I began my morning yesterday with my typical routine of checking e-mails, the weather forecast, and the local news. One of the Internet news sources I peruse on most days is the WCAX-TV website in Burlington, VT, as it was the only television station we could receive for most of my childhood, and it gives me an insight into what is happening in that area. One particular news segment caught my attention regarding an effort to save the last dairy farm in the town of Norwich, VT. To me, it represents a symbol of both the dramatic evolution of the dairy industry over the past 40 years and the changing face of rural communities in general. I felt it deserved some attention on our website and in what may become my final book on our traditional, self-reliant lifestyles and folkways.
Norwich is a small, rural town in what is generally known as the Upper Connecticut River Valley. It is located on the Connecticut River, which forms the boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire. The main village of Norwich is located at the southern tip of the town about 25 miles upstream from the North Charlestown, NH dairy farm on which I was raised. The town is pinched between the Connecticut River along its eastern border and the White River which flows past the town’s southwestern corner on its way to empty into the Connecticut River at the small, former railroad community of White River Junction, VT. Norwich village is a quintessential New England village, centered on a large town common or “green” possessing a prominent bandstand and surrounded by public buildings, including a brick Federalist-style town hall, a tall-steepled congregational church and a two-story brick school along with a number of stately, large wood-frame houses (most of which are painted white) and many of which were built around the beginning of the nineteenth century. The village is directly connected to downtown Hanover, NH by the elegant Ledyard Bridge, which is adorned by a series of decorative bridge balls and carries the Appalachian Trail between the two states. The rest of the town’s area is divided into a series of valleys and hollows formed by numerous low mountains (the highest being the 1,853-foot Giles Mountain in the northwestern corner of the town). These valleys radiate out from the village into the rural expanses of the town like the corrugated folds of a hand-held paper fan.
The most prominent business in Norwich is King Arthur Flower, which relocated from Boston to the town in 1978. Perhaps the largest single employer of the town’s residents is Dartmouth College and the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital (more recently expanded and rebranded as the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health Services System) located on the New Hampshire side of the river in Hanover and Lebanon, respectively. The town’s major tourist attractions are the Appalachian Trail and the Montshire Science Museum. Although the vast majority of the town’s land area (outside the main village) is dominated by forestland interrupted occasionally along the rural valley roads by the scattered remains of former dairy farm fields and meadows, Norwich was never perceived to be a farming community. Its socio-economic character has long been defined by the locally-prominent, wealthy residents of the compact village—many of whom were doctors, educators, and attorneys. In fact, one of the town’s Selectman (an elected official) once casually told me (in 1999) that you could tell how well the town’s economy was by tracking the work habits of the numerous attorneys living in the village. If the local economy was doing well, the attorneys were all busy filing lawsuits on behalf of their clients. If the economy was not doing well, the number of clients would drop and the attorneys would busy themselves by suing each other. Nevertheless, the town did have its older traditional farmers who lived and worked quietly in the hidden shadows of the village.
For most of its long history, the town’s economy and public image were dominated by the established elite families of the village. Outside growth and change did not begin to change the fabric of the community until the construction of Interstate 91 in the 1960s. This modern freeway provided new high-speed traffic linkages directly to Boston (along the I-91/I-89/I-93 corridor) and Springfield, Hartford, New Haven and New York City (along the I-91/I-95 corridor). They provided direct conduits for relatively wealthy city people to relocate into the picturesque Vermont countryside that they discovered and enjoyed during their winter ski vacation trips, thereby causing land value and prices to escalate rapidly. Ironically, the construction of Interstate 91 caused the loss of Romaine Tenney’s family farm and his tragic death in nearby Ascutney, VT, as I documented in Post 88: The Romaine Tenney Legacy in my prior farm book, Country Life at Peeper Pond Farm. The pace of change increased further still with the advent of high-speed telecommunications technologies that further reduced the physical distance between Norwich and the major cities.
