University of Vermont

Cultivating Healthy Communities

Oral History

Right from the start, Extension's strength has been its people and the relationship they have with Vermonters. No history of UVM Extension would be complete without the stories of those men and women who devoted their lives to advancing the mission of the land-grant university. See the Full List of Recordings »

Henry Atherton

Professor of Animal Science and UVM Extension Dairy Specialist, 1953 - 1989

Few people have had such influence on the dairy industry as Dr. Henry V. Atherton, who served as Extension Dairy Specialist and faculty member of the UVM Department of Animal Sciences from 1953 to 1989.

Raised in the small town of Glover in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, Henry was involved in agriculture from an early age. His chicken projects in 4-H taught him the value of good record-keeping, and the family farm, consisting of four cows, a couple of pigs, and a large vegetable garden kept the family going during the Depression. As Henry recalls "we had everything but money."
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When Henry began his career at the University of Vermont in 1953, the dairy industry was going through a transformation that was so large in size and scope that Henry likened it to the Industrial Revolution. In the spring of 1953 Hood and Borden had announced that as of September 1 they were going to switch to bulk tanks. Henry recalls "It was total chaos. As far as the farmers were concerned it meant new milk houses, roads for the trucks to get into the milk houses, and this whole idea of milk movement." On top of this, "the wartime economies on rubber and gasoline meant that milk was picked up every other day rather than day by day as it had been."

As a result of this new technology, hundreds of dairy farmers were forced out of business. Those who remained faced significant challenges. There was little research available on cold tolerant bacteria, milk flavor, and shelf life. "So literally my career developed around bulk tanks... helping the farmers cope with this new phenomenon," Atherton noted.

Because UVM didn't have a bulk tank of its own Henry would ride around with a milk collector taking samples from farmers' bulk tanks and bringing them back to the lab for testing. Little was known then about psychotrophs, the cold tolerant bacteria that proliferated in bulk tanks and ruined milk by the time it arrived in city markets such as Boston. "As it turns out I had done my PhD at Penn State on cold temperature bacteria, so I guess I was one of the pioneers really of adapting that study of the effect of the so-called psychotrophs."

Along with UVM colleague Alec Bradfield and building on the work of Bradfield's friend Dr. C. K. Johns in Ottawa, Henry developed a protocol for measuring the preliminary incubation rates of cold tolerant bacteria. This protocol is still in use today and is used to evaluate sanitation practices on a farm and used by processors to reward farmers with low PI counts. In addition to studies on bacteria Henry also did studies on the impact of bulk tanks on milk flavor and shelf life. "We were dealing with a subject that was totally foreign to traditional farmers, field hands and the regulatory people. None of them had a handle on this so we did a lot of work during those first years."
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Literally my career developed around bulk tanks and helping the farmers cope with this new phenomenon...