A Moo-vement toward a Community: The Holstein Cows of Carleton Farm 

By Arya Misra ’22

It is hard to talk about Carleton Farm without the mention of its renowned herd of Holstein cows that won Carleton many awards and ribbons over the years. In 1914, under the presidency of Dr. Cowling and his advising companion, Dr. Harvey E. Stork, Carleton bought the 800 acres of land. In addition to buying the farm land, Dr Cowling also acquired 103 cows from a purebred Holstein cattle ranch. He was known to consult the leading Holstein farmers in Northfield, which was noted as one of the leading Holstein centers in the world. The existence of Carleton Farm as a separate enterprise of the college ended with the sale of the Holstein herd in 1964 and throughout its existence, Carleton Farm never changed breeds. As of June 30, 1915, each cow was valued at $3,200 and by 1926, the herd was valued at $50,000. Cow rearing and dairy production was an integral part of the work study for Farm workers. A look into the history of Farm Complex reflects the ethos of cows, college and contentment in a microcosm of the bigger Northfield community. 

On July 3, 1916, Frederick Houghton, secretary of The Holstein Friesian Association of America, certified Carleton College as a member of the association. In a Northfield News article from August 30th 1935, Holstein community breeding is emphasized as the predominant industry in Northfield. Winning top prizes for decades, Carleton Farm Holsteins had become prominent features of the college itself. From 1916 to at least 1928, there are consistent records of Carleton Farm’s Holsteins winning the first prizes in various county fairs especially, beating the St. Olaf dairy herd. The fame, however, was not enough to keep the farm out of controversy. Two major incidents deviated the fate of the Farm and the herd from the course of renovation and institutional aid. 

In 1921, plans were made for the Farm group which were then stalled due to the burning down of one of the barns, costing the college over $40,000. An addition of the water tank in 1928 as well as new modern fire protection measurements implemented in the new barn building, added unforeseen costs, taking investment away from the plans of expanding the Farm Group. In 1930, another major tragedy added costs to running the Farm and also created new sanctions to be followed for health and safety. In 1930, an institutional outbreak of polio occurred due to streptococcus bacteria found in unpasteurized milk from the farm. Several students were affected, with eight in severe condition, eventually leading to the death of two from paralysis of the respiratory muscles. This event changed the functioning of the farm. As a result, the Farm started sending the milk to a nearby pasteurizing plant called Campbell Dairy before supplying to the dining halls. Additionally, a detailed investigation conducted by the College in association with Mayo Clinic contributed to the study of streptococcus and treatment of polio.

Despite the challenges, the Carleton Farm stayed at the top of the headlines of major farming newsletters and journals. By 1935, the herd was producing an average of 1,260 pounds of milk and 43.9 pounds of butterfat per cow. By 1945, the production from the farm was reaching at least a ton a day, satisfying all dairy needs for the entire student body. The farm was also cultivating 187 acres of oats and 170 acres of corn in addition to hay for the livestock. In 1943, the average grain yield was reaching 17,000 bushels. Breeders from all over the United States and from as far as Mexico were coming specifically to Carleton to buy the farm’s purebred cattle. 

By 1950s, however, decisions were made to reduce the farm staff by half as agriculture and farming slowly fell out of favor as areas of work-study. The Board of Trustees had even proposed to sell the farm but settled on cutting down the number of workers instead. Students working on the farm went from six to three with an overall supervisor from Rochester. This team of four planned all crops and regulated the farm financially. On March 31, 1961, the Carleton herd was officially “certified”. 

On May 19, 1964, Carleton released an announcement stating that on Saturday, May 23, all 110 cows from the farm herd would be sold in an auction managed by the Piper Brothers from Watertown, Wisconsin. A letter received from Ralph W. Wayne from Extension Dairymen to the College Finance Director, Frank Wright, outlines that the alums were never informed of the auction and the college was met with some upset ex-farm workers who read about the auction in various farming newsletters. However, Mr Wayne ended up organizing a catalogue of the cows to support the farm during the auction. Finally, on a Saturday morning, all 110 cows from the renowned Carleton Holstein herd were sold off to various breeders across the country. 

With the auction of the herd, slowly the farm’s purpose diminished and corn and oats were considered not essential enough to continue the farm. By the end of 1964, the farm stopped operation entirely and eventually the barns, sheds and other buildings in the farm group were torn down, leaving the boarding houses used for farm workers which exist as Farm House and Parr House. However, even these two houses sat abandoned for years. In 1970, a group of students interested in the ecological and environmental initiatives of the college approached the school about wanting to make these old boarding houses their new home. Amidst pressures surrounding the Vietnam War and student unrest, the college agreed.