These socio-economic changes had a greater impact on the rural areas of the town than they did on the village. The older farmers, many of them dairymen, saw the cost of the land they needed to expand their operation and increase their milk production inflate beyond the value their operations could obtain from it. Many of them struggled to survive in the hostile market economy that was gradually pinching them out of business. Most of them soon realized that the rising value of their land gave them an asset they could liquidate to send their kids on to college, pay for their age-induced medical expenses, or give them an opportunity to retire that they never imagined they could obtain. Why continue to operate a farm that was driving them into the fringes of poverty when they could become financially solvent or independent by selling it off?
Some of the old-timers sold out and moved away, but many of them continued to live in their generational farmhouse homes as they became encroached upon by the outsiders who bought and developed their former farm fields into low-density, residential tract subdivisions. The former farm buildings were removed, refurbished as silent museum pieces or transformed and adapted to become quaint commercial buildings, or gradually aged until they collapsed from neglect and deterioration. In many areas, the only entities that could impede the economic process of farm obliteration were the land and conservation trusts, assuming they had the financial resources to make the struggling farm families solvent and buy the land. It is a story that has been repeated in many, if not all, rural New England communities I knew during my childhood. If not for the resiliency of the alternative agricultural market in our Potomac Highlands region of West Virginia (to support more poultry and livestock operations), most of the remaining silent dairy barns in our area also would have disappeared from the landscape.
Over time, the number of dairy farms in Norwich gradually declined until only one large 350-acre (more or less) farm remained. In 2015, the owners donated the farm to the Vermont Technical College in Randolph, VT while the Upper Valley Land Trust raised $300,000 to purchase and preserve most of the farm’s forest land and fields, which are now permanently conserved and protected as the Brookmead Conservation Area. After acquiring the farmhouse and barn properties, the college subsequently applied for federal and state grants to purchase milk processing, pasteurization, and packaging equipment to operate a small dairy processing plant. Milk for the plant was purchased from the Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock, Vermont.
However, after one year of operation, Vermont Technical College abruptly decided to abandon the farm operation, subsequently placing the six-acre barn/creamery property it acquired for sale at an asking price of $1.25 million. Not surprisingly, based on the constrained value that can be obtained for dairy products in the prevailing economy, none of the bids they have received from interested parties were even close to the college’s asking price. The people who contracted with the college to operate the creamery have filed a law suit against the college for breach of contract, claiming that the college never gave the operation a chance to succeed. I don’t know who is representing the plaintiffs, but I would not be surprised to learn that it is a Norwich attorney.
With the future of the last functioning dairy facility in Norwich dangling by threads, the town organized and created the “Norwich Farm Foundation,” with the goal of acquiring the college’s farm property to restore and revive the college’s creamery operation. They have submitted repeated bids for the property, all of which the college has summarily rejected. They hope to obtain permission from the Upper Valley Land Trust that owns and manages the Brookmead Conservation Area to use 65 acres of the former pastureland and hayfields to support their proposed dairy operation.
While I am supportive of their professed plan and energetic drive to preserve the farm and restore it into a functioning dairy, I am surprised that it took them so long to act. After all, Norwich is not a poor community, and its residents have access to substantial financial resources that most rural communities can only dream of. According to 2020 Census data, the average household income in Norwich is $155,346, and the town’s poverty rate is 5.54%. The median home value is $454,500. Just over 50% of the town’s residents possess graduate degrees, and an additional 30% obtained at least a four-year college degree. No rural town in my area can match those statistics.
I reviewed the trust’s website, which lists the names and general backgrounds of the team leaders. Although they have the kind of impressive professional credentials I would expect to find in Norwich, only one of them is specifically identified as a native Vermonter and none of them appear to have any acknowledged dairy farming background or experience. While dairy farming may appear to be a very simple line of work, the complexities and sensitivity of the dairy economy is difficult to understand and even harder to profit from, as I’m sure the Vermont Technical College eventually realized.
