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In the small towns and villages of Vermont, cracked asphalt roads cut by farmhouses more than a hundred years old, their white siding and black shingles unchanged, and the barns behind them—many red, some turquoise, some blue. Beyond the barns, hay fields swell and dip before meeting a forested horizon. Out on pastures, dairy cows pull at the grass until their noses brush against the earth come autumn.

There is a humming nostalgia written in these rolling hills: a nostalgia for community, for a simpler and more earth-bound past. In the late 60s and early 70s, young people came to the state in droves, trundling up narrow valley roads in secondhand trucks and settling in forgotten farmhouses. This back-to-the-land movement grew out of a growing discontentment with postindustrial life—the smog of the city, the disconnect with food at the dinner table. Vermont, for them, symbolized a pastoral ideal. It was an antidote to the woes of capitalism.

But these ribbons of farmland are anything but a static past. Over the past four centuries, the threads of trade and conflict have tugged at this landscape, making and remaking these hills into an illusion of pastoral escape—an illusion entwined in, and not at remove from urban life.

For millennia, these forests have rarely been left undisturbed. This is the heartland of the Western Abenaki people, who have lived here for more than 12,000 years. Hillside pockets were burned to make clearings for settlement, or to lure deer to new tree lines. By the time of European invasion, extensive networks of trails and trade routes had already been long established. Beginning in 1000 A.D., agriculture began to take root in the fertile valleys and in small clearings, with practices and ideas coming from other communities living further south. Seeds were gifted and traded between Indigenous nations and families, with a rich variety of crops—squash, sunflowers, corn, ground cherries—grown in fields by villages.

But it wasn’t until the mass migration of White settlers in the late 18th century that the forest was almost altogether excavated to form the sweeping vistas that we are more familiar with today. In the decade following Vermont’s admission to the Union in 1791, nearly 70,000 settlers flocked to the region and doubled the state’s population. Much of the land, granted to speculators in colonial agreements, was carved up into property lots. The soils here are rocky, if anything else, but the settlers had been sold an idea of agricultural paradise by the landowners, who were eager to seek return on these newly established parcels. Some settlers moved into clearings left by Western Abenaki families after European invasion displaced them to the North. Others set to clearing the forest for farmland.

Early on, the trees were girdled; a strip of bark would be hacked away from the base of each tree in a narrow ring. Over several years, the roots would wither, cut off from the sugars made in the leaves.

In later years, the trees would simply be felled and left to dry over the winter. The land cleared faster this way.

The logs would be sent down river to become lumber or burned to make potash. Even then, Vermont was overlain with pathways of global trade: the potash would be exported to England for use in its growing textile industry. For most settlers, the additional income went toward paying off the land.

The arrival of Merino sheep brought more trade to Vermont. Valued by the Spanish for their thick wool, Merinos soon replaced the English breeds that had been mostly raised for mutton.

By 1820, the wool industry became the main and most profitable industry in Vermont.

Under high tariffs, the Vermont wool industry thrived.

In 1835, there were 6 sheep to every person.

Native grasses were replaced with high-nutrient European varieties that still carpet the hills today—timothy, orchard grass, red and white clover. Stones were piled into short walls, hemming in pastures and marking out property lines.

The sheep ate, and the hills stayed bare.

Wool Production



Due to their proximity to urban markets, Vermont farmers enjoyed a competitive edge in the wool industry in the early 1800s.

Map: Wool Produced per acre

But the connection of the Ohio and Erie canals a decade earlier would begin to erode this advantage.

In 1840, the Erie Canal carried 100,000 pounds of wool east from the Ohio Valley.

Five years later, the Erie Canal would transport
3 million pounds
of wool.

The cities were growing. Clothing factories were looking for cheap wool.

In the flat plains of the Ohio River Valley, farmers expanded their herds, feeding grain that was much less costly to produce than in Vermont.

The price of wool fell.




As wool production migrated west, a new industry spread out across the rural Northeast. Women in cities had begun to feed cow's milk to their infants, spurred on by social reformers, and left without the wet nurse networks that characterized motherhood in rural 19th century New England.

In cities, the social relations that had facilitated shared breastfeeding unraveled. Dairies popped up in cities—usually "swill dairies", operations attached to distilleries that supplied fermented mash as feed for the cows.

Although the railroad became a viable means to transport milk in the 1840s, it wasn't until the late 1800s that the dairy industry spidered into the countryside. Swill dairies, usually foul and unpleasant operations, were outlawed. That, coupled with ballooning urban populations and rising land costs, necessitated the market's expansion into Vermont and New York.



Data: "The Vermont Sheep Industry, 1811-1880", Robert Balivet; United States Agricultural Data, 1840-2012, Michael Haines, Price Fishback & Paul Rhodes; 19th Century U.S. Canals, Jeremy Atack
Images: Sheep placard – Vermont History; Aerial map of West Lebanon, N.H. & White River Junction, V.T. — George Norris, Litho Burleigh;

Today, the dairy industry remains one of the biggest forces maintaining the pastoral Vermont landscape. Without the hay combines and dairy cows trimming the fields, the grass would grow tall and eventually wither in yellowing expanses. But as much as the hills have stayed green, changing food policy and rapidly industrializing agriculture across the country has left its mark in Vermont. As dairy farms grow and consolidate, hay fields are replaced with uniform rows of corn; fewer and fewer cows are seen on the hills. Smaller farms are pushed out of business. The forests have grown back in parts. Seeds take root in old, unused pastures, and left untouched, saplings emerge out of the tall grass.

In a 2019 survey conducted by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS, 72% of respondents considered dairy to be very important to the state’s sense of self. In part, the tendency to view this particular version of pastoralism as an unchanging quality of this land has further cemented Vermont’s identity as a dairy state, and has bulwarked efforts to resuscitate an industry long plagued by overproduction, falling prices , and poor working conditions for a largely migrant labor force. But the enduring dynamism of this landscape suggests that this region is anything but bound to one model of food production. Instead, it holds possibilities for alternative food systems and new rural economies that make room for a diversity of frameworks, including perspectives from Western Abenaki tribes who have only recently received recognition in the state. More than anything, the recent agricultural history of this region reveals the importance of imagining these alternative futures. Far from being merely places of pastoral escape, rural places shift with changes in cultural values and economic systems at larger scales, creating patterns of injustice—such as in working conditions—that demand a rethinking of our interconnected systems.

Things do move slower in the Vermont hills. The shifts in the landscape are almost imperceptible on the day-to-day. But occasionally, on a walk in the woods, one might stumble upon a stone wall riding low to the ground and not far away, the last of an old farmhouse foundation, slowly being swallowed by a stand of maples. There won’t be any old growth trees there — there are hardly any in the state.

Further Reading & Ventures

Fresh: A Perishable History
Susanne Freidberg

Nature's Perfect Food: How Milk Became America's Favorite Drink
E. Melanie Dupuis

Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape
Jan Albers

The Western Abenakis of Vermont, 1600–1800
Colin Calloway

Abenaki Heritage Garden
Burlington, VT

The Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center
Burlington, VT