Dairy Farming and Interlaken
Contributed by Eric Hunt

 Volume 31, No. 4 April 2006 & Volume 32, No 1 July 2006

Editor’s Note- This research paper by Eric Hunt was written for his anthropology course at Cornell University. Eric chose a community, identified a number of questions, researched and analyzed the questions and finally constructed the paper. It is presented in two parts, the second part to appear in the July, 2006 newsletter.

The decline of dairy farming has forced Interlaken, New York to evolve as a community. Where dairy farming once existed as the “tie that binds”, other communal institutions have had to rise to fill the void. In the past, dairy farming served to bring people in the community together, whether farmers discussing something over breakfast or community members meeting up at the now closed Agway. The community was very interconnected since each member had a tie to dairy farming, and therefore everyone knew everyone. However, people have taken up many various unrelated professions since the move away from dairy farming, resulting in less common ground between the people. In response, many other smaller communal institutions exist, such as the school, churches, and the Interlaken Historical Society. These institutions have replaced farming as the focus of community life but do not include everyone.

In this paper I will discuss how the Interlaken community has changed in relation to the decline of dairy farming. In my research for this paper I conducted three interviews, one each with John Hunt, Dave Powell, and Allan Buddle. John and Dave were long time dairy farmers who grew up and farmed in Interlaken. They both still live next to their former farms. Alan Buddle, president of the Interlaken Historical Society, has been a resident of Interlaken for 30 years and has had an orchard, beef cattle, and currently owns two Belgium draft horses. Many other secondary sources also aided in my research for this paper.

Interlaken is a small village located between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes in the fertile Finger Lakes region of New York State. Interlaken was part of the military land tracts given to revolutionary war soldiers in payment for their service. Many soldiers sold their tracts to a few hearty pioneers who moved in and settled the land in the 1790s (Patterson). Interlaken, which is within the township of Covert, officially became part of Seneca County in 1804 when the county was incorporated. As of the 2000 census Wikipedia listed Seneca County with a population of 33,342 and 375 square miles in size. Wikipedia also lists the town of Covert as having a population of 2,227, with the village of Interlaken accounting for 674 of those people. The name Interlaken usually refers to an area that includes the village and immediately surrounding area. Interlaken’s former names of Farmer, Farmerville, and Farmer Village evoke how central farming had been in the area. The name Interlaken was ultimately chosen in 1904 as a result of a contest to rename the village something more appealing for the sake of tourism (Patterson).

Dairy farming in Interlaken has followed the national trend of decreasing numbers of farms and increasing herd size. According to Blayney’s USDA report, the number of dairy farms in 1940 was 4.6 million, while in 1997 the number was down to 116,000. In regard to the herd size, the average number of cows on a farm in 1940 was five, while in 2000 the average was 88. In Interlaken this trend was described by Dave Powell, who believed that there were around 30 dairies in the 1950s compared to about eight now. Dave also commented on how herd sizes have increased from approximately 25 cows in the 50s to more than 90 cows now.

The conditions for dairy farming began to change noticeably in the sixties and seventies. Increasing overhead expenses and decreased milk prices gradually forced many farmers out of business. Increases in overhead expenses included larger and more technologically advanced machinery for growing crops and for milking cows, and the rising cost of diesel fuel. The decrease in dairy farms paralleled the trend of larger dairies developing for increased efficiency through more specialization. The dairies that averaged five cows in 1940 were not in business solely for milk production and usually also included pigs, sheep, chickens and horses. Today, dairies are highly specialized in milk production since technological advances in machinery have allowed them to focus more time and effort on milk. In addition to larger milking herds, there are also larger numbers of dry cows, heifers, and calves. These other cows effectively double the number of cows on the farm.

The village of Interlaken was, and remains to some extent, the true center of the community. The following services existed in the village of Interlaken’s past: grocery stores, tannery, blacksmith, harness shop, cabinet shop, wagon shop, saw mill, grist mill, foundry, hotels, school, shoe store, hardware stores, dentist, restaurants/diners, automobile dealership, bank, insurance provider, funeral home, feed mill, jeweler, dry goods store, telephone office, theater, barbers/beauty salons, opera house, service stations, bars, drug stores, cannery, creamery, post office and a train station (Patterson). These services would bring people into the village, giving them an opportunity to socialize and interact with each other. As dairy farming has declined, so to has the population of the village of Interlaken. Wikipedia stated that the population has decreased from 780 people in 1960 to 674 in 2000. This marks the decline of the village as the true center of the community. Other factors such as the combination of the Interlaken and Ovid school districts into the South Seneca School District has also contributed to this decline. The elementary school is located in Interlaken, and the middle and high schools are located ten minutes away in Ovid.

