On the eastern edge of New York State’s Finger Lakes region, 400 acres of succulent pasture are home to Peter Mapstone’s herd of healthy, vigorous, cross-bred cows. Just south of Syracuse, the farm’s 600 acres track across rolling hills that are part of the great Appalachian Plateau. The views are gorgeous, not that the cows would notice. They’re too busy feasting. But this wasn’t always the case at Pastureland Dairy.
Growing up, Peter and his brother, Mark, always worked the farm with their dad, Robert, who had purchased the original acreage in 1944. As the youngest of four siblings, Peter was the last to go away to college. When he graduated from Cornell with a BS in Animal Science—his mother always thought he should be a vet, given his affinity for animals—he intended to go on to vet school. But his brother, Mark, who had been home at the farm helping their dad, decided he wanted to move on to other pursuits.
Fearing the lack of help on the farm would mean losing it, Peter decided to go home, partially out of loyalty, and partially because he knew that’s where he wanted to be eventually anyway. “I found out I didn’t really want to be a vet, because it meant I’d only be doing one thing. As a farmer, you have to be good at a lot of things. I like that challenge.”
The challenge began immediately when Peter returned to the farm. His response to the challenge changed the direction of the farm in amazing and fortuitous ways.
“The week I got home from college my parents took off for two weeks on a long-needed vacation. It was intense. Normally we ran the farm with 3 people. It was trial by fire, to say the least. We were a confinement dairy at the time, and I was trying to harvest hay, do chores and feed and milk 60 cows. I finally decided I was going to do like we used to do and get the cows out of the barn where they could feed themselves. We still had pastures around the barn, so I quickly repaired some of the fence and put the cows out.
My dad was surprised to come home to a grazing operation, but he saw pretty quickly it was better to have the cows outside. They ate a lot of grass which meant they ate a lot less grain. We didn’t lose any production, and the cows were more comfortable and less stressed. The more we grazed, the healthier the cows got and the less work it was for us.
Around 1987 I started rotationally grazing the cows. I think I’d had one lecture on that when I was at Cornell, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. Plus, I was dying to try it. Every year we improved our practices and added more and more acreage to pasture.”
Peter became well known in the area for farming this “crazy” way. When folks saw how much his farm and the animals benefitted from it, however, they started asking questions and inviting him to meetings to talk about what he did. He received conservation awards and, in 1997, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, visited Pastureland Dairy, complete with press conference, TV crews and secret service. The farm was featured on the covers of “Progressive Farmer” and “Dairy Today”.
“When a lot of other farms were going out of business, we were doing a lot of things that were cheap and easy to do and making sure we grew at a very controlled rate.”
Around 2004, Peter’s brother, Mark, suggested he take the farm organic. “We were already close to organic as it was. My loan officer said the only farm he dealt with that was more profitable than mine was an organic farm.” But that’s not what attracted Peter to organic, because in 2004 he was under tremendous stress and developed Rheumatoid arthritis.
“I’m absolutely sure it had a lot to do with the chemicals I’d handled in the past. I custom sprayed other peoples’ fields for years. Between the stress and burning the candle at both ends for years and years, it triggered a tailspin. The disease nearly crippled me. I was in so much pain, I could hardly sleep.
Our herd had swelled to 250 at that point. I was working long hours and pushing myself constantly. My dad was getting older and I didn’t want him working so hard either. If I went organic, I would get a decent pay price for our milk and I could do it with fewer cows.
I wanted my kids, Jeremy and Kelsey, to be safe here. I needed to get on the right track, too, so I started with alternative health practices and nutrition for my RA. Five years later, I’m not exactly cured, but I’m much, much better. All the Organic Valley farmers in this region have bent over backwards to help me, and that was before I was on the truck with OV. That’s one of the things that made me want to join the co-op.”
After two previous bouts of cancer, Peter’s dad got sick again a year ago—bone cancer—and passed away just shy of his 82nd birthday.
“My dad started farming with a horse and an old tractor he had to light a fire under to start in the cold. He was thrilled with the work we’ve done for the farm. He wasn’t an old person who was set in his ways. He was a person who embraced change at every step.”
Peter’s mom grew up on a farm, but she graduated from Eastman School of Music with top honors, then taught music for over forty years in the local school system. “My mother is an incredibly smart woman. She’s the hardest working person I ever met. She volunteers for everything.”
Like his dad, Peter’s not finished embracing change. He’s in the process of adding a 50 kilowatt solar system on a south-facing barn roof, and they use a modified outdoor wood furnace to heat their hot water, the shop, the milk house and the parlor in winter. They have a saw mill to make lumber used in building and repairing facilities and hay wagons. All the scrap from the saw mill is used in the wood furnace.
Peter sighs. “This self-sufficiency…this is what my Dad loved.”