The story of the dairy industry in Watertown mirrors that of many industries in Connecticut. While savvy entrepreneurs in the area laid the foundation for early success, decades of consolidation and increased competition from around the country scaled back operations in Watertown, gradually turning the town into a residential community—albeit one with a proud agricultural tradition carried on by a handful of resilient dairymen.
Dairy Farming in 19th Century
Watertown began as a farming community. In the late 19th century, local resident Joseph Munson built a barn, purchased some cows, and became Watertown’s first dairy farmer. Munson milked his cows by hand and stored the milk in 40-quart cans until he was able to arrange for their delivery. By 1896, the Munson’s were producing between 6,000 and 7,000 quarts of milk per year—the origins of a booming industry that witnessed over 30 dairy operations crop up in Watertown over the next several decades.
During this time, milk was most often kept in cans chilled by nearby sources of running water. In the winter, dairymen cut large quantities of ice from local ponds to keep the milk from spoiling before it got to market. Farmers dropped the cans off at milk platforms for transportation to major population centers like Waterbury.
By the middle of the 20th century, the areas around Watertown were some of the most important milk-producing areas in the state, but change came quickly. The 1950s saw the increase of “bulk tank farm pick-up,” a practice that brought an end to community milk platforms through the use of large tanker trucks that drove directly to farms to siphon milk out of large refrigerated tanks. To allow for such operations, farmers needed to spend between $2,000 and $4,000 on storage tanks, as well as provide finished roads and keep them well maintained. The cost of these investments proved too much for many smaller operations.
In addition to new, higher costs of operation, Watertown dairymen faced increased competition from farms in other states. This was especially true of New York, where excellent dairy lands and lower taxes and real estate prices made it harder for Connecticut farmers to compete.
New England Green Pastures Award, A Highlight Amidst Industry’s Downsizing
Local dairy farmers tried to counteract these effects through programs meant to increase efficiency. In 1960, Watertown’s Peter Petersen won the New England Green Pastures Contest—an educational program meant to improve productivity on local farms. Through selective breeding and innovative nutrition programs Petersen’s cows averaged 12,614 pounds of milk per year—earning Petersen the title of top dairyman in the state—but the economics of dairy production continued to work against Watertown farmers.
In 1986, there were only 4 dairy operations left in Watertown. Many of the town’s dairy farmers, like John and Marie Kalenauskas, took advantage of government programs like the US Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Termination Program to sell their cows for cash. In addition, federal limits placed on milk prices worked against Connecticut dairymen, who faced higher costs of production than competitors in other states.
While Connecticut farmers continued to produce a large portion of the milk consumed in the state in the decades that followed, many of the dairy operations in Watertown did not survive the change in economic climate. Today, much of the land formerly used for dairy farming hosts vibrant residential communities that thrive in the area’s peaceful surroundings.