said that the settlers believed the soil was inexhaustible (Annual Report of Vt. State Board of Agriculture, 1872).  “These settlers practiced excessive and continuous cropping, they deluded the land for timber, and they did long and continued grazing of pastures without rotation.”  It was said  that “land was abundant and easy to acquire so it encouraged poor farming practices.” ( Agricultural Sciences, Vol II, Fertilizer Use in North America).

Some recognized the environmental problems associated with these land use practices.  One discussion said “early agriculture might be classified as mining or land speculation since the profits lay in the destruction of the most valuable asset of the country, the forest, in the destruction of the soil….” ( The Vermont of Today).  One of the most famous was Vermont Congressman George Perkins Marsh’s speech to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County on September 30, 1847 (these agricultural societies were the early places for education for farmers and predated the Extension Service).    In this famous and controversial speech, Marsh draws attention to the human impact on climate, the problems caused by the destruction of woods, and especially the effect on water and soil.  He calls for radical new approaches to environmental stewardship. “Some improvements”, he said, “are well worthy the zealous efforts of the agricultural associations of the state.”  He would go on to write many articles on this subject to include a report for the State Legislature in 1857 on the effect of the deforestation of forests on fish populations, but his most famous was “MAN AND NATURE” in 1864.   Others soon began to express similar views.  In a speech to the Vermont State Board of Agriculture in St. Johnsbury in 1871 on “The Fertility of our Soil, How Lost and How Restored,” Vermont farmer Jonathan Lawrence stated that soil fertility could best be improved by 1) composting of wastes, 2) composting muck and other key matter in swamps and low lands, 3) bringing back from the ocean salt, fish and other substances and testing these for value to the land, 4) planting green crop and top dressing with lime and fertilizer, 5) adopting the English custom that products from the soil should go to the market on foot and not in a wagon, and 6) the planting of forest crops on eroding soils.  Others had similar views at that time.  In a speech to the State Board of Agriculture in 1872, the Rev. G.F. Wright of Bakersfield stated, “The most valuable properties of his manures go off in unseen forms to infect the air with disagreeable odors or hurry down the streams to feed the Cod in the Gulf of Newfoundland.  Only by thorough and careful planning can the farmer save and utilize these elements.”  One other said, in what appears to be both a serious and humorous context “…a man, to be a good and successful farmer, must be smarter then the Governor of the State.  The study of manures is the radiating point of success.” (1887 State Board of Agriculture).


The Experiment Station: 
With the recognition by the 1800’s that Vermont farming and land clearing had dramatically changed the environment, actions had begun to change things as Marsh recommended in his speech to the Rutland County Agricultural Society.  The Land Grant Act in 1862 followed by the Hatch Act of 1887 that created the Experiment Station at the University of Vermont brought forth increased scientific focus and education to these concerns.  Both these initiatives were strongly supported by the then State Board of Agriculture.  For example in the 15th Report of the State Board of Agriculture in 1894-95 it is stated “work of Experiment Stations and agricultural schools on plant food, and functions of manure and proper use and abuse of elements of fertility have been of benefit in establishing the loss of fertility to farms by improper management.”  In establishing the Experiment Station at UVM as a partnership between the State, USDA, and the Land Grant College, the Vermont General Assembly in 1886 stated that it “was to conduct research in field of agriculture with special reference to conditions in the State of Vermont.”  A number of Experiment Station publications and later Extension efforts continued to address soil fertility (See 1908 Vt. Experiment Station Bulletin 135 by Dean Hills et al on Soil deterioration and soil humus).

Commercial Fertilizers: 
Commercial fertilizers were increasingly being used to help bring back fertility to the soils in the mid 1800’s, when they were introduced to North America (see Agricultural Sciences, Vol II).  As a result and due to concern over the quality of products sold, the State in 1882 passed a law authorizing fertilizer sales.  A license from the State of Vermont was required.  UVM was authorized to test the samples at $5.00 for each.  It was reported at the time “one of the greatest wastes in Vermont was over fertilization.”  In the First Annual Report of the State Agricultural Experiment Station in 1887 it is stated “the Station is prepared to analyze and test fertilizers, cattle foods, seeds, soils, milk and other agricultural materials and products, to identify grasses, weeds and useful or injurious insects and to give information on various subjects of agricultural science for the sue and advantage of the citizens of Vermont.”  One early analysis during this period was of the waters of Lake Champlain and of various proposed supply sources for the City of Burlington.

Vermont Commission on Country Life, 1931: 
This was one of the most comprehensive studies of all aspects of Vermont that had been done up until that time.  It followed the 1927 Flood and was intended to identify recommendations for rebuilding all aspects of Vermont and Vermont life. There are some very important assessments in this publication relative to land use.  One assessment, which had been stated before by others, was “…that the soils of Vermont are best suited to grass.”  Another was that no one has the right to pollute a stream and that further pollution could be prevented and the damage of the past partially reversed.  For farming, there was a recommendation that “farmers use super phosphate as a supplement to manure, with 200 pounds per acre per year usually being sufficient.”  The emphasis during this period of time focused increasingly on soil fertility and management.


