From the colony’s founding in 1633, farming was the predominate way of life in Connecticut for over two hundred years. During this time many people raised their own food and kept their own animals. But commercial dairying has always been part of the Connecticut food economy - even then butter and cheese were reliable market commodities.
Milk, however, being highly perishable, had little commercial value. The milking season ran from April to November. All the milking was done by hand and the milk was hauled to market in ox or horse-drawn carts.
In the early 1800’s canals and railroads brought industry and concentrated the population in cities and the importance of farming in the state’s economy began to diminish. Many Connecticut farmers moved to the open space of the west.
Agriculture in the 1900’s was greatly impacted by technological innovations such as electricity, motorized tractors, refrigeration, truck transportation, and artificial breeding.
Modern Dairy Timeline
Dairying as a livelihood became feasible in the 1950’s. Interstate highways facilitated transport to markets and delivery of feed or equipment. Technology mechanized the milking process, and improved feed increased milk production. With access to refrigeration, market demand surged.
In the 1960’s the use of the traditional stanchion barn, where the cows are kept in fixed milking stalls, went through a radical change to the free-stall barn. In a free-stall barn the cows are free to move around. For milking they are moved to an adjacent milking parlor designed to milk many cows at the same time, greatly improving efficiency.
Other modern improvements have included improved veterinary care, a scientific approach to animal nutrition and highly selective artificial breeding. Computer systems have revolutionized farm management, tracking every detail from feed rations to animal health and herd management.
In this century, in spite of technological improvements, Connecticut’s dairy farms are facing many challenges. Suburbanization, land development, and fewer young people choosing to be farmers have lead to the loss of many local farms. This means loss of supporting agricultural infrastructure such as grain and equipment, and reduced cropland to the grow feed. Federally regulated milk pricing -which does not account for the higher production cost of farming in the Northeast, national and global economic changes, all put pressure on local farmers. In the past 10 years, the state has lost over 180 dairy farms.
Please read more about Farmland Preservation.
This information was compiled as part of a study and traveling exhibition, Farmers, Cows, and the Land: A Story of The Modern History of Dairy Farming. The exhibit was created in 2009 with Historic New England. During the summer and fall of 2010, the exhibition was displayed in the carriage barn of this historic Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, CT. This summer, it will be featured as part of a new exhibit presented by the Institute for Community Research, Dairy Farms in Connecticut: Change and Continuity.