This article uses Barra do Piraí as a case study of rural land tenure, production, consumption, and labor in Brazil’s Middle Paraíba Valley during the half century following abolition of slavery in 1888. Dairy farming and railroad development distinguished Barra do Piraífrom other coffee-producing areas that suffered from ecological devastation. By 1900 the land’s loss of fertility precluded further plantation agriculture in Barra do Pir aí, leading to the transition from lucrative coffee cultivation to dairy farming based on meager capital inputs. Compared to the earlier coffee culture, dairy farms produced only modest wealth for landlords and required fewer laborers, compelling impoverished tenants to migrate in search of employment. Since Barra do Piraí was an important railroad junction, many rural laborers ended up in the locale after using the railroad as a migratory path. At the same time, the railroad and proto-industries that it stimulated provided alternative employment for rural laborers, thereby partially mitigating the leverage landlords had over the abundant labor force. The availability of industrial and proto-industrial employment created occupational diversity among rural tenants and introduced them to work routines that would become commonplace when the region more fully industrialized after 1940.