The dirt on my grazing proposal

  • Stan Fry of Peterborough moves some of his cows from pasture to pasture on a Peterborough farm. Staff photo by Ben Conant

For the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Friday, July 20, 2018 3:47PM

There have been a number of articles and a certain amount of buzz around town about my proposal to graze cattle on the Cheney fields.

I thought it might be worthwhile to explain things from my point of view and why I am interested in this project. I have a herd of Belted Galloway cattle that I own with my sons. This is a hobby. We take great care to insure the cattle are getting the best care and quality grazing. And we have the same respect for the land, whether it is on our farm or on borrowed land. We are interested in this breed because of how lean the meat is, the gentle nature of the animal, and their hardiness for New Hampshire winters. Further they are a heritage breed that has not been subject to genetic breeding.

My interest in the Cheney Fields stems from a few points. First, I felt that the exposure for the community to see how we can raise beef so that instead of it being a contributor to environmental problems, raising beef cattle in this way can improve ecosystems ... would be an important educational experience for the younger generations who will be inheriting the challenges of climate change. Secondly, when I was approached by Amelia Tracy to purchase the Stone barn for her Agrihood Development, I thought this was a great opportunity to combine a number of ecological efforts in that part of our community. They were:

1. The great use of the Cranberry Bog Trail, which crosses the Cheney field and I am very supportive of maintaining it.

2. The possible development of the agrihood.

3. Combining intensive rotational grazing to demonstrate how the fields can be improved and how this type of grazing is a powerful tool to sequester carbon from the air.

4. Lastly, and very important to me was that the town could use this effort as a marketing tool in demonstrating their support for local agriculture and environmental projects. The topics of nutritionally rich food, soil quality improvement, carbon sequestration from rotational grazing as it relates to global warming, small scale agriculture, and locally raised food are becoming more important to a larger community of people. People that might be attracted to our community.

I also thought this could be use an educational tool, and an opportunity for Conservation Commission and Agriculture Committee to work together to devise a protocol for using town owned land for environmentally-beneficial agricultural practices. These can then be used for education in our local schools and an impetus for others to raise local food. Further it demonstrates how beef should be raised as opposed to the beef that represents that vast majority of what beef is available that is raised or finished in feed lots that are unethical, environmentally destructive, and producing food/meat that is unhealthy for human consumption – talk about being wasteful!

After visiting the property and walking it more thoroughly, I realized that it actually required more work that what I had imagined. There were numerous large sink holes, some large enough to fit a farm tractor inside. The erosion off the slopes of the fields indicates a lack of healthy soils and plant matter, which will cause loss of minerals onsite into local waterways, the sole cause of algae blooms into larger bodies of water. Erosion on the site is the first sign that the field ecology can be improved, and animal impact is the single most effective way to address this. In some areas, grass was no longer growing, and there was a significant amount of wet soil because compaction of soils about 12 inches deep has not allowed roots to penetrate further down, so water sits on the soil surface creating an anaerobic environment that only supports a small diversity of ecological life. The wet soil is also not a place that I want my cattle. But this only heightened the desire to “fix” the fields.

And what made me believe this was something that would be supported? A few years back Dick Fernald, who we can all thank for organizing the preservation of that land, came to me and asked if I wanted to graze on that land. The mowing was expensive and the cattle presented an opportunity to save that cost. At the time I had just inherited the cattle from one of my sons and I wasn’t prepared or knowlegable enough to take on the project. But as the years passed the property seemed more appealing, and the possible agrihood motivated me and as I thought more about the educational and marketing benefits to the town this seemed more obvious that it had a lot benefits.

So I did a little research, realized that the town actually owned the land, read the easements which seemed to advocate agriculture on the property and approached the town.

As it turns out a committee (The Conservation Commission) is responsible for taking care of the land as its “stewards.” I walked the property with ConCom, and was surprised at the response of some of the members that soil quality didn’t matter because it was a meadow. This to me, is at the root of the issue. In that soil defines everything; good soil creates a better environment for all kinds of plant materials, which create a better environment for small animals, species of bugs, pollinators and up the food chain. To this point I am certain that there is more wildlife on any of my pastures than on the Cheney Fields. I know that as I see the wildlife every day on the pastures.

