Second only to iron, agriculture was the dominant industry. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, hay and oats were raised mostly to feed draft animals in the manufacturing villages and the logging woods, rather than for stock on the farm. The Northern Railroad was not even finished when, in 1848, it invented a refrigerated railroad car and sent the first of many loads of butter to Boston, making dairy farming more profitable in the North Country and altering the farm economy. Butter and cheese were produced throughout the towns. Potatoes, grown in Peru, Saranac, and Schuyler Falls, supplied a number of starch factories during the third quarter of the nineteenth century, which shipped their starch to Massachusetts and Rhode Island; there were 11 in operation in 1865. Maple sugar was a significant product of Chazy. Farmers also supplied local demand for meat and vegetables, especially to the timber and iron industries whose workers were generally unable to produce their own.
Dover loam soils along the lakeshore provide an ideal environment for apple orchards, which flourished in Peru, Beekmantown and Chazy. The county’s first orchard was planted in Chazy by the LaFramboise family before 1790. In the 1950s and 1960s Chazy Orchards was the largest MacIntosh orchard in the world, with 43,000 trees.
Other products, some longstanding and some short-lived, included eels, frogs, and ice. Eel boats ran from Rouses Point to New York City with a screened compartment below the waterline to keep the eels alive. In Champlain, frog farming was once a sizeable industry. Ice harvesting began in December or January -- as soon as the ice on the lake was thick enough. In 1892 an ice boom hit the region due to expanding markets and a mild winter on the Hudson. Ice was shipped via the canal and by rail. With the advent of refrigeration the ice industry began to decline, ending forever in 1954.
As diversified agriculture declined, the better land along the lake shifted almost entirely to dairy and apple production, part of the nationwide trend towards specialized, cash crops. In the twentieth century lumbering concentrated on pulpwood and firewood and, in recent years, Christmas trees.
The Champlain Valley is home to the renowned William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy. After his mechanical inventions for rail cars made William H. Miner a millionaire, he returned from Chicago to Chazy with his wife Alice to build Heart’s Delight Farm. At its peak, this demonstration farm spanned over 15,000 acres from Altona to Lake Champlain and had 800 employees. The dairy barn had electricity, supplied by a hydroelectric plant on the property, before the governor’s mansion in Albany. Eggs, ham, sausage, butter and other farm products were shipped as far away as the Waldorf Astoria in New York City and the Palmer House in Chicago. Before his death, William Miner created a foundation to endow the farm as a school to teach scientific and environmentally sound agricultural practices to the farmers and young people of northern New York through research, education and demonstration. Starting in 1972 SUNY Plattsburgh entered into an innovative partnership with the Institute, offering a residential semester at the Applied Environmental Science Program at the Farm with a focus on the correlation between agricultural practices and environmental management. The Institute also partners with University of Vermont to provide the Advanced Dairy Management Program, fostering a new generation of budding agriculturalists. In the summer students from around the country head to Miner Institute for hands-on experience in dairy and equine farm management, or for internships in agricultural research and history. Miner’s legacy continues to shape and inform agriculture in the region today.