According to historical documents, it was inevitable that Vermont would become a dairy state. It had the soil, climate, and topography that grew grass well. Livestock have the ability to convert this energy to meat or milk. This had already been demonstrated with the livestock that the first group of settlers brought with them after the French and Indian War in 1763.
As towns grew, the demand for products like cheese and butter increased. Farmers used milk produced on the farm to make cheese and butter for their farm families and sold the excess. With the Erie and Champlain Canals, and eventually the railroads, crops and livestock grown on cheaper western lands reached the East and many other products from the land were no longer competitive. They then turned to butter and cheese as a way to increase their income and wealth.
By 1850, St Albans had established itself as the butter capital of the state and region, with many buyers showing up on market day, Tuesday during spring, summer and fall. As many as 300 teams (horse pulled wagons) laden with butter and cheese would come in from all directions. According to the records, this change happened quickly as very little of dairy produced in Franklin County found its way to Boston or New York prior to 1840. Prior to 1850, dairy was incidental to other things grown on the farm. In 1854, the Vermont Central Railroad commenced running its butter cars, supplied with ice, once a week during summer months, between St. Albans and Boston
Vermont was well suited for butter production, as well as cheese. As noted by a farmer then, “Vermont farms have a substantial hold on their future. The soil, climate, abundance of pure water, the proximately to the markets and growing cities and villages give him facilities for success.” Other remarked in 1872 (Vermont Agricultural Report) “that the increased production of grass and hay will necessitate the keeping of more stock, the manufacture of larger quantitates of butter and cheese, and what is of equal importance, of a greater amount of manure, the proper application of which will still further increase the production of our meadows, and we are then at once on the road long sought for, that will lead us onward in the path of progress and improvement.”
With this growth in demand for butter and cheese, and the need for quality standards and better animal genetics and husbandry, the Vermont Dairymen’s Association was formed in 1870. It is said to be one of the oldest in the U.S. There was a recognized need to move away from the common cow. In order to improve their herds, many turned their eyes to Scotland, to Holland, and to the Isles of Jersey and Guernsey, the homes of known dairy breeds. The growth in demand and product production continued, and by 1900 there were 186 creameries and 66 cheese factories in the state. An infrastructure of support businesses existed as well like the Farm Machine Company in Bellows Falls that manufactured farm and dairy equipment (butter churns), and in Montgomery Vermont a mill that turned out 295,000 butter tubs each year, of various sizes.
Vermont’s reputation and position as a renowned butter state did not last. By 1900, Western competition became acute. In addition, the growth from the newly introduced margarine created new economic threats that resulted in state and federal laws against this imitation product (see Vermont’s involvement in the butter and margarine wars at www. whatceriesmightsay.blogspot.com).
In 1910, Dr. Rick Washburn, a professor of dairy husbandry at the University of Vermont, the Land Grant Institution, stated that “due to Vermont’s location, the time is in sight when butter and cheese factories in the state will largely be closed down due to the demand for fluid milk from the cities. The first fluid milk train left Bellows Falls in 1890, resulting in new challenges to dairy pricing from city buyers. This led to the enactment of state and federal laws that encouraged the establishment of farmer cooperatives as a way to bargain for better farm prices.
Many were concerned with this marketing change. For example, Vermont Commissioner of Agriculture E.S. Brigham remarked in 1924, “unless stimulation of dairying in other parts of the country is checked, Vermont farmers may expect competition exceeding that which they have earlier experienced with consequently lower prices.”
Today the dairy industry is in a prolonged economic slump, brought on primarily by being tied to a national commodity model of pricing where better farmgate pricing relies on strong foreign demand. Milk production continues to shift toward Western states and to larger farm operations that are capable of taking advantage of economies of scale. This is making it difficult for even the most efficient dairy operations to compete on the world stage where being the lowest cost producer is key to economic sustainability. The decision to put tariffs on imported products from Mexico, Asia and other countries key to increased farmgate pricing of dairy only further threatens the longer term economic sustainability of Vermont’s iconic dairy sector that is the foundation of agriculture in the state.
Many old timers who had seen the many changes in Vermont agriculture over time stated, in the late 1800’s that “only by the use of greater skill and capital by which products shall be cheapened with a quality so superior as to command the highest price in markets can we hope to meet Western competition.” Others went on to say, “that the only recourse for New England agriculture to protect her interest in the future, to successfully compete in her best markets with Western neighbors, seems to lie in improving excellence of her products.” The production of products like award winning cheeses, ice cream, yogurt, organic milk and other specialty items is a recognition of the value of this approach. Also, the continuing emphasis on soil health and clean water relates to the sage advice from those of the past relative to agriculture’s hold on its future in Vermont.
Roger Allbee is a former Secretary of Agriculture for the State of Vermont. He does a blog on Vermont’s agricultural history and changes since the 1760’s at www.whatceresmightsay.blogspot.com