The History of Dairy Farming in Vermont

Dairy has been a part of Vermont ever since the early settlers brought cows here to nourish their families and graze the land. But dairy surely isn’t what it was 200 years ago or even 50 years ago. Find out how the industry has evolved through the years by changes in technology, transportation and public policy.

  • 1600s: European Settlers

    European settlers brought cows with them when they moved to Vermont from Plymouth Colony. The annual production on these early farms was just enough to feed the family.

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  • 1800s: Wool Production

    Many farms switched to wool production as textile mills opened throughout New England. Increased competition later in the century led to the decline of the wool industry and the growth of butter production.

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  • 1850s: Rise of Dairy

    The greatest period of growth in Vermont agriculture occurred from 1850 to 1880. By the end of that era there were over 35,000 farms in the state, the most in its history. Cows surpassed sheep in importance by midcentury and dairy products became the foundation of Vermont’s agriculture. In a time before refrigeration, milk was turned into cheese or butter before it spoiled.

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  • 1865: First Vacuum Milking Machine

    The first vacuum-type milking machine was patented with foot- or hand-powered models. In the 1920s the first commercially viable vacuum operated milking machines becomes affordable and hand milking becomes a thing of the past on larger farms.

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  • 1868: VT Dairyman’s Association Formed

    The Vermont Dairyman’s Association was formed.  It was the first association of this type in the country, and it was a vocal and successful advocate for scientific breeding practices and the development of new technology. Its efforts were supported by the work of the State Agricultural College at the University of Vermont.

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  • 1869: Best Year for Cheese

    Was the best year for Vermont cheese when 4,830,700 pounds were produced. But butter making was the activity that would dominate the dairy industry into the early twentieth century.

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  • 1877: Cooley Creamer Invented

    Vermont farmers were prolific inventors.  The Cooley Creamer was invented and patented by William Cooley of Waterbury in 1877. Cooley sold his patent to the Vermont Farm Machinery Company. The Cooley Creamer, which used cooled water to separate cream from milk, was made in several different sizes and became a best seller. By the end of the 1880s it was used on a majority of New England farms. The water-sealed Cooley system was succeeded by the centrifugal-type separator by the end of the nineteenth century. The Vermont Farm Machinery Company’s U.S. Cream Separator and the Swedish DeLaval separator became two of the most popular brands.

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  • 1880s to Early 1990s: Championship Dairy Stock

    Vermont became known for its championship dairy stock. Though some farmers kept Holstein and Ayrshire herds, the Jersey breed pre-dominated in Vermont because of their high levels of butter fat in their milk, which was desired for making butter.  A Jersey herd from West Randolph won first prize for its butter at the Paris Exposition in 1890 and again at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The state’s first butter factory was the North River Creamery in Jacksonville, Vermont, started in 1886.  The Franklin County Creamery Association in St. Albans was rated as the world’s largest butter factory, making 25,000 pounds of butter a day.

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  • 1880s: Centralized Creameries Open

    As centralized creameries started opening around the state, such as the Franklin County Creamery in St. Albans, farmers began earning a profit from butter on a larger scale. With the importation of better breeds of cows, scientific innovations, and growing demand, Vermont butter won an international reputation for quality.

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  • 1881: Maine Central Railway

    The Maine Central Railway began offering refrigerated railroad service to Boston, opening up new markets to Vermont dairy farmers.

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  • 1890s: Gasoline Powered Tractor Invented

    The invention of the gasoline-powered tractor made once labor intensive farm practices easier than ever before. After the successful introduction of the centrifugal cream separator and the Babcock tester, Vermont’s dairy products were rated as some of the best in the world.

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  • 1900s: Farms Grow & Pasteurization is Introduced

    Mechanization and rural electrification in the first half of the twentieth century allowed for larger farms. By 1947 we had 11,352 farms of which 146 were cream only producers with an average herd size of 25 milk cows.  The skim milk from the cream farms was often fed to other animals, like swine.Homogenization and pasteurization increased milk safety and consumer confidence, and by the 1950s nearly all of Vermont’s milk was pasteurized.

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  • 1920s: Refrigeration & Transportation

    Major advancements in refrigeration and transportation made Vermont the leading supplier of fluid milk to Boston. By 1915 there were nearly 300 butter factories in Vermont, the year in which annual production peaked at 20,423,529 pounds.

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  • 1930s to 1940s: Federal Dairy Pricing Established

    The federal pricing system for milk was established in 1937 to try and maintain a stable milk supply.  In 1949 a support price system was established for dairy farmers regardless of their proximity to the markets.  Through the 1950's, 60's and into the 70's it worked well for Vermont, as Vermont had more cows than people and much of the milk produced here was shipped to southern New England for distribution as a Class I product.  The problem came as productivity increased at a more rapid pace than did most industrial sectors of the economy and production outpaced demands.  The government programs could not continue to maintain a floor price without controlling the increased production.  The government policy makers decided that the best course of action was to move away from the support price and into a market driven supply-demand price.  Over the last twenty years dairy farmers had to improve productivity at the rate of inflation or they fell behind on their profit margin. This price pressure has further driven the change we are now seeing of farm numbers dropping while overall production continues to rise. 

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  • 1950s to 1960s: Post War Boom

    The post World War II economic boom, coupled with efficient refrigeration systems and scientific advancement spurred agriculture’s growth.  Better ways to produce crops while still conserving the land, better husbandry practices and an improved understanding of all aspects of agriculture allowed the United States to become the most efficient food producing nation in history.

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  • 1950s: Bulk Tanks Inroduced

    Bulk storage tanks began replacing milk cans for on farm storage. Bulk tanks allowed farmers to keep their milk cool on site while awaiting pickup by a larger milk truck. Within ten years, almost all dairy farms had bulk tanks. Meanwhile, the industry was consolidating; many small farms went out of business. At the same time, larger farms and those farms willing and able to invest in new technology grew. Fewer milk producers remained, but those that did, produced more milk.

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  • Today

    We are still going through the changes set in motion by these advancements and are still making new discoveries into better ways to produce the food we eat. Farmersoften compete with larger out-of-state facilities and declining milk prices, but with the support of friends and neighbors like you, dairy farming will continue to be a vital part of our state for years to come. To learn more and to support your local dairy producers visit Keep Local Farms

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