Photo By: Bob Ostrander
Retelling the history of farming in Herkimer County can be done one story at a time, recording memories and circumstances that led us forward to our present day. Remembering the hard work that came before us, the trials and victories that were had in Herkimer County help us know who we are while shaping the future. Below is a collection of articles to remind our agricultural community of how far we have come, and how much we are capable of.
The long history of farming in the Mohawk Valley dates back to the days of the indigenous Mohawk people of the Haudenosaunee nation. The Mohawks recognized the qualities of the fertile soil and pure water of the region and planted many acres of the “Three Sisters” (Corn, Beans & Squash) that sustained their long house villages. The region’s resources were rich enough to provide the basis of their food supply through the year.
The European settlers of the 18th and 19th centuries also recognized the qualities of the land and settled in homesteads along the Mohawk River. The early farms were primarily subsistence operations growing just enough to support the settler’s families with little to spare. As the pioneers cleared more land and established pastures and crop fields, the Herkimer region was recognized as prime dairy country. One early writer described farming conditions as:
“Herkimer lies in the midst of the great dairy region of New-York and one can see at a glance the secret of its wide-spread fame. Herkimer lies near the headwaters of the Mohawk River and one can hardly find finer land in the state. The growing conditions here are excellent and the quality of the butter and cheese is exceptional.”
Cheese was the chief product of early Herkimer farms because it shipped easily without the danger of spoilage. The quality of Herkimer cheese was so high it commanded a premium in the markets of New York, London and Paris in the 1850s. A contemporary writer in the American Dairyman reported:
“Herkimer cheese has attained a fame exceeding the best cheeses of New England and is now producing ten percent of all the cheese made in the United States.”
The cheese boom lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. By that date, other dairy regions across the United States were out producing the Mohawk Valley dairies and undercutting the region’s price structure. Taking advantage of rail and highway transportation to metropolitan markets, local farms produced fluid milk sold to regional dairies. This was the basis of the regional agricultural economy through the 1970s.
Today, according to the latest agricultural census there are almost 600 farms of all types in Herkimer County that utilize 118,000 acres of land. Dairy farming is still the largest form of agriculture in Herkimer County. Annually, dairy products account for almost 70% of all farm sales and creates almost $40 million of income locally.
Recently, other forms of farming including specialty produce, eggs, meats and finished food products are rising as market conditions change. These farmers often sell their goods directly to consumers through farm stands, seasonal markets and CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture). Increasingly, vegetable growers are sending their crops to metropolitan areas to serve the gourmet, locavore and ethnic markets. Many of our county’s growers have established direct sales relationships with leading restaurants and fresh markets as a profitable income stream.
By Garet Livermore, Cornell Cooperative Extension Herkimer County