Farming in Westchester County
For two hundred years most Westchester residents made their living farming. Colonial
Westchester was a land of tenants and manors. The western and northern section of the county were the domain of tenant farmers on
Philipsburg and Cortlandt manors. Tenant also farmed the lands at Scarsdale and Morrisanis. These manors disappeared after the
American Revolution, leaving a county populated by small family-owned farms who typified the county from
the end of the eighteenth century through the middle of the nineteenth century.
These small independent farmers were intimately tied to the New York
City market, and the demands of New York City’s burgeoning population for more food and milk fuel the local economy.
The Westchester farmer originally only competed with other farmers in neighboring Connecticut, New Jersey, Long Island and Hudson River Valley.
These areas all had easy access to New York City via the Hudson River and Long Island Sound.
Once the Erie Canal opened in 1825, the competition stiffened.
Now all the produce of western New York and the newly opened Northwest Territories funneled through the canal, down the Hudson and
into New York City. At this point Westchester farmers turned to livestock as their primary crop. Drovers fattened cattle and sheep
on Westchester pasturelands preparatory to a final drive down the turnpikes to the New York stockyard. Somers became one of the principal
center for this trade during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. During the second quarter of the nineteenth century Westchester’s
drovers fattened an average of 5000 head of cattle annually for the New York City market. Pasturelands replaced tilled fields as farmers
concentrated on hay oats and other fodder for animals.
The coming of the railroad signaled the end of the age of the drover.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the iron horse replaced the waterways as the primary means of transportation.
This enabled farmers from farther and farther afield to compete with Westchester for the New York City market and livestock could be
fattened in pastures far from the City and shipped to the metropolitan meat markets by train. In Westchester the Hudson Division, the
Harlem Division and the Putnam Division rail lines linked all areas of the county to New York. By 1860, the impact of western producers
on eastern markets was obvious. Beef cattle became the specialty of western territories, new food preservation processes, canning and
chilling allowed meat to be transported over long distances. The former drovers and beef farmers of Westchester now turned to dairy cattle
for his livelihood.
The railroad also created an easy commute between Westchester
and New York City and a new type of farmer began to emerge. Wealthy industrialists looked increasingly to rural Westchester for country estates and summer homes. These new
landowners were gentlemen farmers. These gentleman farmers did not derive their livelihood from the land. Their farms supplied fresh eggs,
dairy products for the table and fruit and vegetables in season. They consolidated small family farms into larger holdings, many of which
became model farms for pure-bred livestock. More importantly, ownership of these farms allowed them to luxuriate in the cleansing rural
environment which could counteract the negative influences associated with rapidly expanding industrialization and alienation from the land
which seemed to typify late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. The viewed ownership of a country property as a symbol of
legitimacy and respectability.
By the twentieth century the world of agriculture was undergoing a whirl of changes.
Some changes were straight forward, like the advances in technology and farm equipment, the increase
in government regulation, and the new discoveries in medical science and genetics. Other changes were more subtle, like
the shifting perception of farming and agriculture in America. Farmers were consigned to supporting roles in the new industrial
society. Farmers had to adapt to these changes and many Westerchester
farmers found themselves less and less able to compete in the world agricultural market. Rapid transportation continued to bring in
competing goods to the New York market area at considerably lower costs and competing industries
in the area readily absorbed all available labor, leaving the local farmer with high labor costs. Farming was being
transformed from a way of life into a business.
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