Saturday, November 4, 2017


It began just 200 years ago, on July 4th, 1817 when the beginning of a 40-ft. wide and 4 feet deep canal was begun connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, 363 miles long in the town of Rome, New York.  It was completed eight years and four months later at a cost of 7.1 million dollars. Tolls paid off its construction costs within eight years.

It was not a new idea, connecting the West to the East, as the thought had been around since the 18th Century. However, federal funding for it had been rejected by President Thomas Jefferson, who is said to have stated that “talk of a canal 350 miles through wilderness is a little short of madness.”  It took the determination of De Witt Clinton, Governor of New York, and the New York legislature to make it a reality.   Detractors, and there were many, called it “Clinton’s big ditch.”  But it was an immediate success when it opened on October 26, 1825, eight years and four months after the first shovel was placed into the ground in that small town outside of Albany, New York. 

The canal quickly transformed North America, and was soon called the greatest engineering feat of the 19th Century in America.  Some even marveled when it was completed that it was The Eighth Wonder of the World.  It was, at the time, the longest artificial waterway and greatest public works project in North America.  But how it transformed America was its greatest achievement

It quickly transformed New York City into a leading economic and commercial city with the most important seaport in North America. Its population quadrupled between 1820-1850.  It opened the interior of the West to settlement from those in the East as well as those coming from Europe.  Many have concluded that this resulted in the demise of New England agriculture, as it was then known, to inexpensive goods from the mid-west.  Farmers, loggers, miners, and manufactures now had quick access to the markets of the East.  For example, a ton of wheat from the Mid-west to the Northeast before the Erie Canal cost $100 per ton, and only about fourteen thousand bushels were shipped East.  After the Canal, it cost $10 per ton to ship a product and it took one-third of the time.  In 1840, for example, about eight million bushels of wheat were shipped East from the Mid-west.  The East began to rely on the mid-west for food and other products, and New York City became the international gateway.  The Erie Canal made the West accessible and valuable, unlocking the floodgates to western settlement.

Canal building mania lasted a decade or so after the completion of the Erie, with some 3000 miles of waterway by 1840. The Champlain Canal, part of the New York system, was opened in 1823 and connected Lake Champlain to the Erie Canal.  This too led to a further transformation of the Vermont agriculture and forestry economy and marked the end of the Champlain Valley’s relative isolation from the outside world and its entry into the national economy. It is said that the opening of the canal “fundamentally affected the economic development of the Champlain Valley.”

Before the coming of the railroads, state legislatures chartered some of the most elaborate canal plans, many which were never developed.   The first canal system in the United States was in Bellows Falls, Vermont with the Connecticut River being the first major waterway in the country improved for travel by 1810.  In the 1820’s plans were discussed for a canal (Onion River Canal) connecting the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain in Vermont.   The coming of the railroads after the 1840’s led to the economic demise of the canal system and any plans to expand or create new systems. Railroads were faster, cheaper and did not freeze over in the winter. 

Today the Erie Canal still has some commercial traffic, but is primarily recreational and tourism use system.  In the year 2000, Congress created the Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor to recognize the canal’s historical significance in the transformation of North America.


Transportation and improvements in travel have had a profound impact on agriculture and food systems.  In the beginning, the state legislature authorized “toll roads.”  Improvements in transportation have taken place over time.  Railroads were used to ship milk and other products. (note a butter train first left St. Albans in 1852, once a week to Boston.  The first milk train left Bellows Falls around 1890 for Boston).  Improvements in transportation have continued with the Interstate highway system in Vermont in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  With airplanes, products can be shipped overnight by air into and out of the U.S.  A lobster landed in Maine on one day can be in a restaurant in France the next, for example.  In the winter fruits, can be airlifted from places like Chile, or flowers from other places in South America too.  The internet has further allowed for communication instantly between buyers and sellers.  As Thomas Friedman, the author notes, “The World is Flat.” Amazon will today ship an order directly to a house the next day after an order is made.   The world has come far since the Wright Brothers flew their first plane at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

What will be the advancing in transportation over the next 200 years, and how will these changes impact Vermont agriculture and food systems and the working landscape?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


Since the mid 1800’s dairy farming has been Vermont’s major agricultural enterprise. It is today.  Dairy farming has never been easy due to the many changes on the farm, in the markets, and in the public policy arena over the years.