I subsequently engaged some experts in the field to look at the soil and the general ecology of the field. They confirmed that grazing would improve the plant diversity on site, and that the current status of vegetation shows signs of decaying nutrients in the soil. And, they identified invasive species that come in poor soils. Their major message was to clean up the erosion problem that is causing the ditches at the bottom of the field so to prevent deeper gullies that wash away sediment into local waterways during storms. This, they say, is a problem for local fish and marine ecosystems – and will cause the soils on the fields to continue to deteriorate. In short, a healthy field needs animals and cannot stay healthy from field mowing for 30 years.

The Conservation Commission decided not to allow the grazing. I was not sent a clear decision but was referred to the minutes. As I read the minutes of the committee and talk to others who were able to attend the meeting it seems the decision was based on Dick Fernald’s letter that it was never the “intent” to allow grazing on the fields, even though the easement is quite encouraging of agriculture and animal husbandry. And further it created concern that others would not donate land if the “intent” was not followed. This easement was written by attorneys, Dick Fernald is an attorney, and one would assume he had a strong hand in the drafting, and it clearly spells out the use of agriculture, so the donors must have realized at the time that they were recommending the use as agriculture. Further this letter from Mr. Fernald comes after he suggested to me to graze my cattle, and this is the reason I reapproached the town to allow grazing. I have now read the easement numerous times and it seems impossible that a letter like this could be written when agriculture is encouraged in the easement.

(View the easement and related documents online at tinyurl.com/yclrjmwe).

It would seem that the easement which is a legal document would take precedent over this letter written some 30 years later by the Fernand’s in an attempt to revise history.

The conservation commission decision comes after I had told the chairperson at the very beginning of this process that Dick Fernald was supportive of me grazing cattle on the fields a few years ago. In light of the fact that the conservation committee knew this, they opted not to substantiate this with Mr. Fernald. Further they had acknowledged that visiting my farm and understanding intensive rotational grazing was important to their decision process, and that they knew I had some soil and grazing experts working on a study for the property. The decision to reject the grazing proposal was not made after a thorough process, but appears to have been made because of the divisiveness that this proposal created. While I can appreciate the challenging position that the Commission was in, I do not agree with how they came to their decision, nor do I believe that ConComs “stewardship” of the fields should be dictated by abutters who prefer the status quo over ecosystem health.

There is a significant amount of opposition to the grazing by the abutters. They have been active around town getting folks to sign a petition. They have a fairly lengthy list of concerns. They range from odor, mooing, loss of recreation and private benefit. I do think the questions are all valid, but many are based on a lack of awareness about new forms of agriculture and a resistance to learn about it. Some of the abutters felt that my goals were nefarious and that I would profit in some way from this effort, calling the effort “suspicous.” The divisivness this has caused is the most disappointing aspect of this project.

I planned on doing a number of things to improve the field quality, reduce the water erosion and sheeting, all of which would increase the amount of wildlife and pollinators on the fields. The numerous sinkholes would need to repaired, and if I don’t, the town must as they represent a liability for the town.

The cattle grazing that I am proposing consists of a small part of our herd, namely what that field could support. I assume that is five to six animals initially and as the field improved maybe up to 10 to 12. I was not planning on feeding hay, as I would need equipment on site and I do not want to disrupt neighbors, so the grass needs to last the cattle an entire season. I can say that there would not be any noticeable odor from such a small group. We have several pastures operating at one time, in some cases as many as 25 animals on a pasture and do not notice odors or mooing.

There is no desire to limit the recreation. Certainly the trail represents the primary recreation on the property and that would not be disturbed in any way. With this style of grazing only a small amount of the field is used at any one time, the remaining components of the field can be used. We use a string gate, they are not particularly visible and can easily be removed when a field is not in use. I felt that one of the strongest points made by the abutters was limiting recreation, and there is no desire on my part to create a limitation. On my existing properties I work with the local snowmobile clubs so that they can use the pastures to access trails we have created for snowshoeing and hiking. But when I spoke with six different abutters none of them were aware of the sink holes. It only takes a few minutes walking in the fields to find them, so I question the amount of recreation that actually occurs off the trail, and even if they didn’t walk the fields, others that might have walked the fields would have warned of the danger of these numerous sinkholes.

For any one that has hiked in Europe they would be familiar that passing through an active pasture that might be part of a small village is commonplace and it is quite charming.

Stan Fry lives in Peterborough.