In the Far Pasture: 300 Years of Agriculture in Cheshire County
November 2015-June 2016
The nature of agriculture in Cheshire County has changed immeasurably over the past three centuries. The transition from 18th century subsistence farms to organic farming and specialization in the 21st century is a fascinating story of hard work, geography, technology, and economics.
It is almost impossible to imagine today, but almost all of the early settlers of Cheshire County were farmers. They came to southwest New Hampshire beginning in the 1730s to farm the land to support their families. These settlers cleared land all across the region, developed successful farms, and then changed with the times to survive on those farmsteads for several generations. From the subsistence farms of the 18th century, farmers began to specialize as early as the 19th century, raising sheep for wool and selling cash crops outside the area.
Technology and geography spelled doom for most of the region’s hill farms from the mid to late 19th century. The thin soil away from the river valleys became depleted after generations of use and then the opening of the more the productive farmlands of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio attracted New England farmers by the thousands. The number of farms in the region decreased dramatically; those who stayed specialized even further, most often focusing on dairy products (milk and butter) and poultry production (eggs and broilers).
The introduction of national and worldwide markets affected local farms even more. By the 1950s and 1960s the use of trains, planes and refrigerated trucks meant that produce often traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles from farm to table. Furthermore, the use of chemicals resulted in more, larger, and better preserved fruit and green produce that could be shipped around the world. Many commercial farms in southwest New Hampshire, even those in the fertile river valleys, closed down and sold their land. The future of any form of agriculture in Cheshire County seemed to be in jeopardy.
A change in consumer taste revived agricultural pursuits in region at the end of the 20th century. By 1999 there were only 35 to 40 active farms in the county, but a demand for locally grown and organic produce has encouraged farming in the area. Specialization and niche marketing resulted in new and enlarged operations. Today Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and farmer’s markets allow small farmers opportunities to market their produce to local consumers.
The percentage of the population involved in farming will never again approach the levels of the 18th and 19th centuries, due largely to the impact of modern technology, but there are now many opportunities for hard working farmers and discriminating consumers to work together to insure the success of agriculture in southwest New Hampshire far into the future.