At one time, after the demise of the position as the leading merino sheep state, Vermont became the butter capital of the world, winning prizes in international competitions. Starting in 1854, an iced butter train left St. Albans for Boston once per week and the region was known as one of the greatest  butter producing centers in the world.  Vermont butter was considered the acme of perfection in New England markets.  By 1899, Vermont was producing 35 million pounds of butter. Whole support industries like the Bellows Falls Machinery Company (maker of butter churns and equipment), and the Montgomery butter box firm, existed to support this trade. Eventually the butter trade, as well as the businesses that supported it, largely disappeared. This was due to competition from the West (cheaper to bring butter into New York from Chicago than from Vermont, it is recorded).  From 1890 on, competition with western butter became increasingly acute.  Other events that led to its decline included the introduction of margarine (see the stories about the butter and margarine wars), and the increasing demand for fluid milk from cities like Boston. 

Becoming a fluid milk producing state had its challenges too. These included fair pricing from buyers, shipping rates and fees, sanitary regulations with interstate shipments, management on the farm, and better animal genetics.  Due to the concerns, relative to fair pricing, numerous studies were conducted.  For example, in 1915 the Boston Chamber of Commerce did a thorough analysis of the marketing constraints faced by Vermont dairy farmers, and recommended that farmer cooperatives be formed to guarantee better pricing for farmers.  Federal legislation to include Capper-Volstead Act in 1922 gave these farmer cooperatives limited anti-trust protection against price fixing.

In 1927, thirty percent of Vermont’s population was engaged in farming, and there were twenty-seven thousand farms in the state.  By this time, Vermont was a major supplier of fluid milk to the Boston Market.  The depression, however, brought a period of great economic turmoil to agriculture in Vermont as well as nationally. With the passage of the federal Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1937, marketing orders were established and dairy farmers in Vermont, New England, and elsewhere voted for federal control of pricing through these orders.  After World War II, a parity system was instituted to provide better pricing to dairy farmers that equated to the period 1910-1914.  This was considered one of the better times in the farm economy.  The pricing system was advocated and supported by dairy cooperatives throughout the United States.

Since 1982, and the elimination of the parity concept, dairy pricing in the United States has moved toward more market orientation and greater pricing unpredictability.  While there have been several attempts since 1982 to better control or influence pricing ( a national whole herd buyout, and followed by the Northeast Dairy Compact), today greater pricing unpredicapitcaly and volatility exists for the convential dairy farmers in Vermont and elsewhere.  Vermont and other Northeast conventional dairy farmers are faced with an unstable and unpredictable demand for dairy products in international markets; a declining demand for fluid milk in regional markets and its depressing impact on the Marketing Order pricing; a Westward migration of U.S. milk production; and finally, increased costs associated with water quality environmental compliance.

The early leaders of Vermont agriculture stated in the 1894-95 Report of the State Board of Agriculture that “our own state has seen one industry after another go down under the fierce competition of cheap western land.  Our sheep, beef, and grain production have all been borne down through this course, and today our dairymen are contesting the ground with these same forces.”   Yes, time and technologies do change, but as others recently have concluded, while our advantage in Vermont and the Northeast is being near large markets, it is an advantage that will continue to erode without an aggressive strategy. U.S milk production will continue its shift to large dairies in the West.  It is known that dairy product manufacturers look to where production is growing and not declining in siting facilities.

While there continues to be debate over the direction of Vermont’s valued conventional dairy sector, I believe it is understood by many that the strength of Vermont agriculture is the entrepreneurial ability of farmers to solve problems.  However, the magnitude of the problems faced today requires that there be informed dialogue among and between farmers, and their cooperatives, consumers, processors, environmentalists, policy officials and others to consider and debate feasible options for the longer-term sustainability of the dairy sector in Vermont.  It is too important an industry to do otherwise as the market will likely continue to erode Vermont’s position as a valued milk producing state if action is not taken soon.


Roger Allbee is a former Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets for Vermont. He has been Executive Director of the USDA Farm Service Agency for Vermont; he has served on the U.S. House Committee of Agriculture; he has been Chair of the Animal and Animal Products Advisory Committee to the U.S. Trade Ambassador and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture; he has participated in the Seattle Around of Multinational Trade Negotiations; and he has been on the Senor Management Staff of the Former Farm Credit Banks and Bank for Cooperatives for the Northeast.  He does a blog on Vermont’s agricultural history at