I guess the lesson and moral that this plight clearly validates is the one I explained a full decade ago in my first published book, Lifestyle Lost. What I concluded in that book (beginning on page 64) actually bears repeating, in light of Norwich’s plight…
“I learned from my childhood experiences that a self-reliant lifestyle is defined and supported by a combination of factors, many of which are embodied in the experiences I have outlined about our life on the farm. Our lives were tied to the rhythms of the changing seasons. We worked hard to survive and took pride in our efforts and the sense of relative independence we gained from it. We learned to respect the land and nature. We utilized the barter system to reduce our dependency on the larger economy and to manage our cost of living. Many times, we simply sacrificed when we could not afford to splurge. We adapted to modern technology where it was affordable and contributed directly to our ability to live as self-sufficiently as we could. And we relied on traditional technologies where it was necessary to make ends meet. We were also part of a larger community that shared our values and lifestyle. Without all of these elements working in harmony our lives could hardly be considered self-reliant.
“As Scott Hastings [the original curator of the Billings Farm Museum] often observed in his writings, modern society does not replace or extinguish traditional lifestyles and folkways swiftly, uniformly, or completely. In many places, people cling to the traditional ways of doing things, either out of a sense of nostalgia (because it’s part of a shared traditional heritage or craft that has been faithfully passed from generation to generation) or because it makes better sense within the specific limitations of the local economy. When these conditions exist, both modern and traditional lifestyles can co-exist almost side by side and persist that way for many years. This explains very well why that condition existed in my part of the Upper Valley during my childhood and why it also lingers today in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia.
“The truth of the matter is that there were varying degrees of self-reliant lifestyles in the Upper Valley Region throughout my childhood. We lived by the core values of self-reliance, but we had technology that prior families living on the same farm did not. On the other side of the coin, we had some people, like Dora Dean, who lived far more traditionally than we did. Our community also had independently wealthy people who had moved in from the outside world and brought with them all the trappings and customs of their outside-world life. They had their own social network and we simply weren’t part of it. We lived separate, but inherently unequal lives.
“Change occurred very slowly within that part of the community made up of families who had lived there for generations and worked the land. The rate of change increased when the outsiders moved in with their different ways and replaced the older families. That replacement didn’t just occur because the older families sold out and moved away. More often, it occurred when the last generation of an older family passed away and the land was subsequently divided up and sold by children who, like me, had long since left for higher paying jobs and careers elsewhere.
“The traditional ways were dying in large part because the generation that practiced, valued, and relied upon them was dying, the younger generation was leaving, and a newer, more economically advantaged population from the outside world was moving in to take its place… As this gradual social and economic transformation took root, the alternative value potential of the remaining undeveloped land appreciated accordingly. Over time the market value of the land became too expensive to sustain and justify the meager economic return that could be obtained from the more traditional pursuits and ways of living. That also made it too expensive for the next generation to afford to live there on the meager, marginal wages that the local economy would support. People earning local wages simply couldn’t compete for land with the rising tide of outsiders willing and able to pay much more to live in that setting.
“The process of economic transformation begins very gradually and is almost imperceptible to the casual observer. For a time, as long as adequate land resources are available the two distinct and different societies can occupy the same area even though they operate in different economic and social dimensions. They can share the community without interfering with one another until the available land resources become too constrained or the basic cost of living begins to change. At that point, the two societies collide and compete with one another for economic supremacy until one or the other is inevitably forced out. Unless politics intervene in the process of what I would call “natural economic selection” or “survival of the wealthiest,” the more prosperous economic system will inevitably win the battle.
“This is the fundamental cycle of economic transformation that has driven entire Amish communities from one area to another. When land becomes too expensive for people of limited means to purchase in order to sustain a growing family’s needs, then the family must move elsewhere to find a place where its lifestyle can be practiced within its proper economic context and constraints. At some point in a money-driven market economy, everything must have the right (not necessarily the highest) value within its economic context to survive and thrive.
“When I was growing up in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, my community appeared to be one of the last remaining economic refuges in New England for self-reliant people. It may exist now only faintly in the northernmost inaccessible reaches of Maine and New Hampshire and in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. What traces of it that remained in my community when I left for college appear at the surface to be gone today. Only a period-reminiscent landscape of historic architecture, weather-beaten farm buildings, silent mills, and overgrown farm fields remain. The economic life that built and sustained this landscape has heaved its last breath.
