Committed to Conservation: A Dairy Farmer Revitalizes the Land and Brings in the Next Generation

Featured Regional Navigator: New York Agricultural Land Trust

Farmers with a strong stewardship ethic look to leave the land better than they found it. Peter Mapstone of Pastureland Dairy in Manlius, New York, is one of those farmers.

Peter has been at the forefront of the modern grazing movement since the 1980s. During the summer that he came home from college, the rest of Peter’s family took a two-week vacation to Hawaii, leaving Peter responsible for the farm. Once he realized the amount of work required to feed 60 cows in the barn by himself, he had a startlingly simple revelation. He saw some old fencing by the barn and said to himself, “You know what, I’m going to let the cows out.” His family returned from vacation to a grazing dairy herd.

As he took over the business from his father, Peter continued to strive for efficiencies that benefitted the land and his bottom line. Fifteen years later, he transitioned the farm to organic, which helped secure a higher price for their milk without significantly changing their management style. However, feed posed a challenge, as organic grain tends to be more expensive. In addition to growing corn organically, Peter started growing winter triticale – a crop that produces a grain for feed, while serving as a cover crop after the corn comes off in September. On top of that, they can bale the straw as soft bedding for their cattle.

The Mapstones farm on highly erodible land – land that offers breathtaking views, including a glimpse of Oneida Lake and the neighboring city of Syracuse –but is prone to losing soil down its slopes. As Peter looks down at the neighborhoods, he points to housing developments that used to be farm fields he rented. “That’s why it’s so important that we’re doing what we’re doing,” Peter says.

In 2017, Peter attended a series of meetings where he learned about the state’s Farmland Protection program, and how it can help farmers conserve their land for future generations through selling their development rights. The program fit with Peter’s values, and it was there that he met Amy Olney, the executive director for New York Agricultural Land Trust, or NYALT, a land trust serving farmers in the Central and Finger Lakes regions of New York.

Given their proximity to development, and their viability as a farm business, the Mapstones were a great candidate for the state program. However, when they first applied in 2018, things didn’t go according to plan.

“We were really close to being accepted,” Peter explains, “but there was only one little hang-up that kept us from being accepted, and that was a property we had just bought and we were planning on selling the house.” His farming neighbor had just moved and carried out her late husband’s wishes to sell the farm to Peter. Peter didn’t need the house, so he subdivided the property and only kept the farmland. Unfortunately, the timing of the sale raised a red flag for the farmland protection program. Their application was rejected.

Peter could have gotten discouraged and scrapped the whole idea. But giving up that easily wasn’t in his nature. Plus, the Mapstones had Amy on their side.

Once the sale went through, Amy and NYALT helped Peter quickly turn around and re-apply to protect his farm – this time for the Dairy Transitions grant program – newly created by the state to help dairy farmers to transition their businesses to the next generation and strengthen and diversify their farm enterprises. At the same time, NYALT had just become a Regional Navigator with the Farmland for a New Generation New York program, coordinated by American Farmland Trust in partnership with the state of New York. In this role, NYALT works on farmland access and transition to bring a new generation onto the land. A few stars aligned, as Peter’s son, Jeremy Mapstone, was looking to enter the farm business. After four years at college, Jeremy realized the family farm was where he wanted to be.

“It took a lot of work,” Peter says. “Amy is very good at what she does – she had to come out and go to a town meeting with me, and I let her do all of the talking.” The town wrote a letter of support for the farmland protection proposal, as it fit with the town’s charter to promote agriculture, an important piece of the Mapstones’ application.

“We fit right in with Jeremy coming into the business and us adding acreage,” Peter says. “We took this former conventional farm that was a crop farm and were transitioning it into our grazing operation and trying to protect the soils – it’s a highly erodible farm – and hopefully in the next couple of years we’ll have it all so it’s in another hundred acres of grazing land.”

Peter used to rent 75% of the land that they farmed, not an uncommon situation for farmers in the central and western regions of New York, where competition for farmland is fierce. Over time, as his rented land has come up for sale, Peter has made a point to purchase as many nearby properties as he could afford to, expanding the acreage he owns securely and improving its soil with managed grazing, cover crops, and other conservation practices.

In the summer of 2019, the Mapstones were awarded farmland protection funding from the Dairy Transitions program, which will enable them to sell their development rights to NYALT, ensuring their 796-acre farm would be available for farming, forever. This funding will support Jeremy’s transition into the business, help to alleviate debt from purchasing farmland, and position the Mapstones to be able to continue dairy farming and explore new enterprises. Looking down the road, Peter and Jeremy are committed to continuing conservation on their farm, and to securing additional acres to protect and revitalize.

Published in July 2020

Photo credit: Nancy J. Parisi