Vermont’s economy has relied on livestock agriculture for centuries. Sheep farming was the primary industry from 1810 to 1840, but also led to deforestation as valleys and mountainsides were cleared for pasture. Self-sufficient farming, however, gradually gave way to commercial agriculture that came along with the rise of industrialization and its factories. As sheep farming became less lucrative, farmers turned to dairy farming (including butter and cheese production) and, with the decreased demand for wool following World War II, this trend continued for decades. Since the second half of the 19th century, dairy has been one of Vermont’s primary industries.
The dairy industry generates $2.2 billion in the state each year. Dairy is also one of the state’s top job providers– 6,000 to 7,000 jobs are connected to Vermont dairy. Both large companies such as Cabot and Ben & Jerry’s and small, artisanal cheeses are claims to fame for the state.
The Vermont dairy industry also contributes to economic activity beyond the barn. The farm machinery and grain industries are vital, as corn and other grains are grown as feed for cows. Additionally, the beauty of Vermont’s pastoral landscape–due in large part to its farms–attracts tourists from around the world.
Most Vermonters agree that farming is an essential part of Vermont’s identity. They explain that farming, especially dairy farming, is “in their blood,” and many have been working on the same land for generations. 97% of Vermonters say dairy farms are important to the state, and 91% say dairy is important to Vermont’s future.
However, the future of Vermont dairy farming has become uncertain. Between 2002 and 2007, 64% of small, family farms in Vermont had net losses while 84% of, very large farms had net gains. Large farms producing specialized products are becoming more numerous, often leaving small farms behind.