Agrarian Practices

Title

Agrarian Practices

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This section, while by no means comprehensive, touches on some of the key aspects of food acquisition and cultivation in Vermont. Below is some brief background on some of the major food sources and farming emphases in Vermont over the last 200-plus years.

Maple: Legends describe the discovery of the sweetness within the maple tree in various ways. The most common tale involves a native hunter who notches his tomahawk into a sugar maple for safe storage one night. When his children go to fetch water the next day they leave their empty pot at the foot of the tree while they run off to play. The pot mysteriously fills with clear liquid and the venison their mother cooks in it has an unusually sweet flavor. The liquid, they discover, was not water, but sap dripping from the hatchet notch in the tree. The first settlers learned from the natives to make “Indian molasses” or “Indian sugar,” a homemade sweetener used when white sugar was rare and expensive. Although it can be hard to find today, maple sugar–then solidified into cakes–was the common form before refrigeration enabled longer-term storage of syrup. The Quakers promoted it as slave-free sugar and Thomas Jefferson, who planted a sugarbush at Monticello, hoped that maple sugar might make the country more self-sufficient. Founded in 1893, the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association claims to be the oldest agricultural association in the country and the state is the largest U.S. producer of maple syrup.

Hunting/Fishing: Bow hunting represents the earliest form of deer hunting in Vermont as practiced by the indigenous Abenaki, who depended on wildlife including the once abundant Atlantic salmon that returned each year to spawn before dams and polluted waterways put them on the endangered species list. Early settlers followed their example and Vermont still has an active community of hunters and fishermen who hunt everything from quail to cottontail rabbits to black bears. What is killed is almost always eaten and community game suppers even offer tastes of raccoon, muskrat, and squirrel. Long weekends away at deer camp are legendary and a young hunter’s first buck is reason for major celebration–and lots of venison stew or chili. During the winter, small huts sprout up along the frozen edges of Lake Champlain from which hardy souls fish through the ice for perch, smelt, trout, and hatchery-bred Atlantic salmon. In mid-April, anglers can start fly-fishing for trout in rivers and streams and in October, camouflaged boats slowly purr through lakes in search of duck.

Foraging: Like all first nations peoples, the Native Americans as the first human settlers in Vermont made use of existing plant life as food, eating inmature leaves, roots, berries and mushrooms. Early settlers followed their example as part of their efforts to survive while establishing agriculture. The traditions remain and have, in fact, become almost faddish with restaurants boasting of the first wild leeks (ramps), fiddleheads (the curled tips of ostrich ferns) and a variety of wild mushrooms. Other commonly foraged items include young dandelion leaves and berries.

Dairy has been Vermont’s most important agricultural product for more than 150 years, although the state’s dairy farmers struggle today in a commodity market in which larger out-of-state farms have advantages over typically smaller-scale Vermont agriculture. Many are going organic or creating local milk brands to keep small family farms alive and preserve the working landscape. Vermont does boast the highest per capita number of farmstead cheesemakers (meaning the cheese is made on the same farm as the herd or flock of animals) and has built a reputation across the country for award-winning cheese.

Sheep and lamb: Despite folklore to the contrary, cows have never actually outnumbered people in Vermont—but sheep have. From the 1820s to the 1860s, Vermont farmers made a great business of raising wool to satisfy the booming New England textile mills, bringing the sheep population at one point to well over one and a half million animals against a human count of less than three hundred thousand. Lamb and mutton for the farmhouse table were an inevitable sideline and spring lamb was especially welcomed as the first fresh meat after a long winter. But prices fell and the frontier pushed westward, opening up the wide flat plains of the Midwest for more economical ways to raise sheep.

Apples have blossomed in Vermont since colonial times when every hill farmer planted a few trees as part of their homestead. The fruit had many uses; they could be eaten fresh or stored to eat months later; cooked into pies or sauce; dried, canned, or pickled; and made into cider and cider vinegar. Cider—both sweet and hard—was the homegrown beverage of choice, and was also sometimes distilled further into applejack or apple brandy. Early varieties included Cox’s Orange Pippin brought over from Europe, Fameuse or Snow known for its snow-white flesh, and the whimsically named Sheep’s Nose. There were good keeper apples, apples with the juicy tartness perfect for cider, and naturally sweet apples that collapsed quickly into applesauce. As apple-growing developed into a commercial business in the late 1800s, apple diversity continued with traveling grafters carrying twigs across the state to ensure the perpetuation of preferred varieties. A few severe winters in the early 1900s, however, devastated many Vermont orchards and replanting focused on the most disease-resistant, cold-hardy, shippable varieties, led by the now iconic McIntosh. The harvests of the roughly 40 commercial apple producers left in Vermont today are still dominated by this shiny red variety, although many are rediscovering some of the older, less familiar apples.

Wheat: Historically, the Champlain Valley was a grain-growing area and was known, around the 1820s at its peak, as the bread basket of the U.S. As the Champlain Canal down the Hudson River opened up the market opportunity initially, the Erie Canal brought its demise because it opened up access to the flat plains of the west where grain production was more efficient than Vermont.

Items in the Agrarian Practices Collection

Posts/articles by former Vt secretary of agriculture about events/evolutions in Vermont's agricultural history.

Memoir by Green Mountain College prof about homesteading in Vermont including detail on growing/raising/making own food and importance of doing so.

A 1952 advisory bulletin on sheep-farming in Vermont with stats and details on wool market oppty (Boston biggest national market) and a little on lamb meat.

ch 8 - "Merinos, Morgans, Maple Syrup and Milk" (64-68) covers phases in Vt agriculture from beef to sheep to dairy. Ch 18 "Hunting" (127-131) covers deer, small game, waterfowl. Fishing (132-134) is a brief overview with some notes on best…

story about Les Hook and Nova Kim, Vermont wildcrafters

Story on Duclos-Thompson Farm where Tom Duclos, who grew up nearby on a dairy farm, and now raises sheep. Includes history of sheep-farming in Vermont.

Story about Ben Gleason, grain farmer of Bridport with sidebar on history of Vermont grain-growing

 "The Green Mountain Potato in Co-operation"
Nov-Dec 1926 (p. 90-92) - celebration by one farmer of GMP (developed in 1878 in Charlotte) and explanation of logistics of farming it, trying to urge others to farm it.

"Apple Culture in Vermont"
Jan-Feb 1927 (p. 136-139) - overview of commercial apple culture in VT, which started 15 years before this. Notes first orchard of any size 1819 in South Hero, 1880 Fameuse orchard in East Highgate, etc. all listed. Diff periods of apple cultivation…

"Vermont's Maple Sugar Industry"
Jan-Feb 1927 (p. 139-141): background and advice on sugaring and marketing of maple. Ref to five-year-old Vt Maple Co-op to encourage farmers to make syrup rather than sugar and grades were set.