Community groups such as the Grange Hall, Farm Bureau, and Eastern Milk Producers specifically served dairy farming in Interlaken. Dave Powell discussed how these groups held events that usually included a meal, a presentation dealing with dairy related business, and socializing. The purpose of these events was to strengthen farming community ties and communicate happenings and new ideas. Many impromptu community meetings occurred when two or more farmers and other individuals would meet up in town. These meetings could take place anywhere; in any of the shops or out on the streets.

The dairy community groups have also become delocalized as the local granges have closed, local Farm Bureau meetings are now held in Syracuse, and Eastern Milk Producers no longer meet locally (Powell). The Interlaken Creamery is another example of the industry’s move away from Interlaken. John Hunt spoke about the daily trips he made as a boy to take their cow’s milk to the creamery. The creamery served as a gathering place for dairy farmers for many years. The farmers would bring their milk in cans and put them on the loading dock. They would then have a little time for socializing as they waited at the other end of the plant for the cans to be emptied and washed. Eventually, the creamery’s services also left Interlaken. Milk began to be shipped to Watkins Glen in cans, and later bulk pickup became available. Today milk is picked up by various processors and shipped at least an hour away. What once was a social activity has become rather impersonal.

As dairy farming began to decline and change, the Interlaken community had to change as well. Where once everyone’s supplies could be purchased within town, advances in transportation made it easier and cheaper to travel to Ithaca and Geneva to buy goods. Allan Buddle commented on how it once took most of the day just to go to Interlaken to buy goods but now, in the same time or less, it is possible to travel to Ithaca to purchase supplies. Gradually, the many shops in Interlaken were no longer in as great demand and closed for good. Currently all that remain are a small convenience store/gas station, a service/gas station, a post office, a bank, a library, Gun Black (a company that does metal treating), Hipshot (a company that makes guitar bridges), a diner, a bakery, and Jay’s variety store. With the disappearance of the other shops, the number of community meeting places has diminished. As Dave Powell remarked, he no longer knows everyone in the area. With the lack of common ground provided by dairy farming he has no reason to know everyone. Community relations have changed from, “everyone knows everyone” to, “you only know a few people you interact with.”

The school remains an institution that brings people together. Though the school is no longer local to Interlaken, its importance as a place for people to interact has increased. A family with children in school who are involved with sports, plays, and other activities are connected with similar families. Now that the schools are spread out between two towns, parents spend much more time driving kids to extra-curricular activities. Additionally, children are participating in more school activities since they are not needed to help out on a farm. Without dairy farms to keep the family busy more time can be allocated to school activities (J. Hunt). People use these school activities as their main social time and rarely meet other than at these events. Residents who are involved with the school, especially in multiple areas, are more connected to the community than those who participate in minimal activities. John Gray, an anthropologist who has done research in rural Scotland, came to similar conclusions on the importance of the school in the community. One person he interviewed described the importance of the school to the community as, “The school brings together families – children, parents and grandparents – and neighbours” Activities that bring people together at South Seneca include sports, especially girls’ and boys’ basketball during the winter season. Another important activity is the theater productions, which involve many members from the community, whether through participation or attendance. The individuals involved in these activities form strong bonds with each other as they practice and perform for many hours. These various school events bring a wide range of people together in the absence of dairy farming.

Another organization that has made it their goal to build up the community is the Interlaken Historical Society (Buddle). Through historically focused community events, people have the chance to socialize with each other and learn about local history. The Interlaken Historical Society maintains two museums that are open on the weekends and on special occasions. One museum is quite small and has local artifacts, and the other is a little larger and has many agricultural related items and displays.

The Historical Society also stages a large activity each year that has included tours of local barns, a day of plows and plowing, and an event at the old grange hall. The importance of these events for social interaction is illustrated by the tour at the Usher-Hunt barn, where many current and former farmers met up and struck up conversations with each other. Non-farmer community members also had the chance to see a historical barn and learn a little about the history of agriculture in the area. Alan Buddle brought his draft horses to the barn and many people had an opportunity to pet the horses and see how the tack was put on them. Through these types of events the community can learn about the importance of agriculture and dairy farming in the Interlaken area. Alan Buddle believes the historical society has done a good job so far in organizing these events for the benefit of the community.

The churches in Interlaken also serve as community groups that provide a chance to socialize. The four churches in the village of Interlaken include the Baptist, Reformed, Catholic, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many more are located in the surrounding area. They all serve in connecting people within the community. Through church activities parishioners forge ties with people that they would rarely see outside of their place of worship. Church events also provide more opportunities to spend time with people known through school. Communal meals, such as potluck dinners, are a prime example of time for people to socialize. Though church meals have served social purposes for many years, especially for farmers, they are now even more important in connecting people from the community.

