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By MJ Hanley-Goff
In 1870, Orange County had a thriving dairy industry with over 4,000 working farms. Today, only 37 remain. Of the statistics that Jim Baird shared at the Summer Speaker Series held at Goshen’s 1871 Courthouse on Main Street, that was the one which caused the most pause. In just a few more years, Baird, the son of a prominent dairy farmer fears the number may become just a handful. To get a taste of what may be a thing of the past, Baird walked through the audience with a tray full of white and chocolate milk samples from two of those farms: they were creamy, refreshing, and delicious.
His lecture was the second d of four planned by Orange County Historian, Johanna Yaun, held in the second floor of the 1841 Courthouse on Main Street, itself a historic landmark. The theme of today’s lecture was a look back at Orange County’s rich dairy farming history which Baird chronicled extensively in his book Orange County Dairy Farms: Past and Present, which was released in 2018; a project almost three years in the making.
But let’s start with the first dairy product: buttah! America’s first commercial butter business started Goshen in the 1830’s. Dairy farms had been self-sustaining, but when there was overage, farmers would sell it locally. Eventually, the butter was made in big batches and sold beyond the County. Since butter did not need to be refrigerated, it was easily shipped via railroad to Newburg, south to Manhattan, further down the East Coast and across the Atlantic to Europe. In 1875 alone, a whopping 3 million pounds of Goshen Butter had been sold around the world.
In the 1840’s, the ice industry made shipping milk possible, a nd soon creameries – which handled the transport of the milk and butter from farm to train — sprang up in the County. Elaborate pasteurizing systems were introduced, allowing large quantities of raw milk to be heated at high temperatures, thus removing the bacteria before being bottled. Baird shared that one milk bottle would be used over and over around 60 times which shows that recycling is not a modern concept.
The dairy farms soon became the number one 1 industry in Orange County, considered the “major economic engine” since it also employed a whole host of other industries including the buying and selling of cows, machinery, fertilizer, veterinarians, fuel, seeds, etc. Over the last 100 years, the mass production of milk in factories decreased the price farmers could get, eventually putting many out of business. Baird was quick to mention that some farms only had 5 to 10 cows which gave them little chance of competing at all.
Other factors that hastened the end for many dairy farms included the lack of mechanics to repair the old-fashioned equipment, the escalating price of pasteurizing supplies, and the aging out of the dairy farmers with no family members to take over. Baird worked his family’s Sugar Loaf farm as a boy and shared many endearing stories of his early days on the farm, of his grandmother’s freshly baked bread, of raising his own calf. Asked if he missed the dairy business, he said “yes,” calling a working dairy farm the most “soothing place on earth” for its quiet, bucolic views of barns and silos, and the sounds of happy farm animals. He went on to teach Middle School science in the Goshen School District and retired in 2003. Baird is enjoying this next chapter of keeping alive the rich stories of Orange County’s famous dairy farming history.
Baird’s visit was the second in a summer long schedule of historical and Orange County-related topics.
Here are the upcoming talks in the Speaker Series:
Friday, July 12th: Washingtonville’s Hellfighters in the Great War with Researcher, Historian and Librarian Matthew Thorenz.
Friday, August 16th: Cooking by the Book: Celebrity Chefs, Cookbookery and the Changing Landscape of American Cuisine with Food Historian, and Author Sarah Wassberg.
These events are free and open to the public. The series is purposely planned to coincide with the Goshen Farmers Market which is set up across the street from the Courthouse. We invite attendees to pick up lunch to enjoy as they listen to the speakers.