Recollections of a Dairy Farm Wife

by Mimi Clark

Fifty years ago, my father was a career soldier in the US Army, and when he left for Vietnam, we moved to Vermont. Back then there were more cows than people living in the Fourteenth Star, and most of those cows were black and white. Green is the midpoint on the light spectrum between black and white, and one didn’t have to be a colorist to know that the cows were a perfect adornment to the green hills.

Before moving to Vermont, the only farms I had ever seen up close were immense vegetable fields in Minnesota, where my Uncle Lloyd and his wife Beulah, whose parents were from East Thetford, Vermont, grew peas and green beans for the Green Giant corporation. On television, there was Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans, who showed us charming glimpses into tiny home operations that boasted having two of every kind of domestic animal, much like the mural in the Montpelier Agway store.

What wasn’t obvious to the casual observer were the imperceptible changes taking place in the romantic red barns and the colonial clapboard homes that accompanied them. After the turn of the 20th century, when the sheep and wool industry was entirely lost to Australia, when 90 percent of the land in Vermont was bare of trees, small family dairies popped up everywhere to meet the great demand for milk in the urban areas of New England and New York. Trains with ice cars took fresh milk, cream, and butter to the cities. The farms were for the most part single-family operations that relied entirely on multiple-generation husband-and-wife teams and their children to carry on after them.

By mid-century, after the post-World War II baby boom, the demand for dairy products was greater than ever, and dairy farming offered a good healthy lifestyle for people who loved to live off the land and work hard for not much money, people who were willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of passing on land and a livelihood to their progeny in one of the most physically beautiful but climate-severe places on earth.

By the time Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the post-war prosperity had accelerated to a dangerous point, not only for the environment but also for the cows and the people who husbanded them. Television and slick salesmen pushed all kinds of new chemical products that were better, cleaner, easier to use, and promised higher yields. Machinery got bigger and bigger. The idea of increased production with less human labor gave hope to dairymen who were rapidly succumbing to promises that with all the new and improved methods, they would make more profits and have more time to spend relaxing with their families. Expensive refrigerated tanker trucks hauled milk for more and more middlemen, who were taking more than their share of the pie, to far-away destinations. Higher efficiency with stricter regulations became the name of the game. Those who wouldn’t play by the new rules were being left behind, left out, and most of all in danger of losing the next generation of farmers who were tired of working so hard for so little gain. The youths were being lured to urban areas farther south, where the weather was easier and the financial opportunities more lucrative.

In the early 1970s, when I married a the medium-large dairy, I had a vision of the old ways that rewarded a person every day with the sense of a job well done. Before our eyes, that dream was being replaced by the fear of not keeping up. Staying small now meant losing the ability to support three or four families of children and their spouses. The expansion now demanded even larger cows that had to produce a hundred pounds of milk (twelve and half gallons!) per day. More crops had to be raised to feed them, more grain had to be bought, more silos built for storage, more buildings built to house more cows, all to make ends meet.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, the co-designer of Central Park, came to Vermont in the middle of the nineteenth century to design the landscape at Shelburne Farms. He wrote an essay published in an excellent volume called So Fine a Prospect by a woman, Alan Emmet. It was prophetic advice that has gone unnoticed for too long. Olmsted was very critical of Vermont soils. He found them to be poor and stony. He felt the small hillside fields would never be able to sustain large animals, especially large numbers of them. He was right.

Not only are large numbers of dairy cows not sustainable in Vermont, but many people are much better off, healthier, if they seldom eat dairy products. Ironically the list includes me, my dairy farmer husband, and our children. It is time for the dairy industry to wake up and smell the coffee and change to sheep, chicken, or goats. It is unrealistic to ask the Vermont populace to help perpetuate the gross overproduction of milk by giant cows that have gone the way of the Swiss watch, American cars, and other icons lost to the past.

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