Dairy farming has been the way of life for many individuals in the community and consequently, as the number of farms in Interlaken has decreased, Interlaken has lost some of its identity. Farming is characterized by the respectable values of hard work, patience, independence, interdependence, family cohesion, and stability. As the number of farms has decreased, these values are practiced by fewer people. John Gray makes the same argument that a place makes the community and in Interlaken this place is the farm.

Hard work not only applies to the physical labor of chores and fieldwork but also to any other task that a farmer would undertake. As described by Fitchen, employers described former farmers as very hard working in everything they did. Former dairy farmers have taken up jobs as truck drivers, work with a machinery dealer or a feed company, or have remained in agriculture as a crop farmer. A community consisting of hard workers is strong, as each person recognizes the efforts of the other individuals and works to maintain the community.

Patience is another characteristic of farmers who wait for crops, rain, and their cows. Many mothers have declared, “Patience is a virtue”, and any farmer without patience does not make a good farmer. Fitchen explains that rural residents feel that rural living is a slower way of life and this can be contributed to patience. This is due in part to patience to take things as they come, for example not having road rage when you get caught behind a combine that takes up the whole road lane.

Independence and interdependence are closely related. A farmer is not completely independent, but overall he must take care of all the issues that come up on his individual farm. However, if a farmer experiences a difficulty many other community members are there to help out. In a close-knit community where everyone helps everyone, someone in need will be taken care of because of the community bonds. Now, since the community consists of smaller groups less closely linked, there are fewer people to call on in times of trouble.

Family cohesion is another very important quality on a farm. Smaller dairies have always been a family operation. Dave Powell spoke of how his wife took care of the cows and he focused more on the fieldwork. He also expressed that without his wife their farm would not have been able to operate. Strong families in a community greatly increase productivity and act as a smaller community where family members are the first to help each other out. In Interlaken, long time residents have much of their immediate family living in the area. However, many newer residents are the only ones living in the area, and instead of relying on family they must consequently depend on other people first. The value of a strong and large family means that you will have many connections within the community. Overall, these family bonds help to strengthen a community.

Stability is no longer such a sure thing in the changing times. In Interlaken’s past, people were much more certain that they would be farming today, tomorrow, and into the future; changes occurred but not drastically. Due to this certainty, people could feel a sense of stability over the lack of possible drastic change in their lives. A community could always depend on the dairy farm to be there with cows in the pasture and tractors in the field. With the disappearance of the farms that feeling of stability was undermined, as if something that enduring could change, then what would remain as a constant in life?

Dairy farming has always stood for the values of hard work, patience, interdependence, independence, family cohesion, and stability. With dairy farming no longer existing as the central part of community life these values are weaker in the remaining community.

The Amish are an interesting contradiction to the trends in the rest of the area. Many Amish have moved in to the area, bought up old dairy farms, and have flourished. Their dairy farms have no more than 30 cows, and horses still provide most labor power. The Amish truly embody the characteristics described above when they all come out to assist someone when they need help, as exemplified by barn raisings. The Amish rigorously follow their religion and work harder than anyone around, and consequently their community is very strong. The Amish are an example that dairy farms can still be small and an excess of material possessions is not needed.

As the Interlaken community has moved from one large community centralized around dairy farming to many smaller and often unrelated communities, the opportunity for conflict arises. Because members are no longer exposed to dairy practices, they do not understand farming and hold the same values as farmers. The conflicts that have arisen because of the lack of understanding had rarely been encountered in the past by the remaining dairy farmers. Such problems include neighbors complaining about the smell of manure, tickets being issued for getting manure on the road, and people getting mad about slow-moving vehicles Hilchey and Leonard outlined the importance of neighbors understanding the dairy practice whether through farm tours, regular communication with farmers, or helping with farm work. When a farmer and his neighbors understand each other it facilitates understanding about many issues and keeps knowledge of dairy farming available to the community.

Interlaken has become a community with many separate groups. Where once many people were connected together by dairy farming, groups such as the school, church, and the Historical Society now connect the people. Dairy farming in Interlaken has followed the trend of having larger herds for more efficiency, resulting in only a handful of farms remaining in the Interlaken area. Dairy farming now exists as a visual sign of the past of Interlaken. It stands for the values that are associated with farming that people rarely experience anymore. The groups that are now connecting people, although separated, do a good job bringing together people of different backgrounds. People who might have never been exposed to dairy farming make friends through school and end up spending plenty of time around the farm. This helps with understanding and knowing more people in the community. If everyone were to know everyone Interlaken would be a much closer community, such as what has existed in the past. When the community is well connected everyone helps each other out and conflicts rarely occur. Unfortunately, these separate groups do not fully understand each other, as exemplified by conflicts over farm smells. The decline of dairy farming has caused Interlaken to evolve as a community, but efforts are continually made to maintain strong neighborly relations.