A trip to Vermont traces the history and successes of farming


The screeching of chalk on the blackboard that made Mother scream from the bottom of the stairs came from a third-hand record player. It was, in times of rebellion that were rare, what made her fear that her son was not a bean hill.

Her rules were few: helping without complaint when called upon, scooping eggs from even the nastiest chickens, and a haircut when her length reached the collar. A poorly maintained bedroom made her say that she felt sorry for the poor woman who would marry me.

A happy woman leads to a happy woman.

The adage came into play when Kathy proposed a second honeymoon to mark our 35e wedding anniversary. Her husband is nothing more than a creature of habit, which has met with resistance.

“If we don’t do it now, when will we ever do it,” Kathy said.

We were headed for the landscapes of Vermont, maple syrup and cheddar cheese. Raised on the farm, the cow-calf pairs grazing on the hillside stood out against the backdrop of changing leaves. Many farms cut the silage and mixed the corn. A small field of soybeans – the only one seen on our trip – was not harvested.

A visit to Shelburne Farm – a 1,400 acre working farm focused on sustainability issues – was a must. Sheep and cattle grazed on the hills, the cheese-making demonstrations and a shop were alluring.

“You have to see the barn,” said a guide. “This is no ordinary barn.

With the rays of the sun bouncing off its metal roof, the huge building looked more like a castle than a barn. The farmhouse and outbuildings were designed by William Seward Webb and Lila Vanderbilt Webb, who used a good chunk of his $ 10 million estate to build their dream in the second half of the 19e century.

My thoughts – for historical reasons – have turned to the Bonanza Farms which dominated North Dakota agriculture for part of the same century. The farms grew wheat, which was a hot commodity on the east coast. New farming equipment technologies, railroads thirsty for shipping tonnage, and readily available land and labor helped Bonanza Farms gain a foothold.

The farms were primarily owned by East Coast bankers and investors, keen to reap impressive financial returns. The first Bonanza farm was owned by George Cass and Benjamin Cheney. Oliver Darymple, who started running farms, eventually built a 100,000-acre empire that stretched from North Dakota to Minnesota.

The era did not last long – it ended with falling profits, pests and erosion of yields caused by monoculture and lack of fertilization. Settlers rushed to buy plots, and East Coast investors sought more profitable business options.

Decades later, the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union attempted to recreate their own bonanza farms by government decree. Joseph Stalin’s original idea, the collectivization of farms and the suppression of independent farmers met with strong resistance.

The Communist government arrested farmers, took their land and caused famine in rural areas that claimed the lives of up to 3 million people. The collectivization of Soviet agriculture was a model of inefficiency compounded by climatic problems.

The monopoly power wielded by the railways at the expense of farmers and the desire to improve daily life on farms inspired a cooperative movement that swept through the Dakotas and Minnesota. Under the leadership of Minnesotan Oliver Kelley, who along with others created the National Grange, organized farmers across the country.

Grain elevators and other businesses were bought and organized into cooperatives, and lower shipping rates were negotiated.

The agriculture of the 21st century is marked by greatness and efficiency. Thousands of acres of mostly leased land in these areas are farmed by a few. The successes of the era of family farming from the early 1900s to today are all the more impressive given the world struggles with food shortages in much of the world.

To learn more about Mychal Wilmes’ Farm Boy Memories, click here.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.


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