Peter Mapstone’s father was 15 years old when he saw an ad in the paper for a skinny strip of farmland for sale in Manlius, NY. Having been farmed out from the age of 8, he had come to love farming and wanted to be a farmer. So, he made an appointment pretending to be his father (Peter’s grandfather) and convinced him to go look at the property. The year was 1944, and the farm cost 3,000 dollars. Although Peter’s grandfather could not afford it, people in the community thought highly enough of him to loan him the money to purchase the farm. Everything on the property was run down at first, but his grandfather was a skilled tradesman and made several renovations including building a milkhouse, carshop, and rotating the main barn. Meanwhile, Peter’s father got his wish and started milking cows by hand with his younger brother (Peter’s uncle) in between going to school. Little by little they built the farm up from 5 cows to 60.
This is the origin story of what is today known as Pastureland Dairy Farm. Owned and operated by Peter Mapstone and his oldest son Jeremy, the farm now stretches across 1,000 acres of pastures, corn and hay fields, and scattered woodlots. They run an organic, grazing-based dairy farm with a 300-milking cow herd and supply their product to Organic Valley. Through NYALT, they were able to put 798 acres of farmland into a conservation easement for permanent protection.
When Peter first came back to work for his father’s farm, it was still a conventional operation of 60 cows. He had just graduated from college, and his older brother had recently decided to move on from farming. On the day he arrived home, his father announced that he and his mother would be leaving for a 16-day vacation. Suddenly he was left alone to run a farm that typically took 3 people to operate! Out of necessity, Peter decided to fix up the fencing on a few of the nearby pastures and put the cows out during the day to graze, which freed up the time typically spent on feeding so he could focus on other chores like milking and crop work.
This is how Peter got his start as a rotational grazer, at a time when everybody else still kept their cows inside year-round. With the herd eating high-protein grasses, they were able to cut down on grain in the feed rations, and they witnessed incredible health improvements of their animals as a result of being allowed outside to graze for part of the year. When they were a conventional dairy farm, they produced large quantities of milk and had the highest herd average in the county for 3 years running, but their cows burnt out fast and they did not profit much. After switching to a rotational grazing model, their workload was cut in half all the while experiencing an increase in milk production and profitability.
One day Peter was told that the only thing more profitable than his farm was an organic farm. This knowledge came at a crucial time for the family because Peter’s father was getting older, but they were still increasing in acres and production in order to continue making a profit. They decided to sell almost half of their cows (at the time they were milking 220) and convert to organic dairy farming in 2007. This decision cut their workload in half yet again and allowed his father to transition away from the farm, all while maintaining the same income they had before making the switch to organic. The cows were happier too – their lifespans went from an average of 6 years old under the old conventional model to upwards of 10 years with the use of grazing and organic practices!
Aside from their dairy farming business, more recently the Mapstones renovated a beautiful hilltop mansion on Watervale Ridge which they now rent out to guests through Airbnb. They also built a wedding barn on the premises which will be open to the public for reservations soon. Located outside the boundaries of the conservation easement, this getaway offers spectacular sunset views over rolling farmland and has helped the family diversify their source of income. Peters loves farming but as he recalled, diversifying is often necessary because farming on its own is just not that lucrative anymore. Likewise, the money he received from selling the development rights of the land that was protected served as an influx of capital that allowed him to finance certain projects and keep the farm in operation.
Like his father before him, deep down Peter always knew he wanted to be a farmer. He can tell you every inch of the property, and he remembers his adventures on the land as a kid even when most of it was still either leased or neighboring farmland. Today, he gets to tell his own children who play and work on the land: “right here is where your great grandfather did such and such.” Peter hopes and prays that his family can stay farming on the land years down the line. Protecting it from development was a way he could help ensure this future.
Interview and story by Jessie Smith