“Those who remain from the community I remember and the new people that live there now struggle to maintain and preserve the fleeting relics from that traditional past, but they can’t make them vital, useful, or economically relevant again. They are merely polished off, repainted, and put on display. Their economic context and the people who made them useful have quietly and unceremoniously faded away. In essence, many of the older, traditional villages exist today as living ghost towns or museum communities. Even the fresh coats of paint and restored facades cannot resurrect the economic vitality and meaning that the scattered museum pieces once enjoyed. Once the traditional communities and societies pass into history, the most well-intentioned acts of preservation can never truly restore them.
“My adoptive father was generally right about one thing; our lifestyle was an outdated way of living that had no economic future in the modern world. For that reason, my wife and I see ourselves as economic refugees from New England—a people displaced by an economically powerful society that gradually and inevitably smothered the energy out of the simpler traditional society that initially enticed it there. For me, and others like me who lived in and valued that society, all that remains are the memories.
“Like the Amish, we have finally moved on to another place where our simple lifestyle values still have some economic, social, and even political relevance. In our case, we chose to retire in Pendleton County, WV. Perhaps now you can understand why our retirement property means so much to us. While I admit that our modern society has economic advantages that can always, given enough time, supplant a traditional, self-reliant lifestyle, I am left to ponder if it is truly more sustainable in the long run. Is it truly able to sustain itself over long periods of time better than the alternative lifestyle, even when the market economy isn’t so healthy? Is the modern economy a metaphorical hare to the tortoise that represents the more traditional society? That is an interesting question that deserves some additional consideration and contemplation…”
I guess I’m just concerned that the laudable plan that the Norwich Farm Foundation is attempting to achieve may be too little, too late. I certainly hope that they do have someone in their organization who has extensive experience in dairy farming and the workings of the larger dairy economy. I just can’t find it the information they have placed on their website. From an economic perspective, they may have to consider an adaptive reuse plan that might generate a greater return on investment for the former dairy barn and creamery. That was what the owner of a similar historic barn in Jacksonville, AL had to do when he transformed it into a three-story restaurant and conference facility. The third floor became a banquet/conference room with an expensive and sophisticated dining menu, the middle floor became a formal but moderately priced family restaurant, and the basement floor became a pool hall/sports bar facility. It’s a redevelopment concept that has been applied successfully in other areas, but I did visit and enjoy that particular facility several times while were living in Oxford.
Another former two-story dairy barn built in 1812 near Cumberland, MD was transformed into the 1812 Brewery (a micro-brewery operation) that grows its own hops on the property. The two-story barn features a taproom where customers may sample a variety of brews, a large indoor banquet area for meetings and special events, and an outdoor patio area for a more informal and leisurely sampling experience.
These and many other adaptive reuse and repurposing options have been employed to salvage and restore former dairy barns. Although some alternative use options can utilize some of the former pasture and crop lands associated with the barn (such as growing hops to support a micro-brewery operation), most of the former fields and pastures cannot be salvaged. If some or all of the original supporting farmland can be acquired with the barn, it is typically developed into non-farm residential or commercial uses to offset the investment cost of the project or preserved as conservation open space by a land trust.
I understand and appreciate Norwich’s interest in preserving the farm’s former dairy use, but the immense cost of restoring and maintaining a historic dairy barn can be difficult to finance from the meager returns that any dairy operation can generate. Why else would they be failing at such a rapid rate? That is precisely why many of the most prominent historic dairy barns are converted into more profitable alternative uses that can fit into and make effective use of the barn’s spacious interior. It is because of this economic constraint that many former farm buildings are simply preserved as museum pieces or monuments to a traditional way of life that cannot effectively compete with or survive in the modern urban economy. The residents of Norwich may have the financial resources to overcome this critical issue, but it remains to be seen if they are willing to invest what it may take to achieve to preservation integrity they seek.
Regardless of the outcome of their preservation efforts, the desperation of their plight provides yet another good lesson for us in West Virginia who cherish our multi-generational dairy farming heritage. For that reason, I decided to write this post about Norwich’s current dilemma. It certainly reinforces all the concerns I have raised throughout the past decade in the five books I have written regarding the vulnerability of our traditional self-reliant farming lifestyle. When will we all learn to value it and take action to promote and protect it as we have tried to do here at Peeper Pond Farm? Only when there are no other options?