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PAGE 8 — 2011 Addison County Guide to Local Food and Farms

Stepping Back

Addison County: Rich farmland, rich history Ask anyone who’s stuck a spade into Addison County soil and you’ll get the same reaction: it’s all clay, stubborn and resistant to tilling. Less well known is the fact that this wasn’t always the case. As Ben Falk points out in a “Vermont Commons” column, Vermont soil maps state that the soil is six to 12 inches of silty loam over graveled subsoil. “Yet, for the past five years I’ve been gardening and planting trees across this site and have found only pockets of loam soil a few times; it’s just clay, boulders and more clay,” he writes. “Where’s all the topsoil? Are the maps wrong?” The answer lies with settlers from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island who, seeking unoccupied land in the mid 1700s, headed north. They were, drawn by reports of abundant, fertile land. The Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury describes the appeal of the land in the agriculture section of “From the Land to the Lake,” an online learning kit on Vermont history:

By Andrea Suozzo

Vermont’s Champlain and Connecticut River valleys promised everything that southern New England now lacked… The Champlain Valley boasted a milder climate and a longer growing season than other regions in northern New England due to the moderating effect of the lake and the protection afforded by the mountains. Furthermore, sedimentation from glacial Lake Champlain had provided the valley with rich agricultural soil, “furnishing some of the finest farms in New England.”

Settlement in the Champlain Valley occurred rapidly, especially in the southern region, where most of the land along the lake was surveyed, granted and claimed before the Revolutionary War. New settlers faced many of the same obstacles as their colonizing ancestors: The densely forested ‘wilderness’ was virtually untraversable without a guide, and, once claimed, presented a population whose survival depended on agriculture with the daunting task of clearing the land. Clearing was as much a pragmatic necessity as a cultural ritual, in which settlers established their rightful claim to the land by opening it up to cultivation. Over the next 100 years, settlers cleared large swathes of the land in the state for agricultural use — by the late 1800s, according to the Sheldon Museum, more than half of Vermont’s 6 million acres of forest had become open land for farming. In short order, the Vermont land was put to heavy agricultural use. Former Vermont secretary of agriculture Roger Allbee writes in his introduction to the recently released Farm to Plate plan that the state’s first foray into large-scale agriculture came in the 1830s, earning Vermont the reputation as the sheep capital of the world. Allbee reports that 1.5 million sheep roamed the landscape by 1840 — and Addison County was one of the centers of sheep

production in the state. By 1850, however, wool markets had begun to decline, paving the way for dairy’s debut on the statewide stage. But clearing the land didn’t just change the state’s agricultural output; it changed the entire ecosystem, from wildlife to plants to waterways to soils — the very soils that had brought settlers to the land in the first place. The Henry Sheldon Museum points out:

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Deforestation literally transformed the landscape, and its effects were immediately perceptible. As early as 1794, Vermont historian Samuel Williams noted that cleared land soon became “warm and dry,” while streams and brooks no longer supplied consistent waterflows. As modern environmental historian William Cronon points out, “forests caused soils as much as soils caused forests.” The character of the soil changed dramatically with the clearing of forestland: Nutrients supplied by annual forest cycles were lost, drainage patterns changed unpredictably as water-retaining root systems were removed, and exposure to the considerable effects of direct sunlight widened the range of local climate conditions. Cleared land froze more deeply in the winter and thawed more quickly in the warm months, and while spring brought floodwater, the hot summer months often left streams and

rivers dry. Still, according to Allbee, Vermont’s agricultural economy boomed until the early 20th century. Fluid milk had only regional markets at the time, but Vermont butter gained renown on Boston markets and went on to win awards and accolades on national and international markets. In the early 1900s, competition from the West began to threaten Vermont’s markets for butter, and farms transitioned to producing fluid milk for regional markets. But, according to the Sheldon Museum, farms also began to go under around that time. A simultaneous conservation movement pushed for reforestation of abandoned farms. Since the late 1800s, Vermont’s ecosystems have made a dramatic switch — now, nearly 80 percent of the state’s land has returned to forest. Meanwhile, the number of farms in the state fell from 32,000 in 1900 to 6,984 in 2007. Dairy continues to be an economic driver — according to statistics laid out in the Farm to Plate plan, dairy brings in 73 percent of Vermont’s annual agricultural income. And 2007 USDA census of agriculture statistics reveal Addison County to be at the very heart of agriculture in the state — the county brought in 24 percent of the state’s agricultural income, closely followed by Franklin County.

Through the lens Today, Monument Farms Dairy is a household name in Addison County — the business distributes all its milk locally, from Orwell to Richmond. Still a family-owned business, the dairy had humble roots. After spending some years on dairy farms in New York,in 1929 Richard and Marjorie James purchased the original 21acre Weybridge farm (pictured above in 1926). It wasn’t enough for Richard James to milk 20 cows and bottle it for neighbors — he wanted a larger distribution. So he purchased a milk route from a man who was retiring, and a few years later got a restaurant account (top left, Richard James in 1937). In 1938 the farm began pasteurizing milk, and it continued to expand (bottom left, daughter Millie James and her friend delivering milk, 1945). In 1949, Millie married Jim Rooney, and later the couple took over the business from her parents. Today, Millie’s son Jon Rooney, Bob James and Peter James run the company, producing 200,000 pounds of milk each year.

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Addison County Guide to Local Food and Farms 2011  

The Addison County Relocalization Network and the Addison Independent present our second annual Guide to Local Food and Farms, featuring a p...

Addison County Guide to Local Food and Farms 2011  

The Addison County Relocalization Network and the Addison Independent present our second annual Guide to Local Food and Farms, featuring a p...