The period leading up to the 1930’s was the educational approach backed up by the latest science on resource use and management and by the establishment of the Land Grant College at the University of Vermont in 1863, the Experiment Station in 1887, and the Extension Service in 1914.  These efforts brought science and education to the farmers’ doors.  The 1930’s and the passage of the Agriucultural Adjustment Act and Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act brought an increased focus to soil resource use and farm production.

The Great Depression impacted the farm sector and a dust storm that swept across the country (see The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan) realigned the focus of agricultural programs in the United States.  “Rural Electric, subsidized lime and fertilizers, subsidized credit, milk market orders, classified pricing were essential to the development and survival of Vermont agriculture.” (see , The University of Vermont the First Two Hundred Years, by Robert Daniels).  Relative to land use, the Agricultural Conservation Program, created in the federal Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, authorized government cost sharing of conservation programs with farmers.  The intent of the ACP was to reduce over-production (surplus removal) on designated soil depleting crops as a way to better stabilize pricing and to raise the purchasing power of farmers in the United States.

The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936:
This Act put forth a structure for addressing soil erosion in the United States.  What followed was a model soil conservation district law for the States to enact as a way to establish a federal-state partnership between the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and each State.  Enacted in Vermont during this period, Conservation Districts were originally the citizen branches of the USDA Soil Conservation Services.  They now exist as not for profit municipalities with broad functions to address land use practices for improvement of soil and water resources.  While they have broad regulatory authority under state law, their approach historically has focused on education and cost sharing with farmers.


It might be argued that changes in policy are often impacted by good science, critical events, public perception, and the strengths of various influence makers and lobbying groups, but not necessarily in that order.  The dust bowl that swept the country in the 1930’s changed conservation policy. President Roosevelt is said to have first tasted prairie dust in 1934 when it blew into the White House. (see page 306, The Worst Hard Times).  Likewise, the Great Depression changed the focus of federal programs aimed at boosting farm income.

Crisis relative to water quality:
It was 1969 and the Cuyahoga River was burning.  The fire caught national attention, in Time and National Geographic Magazine, and resulted in the passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 (see Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing A History of Environmental Protection by Jonathan H. Adler).  There had been federal action relative to water before this Act (1899 Rivers and Harbors Act, and the 1948 Water Pollution Control Act) that provided federal loans for wastewater treatment plant construction and grants for state and local agencies to investigate pollution sources.  It was not until the 1972 Act, however, that there was an active approach with the states to address water quality by applying water quality standards to not only interstate waters but to state waters as well, thereby encompassing all surface waters in the entire country.  The 1972 law established the Section 208 Planning process with the states; Section 318 management plans to address non point source pollution, and Section 303(d) TMDL, or total maximum daily load for water quality and Section 404, which gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over all navigable rivers.

The 1960’s were the activist period for environmental laws and regulations at both the Federal and State level. 

  • Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968
  • Conservation as prerequisite for participation in USDA programs, sodbuster and swamp buster, conservation reserve program (CRP), Farm Bill of 1985.
  • Clean Air Act of 1970
  • National Environmental Policy Act 1970
  • Federal Clean Water Act of 1972 (referred to as Clean Water Act)
  • Endangered Species Act of 1973
  • Safe Drinking Water Act 1974

Note: The Food Security Act of 1985 is considered to be the turning point in agricultural conservation policy in the United States with the shift in focus from agricultural resource conservation management to environmental management with sodbuster and swamp buster provisions.  Also, until the 1996 Farm Bill was enacted, no conservation programs dealt explicitly with animal waste management issues, EQUIP or Environmental Quality Incentive Program.

State of Vermont: 
Vermont has traditionally taken a more activist approach to environmental issues.   The historic Act 250 in 1970 established procedures for land development and environmental stewardship.  Special preference is given to statewide and prime soils for agricultural production.  Other laws have addressed our resource issues as well.  Within agriculture, Vermont has been aggressive with its regulatory approach, with rules for medium farm and large farm operations, and nutrient management plans.   “ Vermont law provides that persons engaged in farming and following accepted agricultural practices as described by the Secretary of Agriculture by rule shall be presumed to be in compliance with water quality standards.”  There are two kinds of enforceable standards: 1) farmers must follow Accepted Agriculture Practices, and 2) the Secretary of Agriculture may require best management practices on a case-by-case basis.   The law requires that standards be enforceable and cost effective.  Vermont works closely with other state agencies, the University, and with USDA, NRCS and FSA on cooperative approaches to the issues to include the Lake Champlain Basin Planning Program ( a cooperative approach to water quality and resource issues between Vermont, New York and the Province of Quebec).


We all have certain memories of how things were and how they are today.  As a young man growing up in a small Vermont town on a hillside farm I remember vividly watching my grandfather spreading super phosphate in the “gutter”, a practice recommended at that time.  Later when I was a young Army ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) student going through summer training at Ft. Devens in Massachusetts in 1966 we were told not to go near the Nashua River that flowed through the area as it was highly polluted and had a dark brown color.  Today that same river is pristine!

