Vermont's Merino Sheep Boom
  1. Landscape After Sheep. UVM Special Collections.
  2. Merino Woodcut. UVM Special Collections.
  3. Sheep Shearers. Windy Corners Farm
  4. Danville Woolen Mill. UVM Landscape Change Project.

From the 1800s Merino sheep craze to today's dairy and diversified agriculture industry, Vermont's landscape has changed over the past 200 years. Shifting populations, new markets and technological adaptation have created the fields of today. 



Vermont's Merino Sheep Boom

During the 1800s, Vermont was renowned for its Merino wool. In 1840, there were more than 1.5 million sheep in the state, and Vermont wool went all across the country. The state supported as many as 80 textile mills to process the wool.

At the peak of the sheep boom, Merinos grazed across much of the land in the state and up the hillsides, which had been cleared of trees. But westward expansion and the lowering of import tariffs on wool flooded the market with cheap product, and Vermont farmers largely gave up raising sheep, turning to dairy instead.

After the sheep craze ended, writes historian Esther Munroe Swift, "much of the land could not support any crops because of the over-grazing by the sheep."

Dairy Markets Expand
  1. Landscape After Dairy. UVM Special Collections
  2. The McDermott Milk Truck. UVM Special Collections.
  3. Bulk Tank. UVM Special Collections.



The Rise of Dairy

Starting in the late 1800s, dairy emerged as the state’s primary agricultural product, causing a resurgence of Vermont's forests. Over the course of the 20th century, the train car gave way to the milk truck, and urban markets for Vermont milk grew.

With the expansion of the railways and refrigerated train cars in the early 1900s, Vermont became a major supplier of fluid milk to Boston and New York markets. In order to keep up with the increased demand, Vermont farmers began installing bulk tanks in the milking parlor in the 1950s.

Facing pressure from their creameries to invest in the costly machine, some small farmers simply went out of business. 


Manual Labor Gives Way to Machine Labor
  1. Hand Haying. UVM Special Collections
  2. Manure Spreader. UVM Special Collections.

Manual Labor Gives Way to Machine Labor

Before mechanization, fields were hayed by hand. Mechanization meant that tasks that had been group efforts — like haying and manure-spreading — could now be performed by one machine. The tractor was the most profound symbol of agricultural mechanization to emerge in the mid 20th century. John Deere, a pioneer of agricultural mechanization, was born in Rutland in 1836.

Today's Dairy Fields
  1. Dairy Farm. Andrea Suozzo
  2. Wrapped Hay Bales. Will Ameden
  3. Dairy Farmworker. Migrant Justice.

Today's Dairy Fields

Today, dairy brings in more than 80 percent of Vermont's agricultural income. Still, there are fewer than 1,000 dairy farms in the state, and farmers struggle to make a profit with dairy prices standardized nationally. In 2009, dairy prices dipped to levels not seen since the early 1980s, sending many out of business. Farmers also struggle to find labor — Approximately 60 percent of Vermont dairy farm workers are migrants from Mexico or other parts of Latin America.

Growing Movements

CSA Pickup. Intervale Community Farm

Growing Agricultural Movements

In recent years, Vermont agriculture — both within and outside of dairy — has diversified. Twenty percent of dairy farms in the state are now certified organic, which costs more to produce but provides more stable, high milk prices. And diversified vegetable farming has gained popularity, with many farmers selling directly to the consumer through farmers' markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture).