The following text was taken from a document prepared for the Town of Amherst Historical Commission by Bruce Coldham, President of the North Amherst Community Farm Board, and Gregory Farmer of Agricola Corporation dated January 8, 2018. It reviews the historical context for the proposal to restore the Ingram-Dickinson farm house pictured here, which has housed farm families since its construction around 1833.
The Connecticut Valley region in the early 19th century was in the midst of a gradual transition from subsistence farming with mixed grain and livestock to more market-oriented farming. The opening of the Erie Canal (1825) and access to the extensive farmland in upstate New York and Ohio had made New England’s small farms less competitive and shifted the focus of the grain and livestock market farther west.
The introduction of tobacco as a cash crop in the Connecticut Valley in the early 19th century led to debates about the moral responsibility of farmers. Tobacco crops tended to quickly deplete the soil and the volatility and eventual collapse of the market for field-grown tobacco discouraged many local farmers.
The opening of the Western Railroad (1841, later the Boston & Albany Railroad) and its feeder lines in the Connecticut River Valley provided local farmers with access to new markets. Livestock farms, dairy, and market produce (fruits and vegetables) became increasingly viable as the marketing network extended to urban centers in Boston and New York.
Concurrent with the new transportation network was the development of an interest in “scientific farming.” The new field, actively promoted by agricultural societies and by publications, sought to reduce the traditional dependence on the vagaries of weather and soil quality by introducing new crops, new livestock breeds, new cultivation techniques, and new ways of enriching the soil. The Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst (founded 1863, now the University of Massachusetts) served as the forefront for experimentation and training in scientific agriculture.
In North Hadley and Amherst the cultivation of broom corn in the second half of the 19th century brought a new cash crop and supported the development of local broom shops. The market was strong, but ultimately too limited to support more than a few family farms.
The introduction of shade-grown tobacco in the late 1880s offered the prospect of a new and potentially profitable crop that could be grown under tents in the Connecticut Valley. Shade-grown tobacco became the valley’s signature crop from the 1890s to the 1960s and accounted for a large percentage of the land in cultivation. Tobacco cultivation relied heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Dairy farms and market produce continued to serve local needs and more distant urban markets throughout most of the 20th century. Local farms were particularly important during World War I, the Depression of the 1930s, and World War II. Unfortunately changes in the federal price support system in the late 20th century placed small dairy farms at a disadvantage and many of the dairy farms in the Connecticut Valley were forced to close.
The environmental movement took root (so to speak) in the 1970s and eventually led to an appreciation of the Connecticut Valley’s rich farmland as a prime resource that required careful stewardship. A growing interest in organic farming and the new organizational network of community-supported agriculture encouraged the establishment of small farms dedicated to local markets. Small sustainable farms with an emphasis on fresh and locally-grown products are now a mainstay of the Connecticut Valley.