Over the years, as the science has become better and as treatment plants have addressed through technology point sources, there has been increased focus on nonpoint source pollution. Some think that a probable model for addressing nonpoint source and for work between the states and rural and urban interests may be the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Lake Champlain likewise is under discussion relative to the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and nonpoint source loading.  What is clear today is that issues must be addressed from a watershed basis and thus old conservation district lines are further blurred requiring greater collaboration and coordination (See National Blue Ribbon Commission Recommendations).

Some years ago, in the early 1990’s when I worked for the Farm Credit Banks for the Northeast, I served on a market incentives workgroup that was part of a 1994-95 National Geographic Society Panel on Non-Point Source Pollution and Water Quality.  One of the recommendations coming from that panel was to create market based approaches or incentives for addressing nonpoint source pollution. On the lending side, for example, a certain basis point reduction in interest rates if farmers followed good management practices was recommended…something like a reduction in insurance premiums for certain safety practices.  These approaches are often controversial, but they are beginning to be discussed and in some cases established.  Over time, based upon historical information, proper resource use and management has required:

  • Good information on the cause and effect of various land use practices,
  • Education and technical assistance to those using the land and water resources,
  • Cooperation and coordination at all levels,
  • Financial assistance, and
  • All the above backed up by cost effective and practical rules and regulations.

References and Sources for this blog posting

  • History of Vermont, Volume 12
  • Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1872
  • Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future, Vt. Commission on Country Life, 1931
  • Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1894-95
  • Address by Congressman George Perkins Marsh before the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, September 30, 1877
  • Hills, Jones, and Cutler. 1908. Soil Deterioration and Soil Humus.  In Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 135, Burlington, UVM College of Agriculture
  • The Vermont of Today by Arthur Stone, Vol. 1, Lewis Historical Publishing Co., Inc. N.Y. 1929.
  • The University of Vermont, The First Two Hundred Years, by Robert V. Daniels.  The University Press of New England, 1971.
  • The Vermont Encyclopedia, edited by John J. Duffy, Samuel B. Hand, Ralph Orth, University Press of New England, 2003
  • State of Vermont, First Annual Report of the State Agriculture Experiment Station, 1887
  • Possible Legislative Constraints to Intensive Silver culture Practices in Northern Forest Types, by Brendan J. Whittaker, Chief Information and Education, Agency of Environmental Conservation, Montpelier.
  • History of Lamoille Conservation District
  • History of Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Butler Soil and Water Conservation District, 2010
  • Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing a History of Environmental Protection by Jonathan H. Adler, Assistant Professor of Law, Case Western Reserve University.
  • Production and Crop Soil Management by Joseph Frank Cox, B.S.A. Professor of Farm Crop[s, Michigan Agricultural College.
  • Vermont Enforceable Provisions Applicable to Nonpoint Source Water Pollution at http//
  • The Struggle Between Man and Nature—Agriculture, Nonpoint Source Pollution, and Clean Water: How to Implement the State of Vermont’s Phosphorous TMDL Within the Lake Champlain basin by Lara D. Guercio in Vt. Journal of Environmental Law, Vol 12.
  • 1973 Wisconsin Law Review. 893. Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 by Frederick Rasmussen.
  • Reauthorizing the Federal Water Pollution Control Act by Errol L. Tyler, Counsel, Houser Subcommittee on Water Resources
  • Growing A Nation, The Story of American Agriculture in
  • USDA, History of NRCS, 75 Years Helping People Help the Land: A Brief History of NRCS
  • The National Agricultural Law Center, University of AK School of Law. Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service: History, Policy and Programs by Karen R. Twitchell.
  • Analyses of Waters From Lake Champlain and From Various Proposed Supplies for the City of Burlington, in Report of the Vermont State Agricultural Experiment Station, 1889-90.
  • Choices Magazine, History of Agricultural Price Support and Adjustment Programs, 1933-84
  • Choices Magazine, History and Outlook for Farm Bill Conservation Programs, by Zachary Cain and Stephen Lovejoy, 4th Qtr 2004
  • U.S. Agricultural Conservation Policy and Programs: History, Trends and Implications by Craig Cox, Woods Institute for Environment, Stanford University
  • The Worst Hard Time, The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006
  • Fertilizer Use in North America: Types and Amounts, by T. L. Roberts, and D.W. Dibb, in Agricultural Sciences Vol. II.
  • National Agricultural Landscapes Forum, Blue Ribbon Panel, of NRCS, the Farm Foundation, and the American Farmland Trust, April 7 & 8, 2011, Washington, D.C.
  • 1994-95 National Geographic Society Panel on Non-Point Source Pollution and Water Quality

Trivia:  8,000 spruce seedlings ordered from Europe for planting at the Downer State Park in Vermont were lost when the Titanic sank. (From Vermont Division of Forestry, The History of Forestry in Vermont)

Edition No. 14, June 20, 2012