In Pastoral Peterborough, Cow Proposal Gets Tipped By Opponents

Jun 26, 2018

Stan Fry in a field owned by the Town of Peterborough. Fry believes cows could improve the soil's health.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

There’s a field in Peterborough that makes all the other fields jealous. It’s about a mile from downtown, roughly 20 acres, with a small stand of trees in the southwest corner.

It’s a great-looking field. Stand in the middle, and you’re rewarded with views of Mt. Monadnock.  

Stan Fry believes there’s just one thing missing from this place.

(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)

“So we’d start off with a few number of cows, then maybe work up to ten cows or so,” says Fry.

Fry wants to lease this land from the town, and bring some of his cows here.

“We have a herd of Belted Galloways, they are pretty gentle cow. They are a beef cow.”

Fry is sixty-something years old, close cropped hair, and glasses. He’s a successful businessman, and also, in his free time, a hobby rancher. A few miles from this town-owned field, he owns a 400-acre farm where he raises grass-fed cows.

Fry believes the town field, officially called the Cheney Avenue Field, needs cows. That if you look closely, the tall grasses aren’t as healthy as they may appear.

“For example, look here, how this area is so bare,” he says, pointing to a patchy section.

He blames the poor growth on what he considers outdated land management techniques. For the past few decades, this field has been mowed once a summer, with the cuttings left behind. Fry says that’s creating thatch and degrading the soil.

An aerial shot of the Cheney Avenue Field and surrounding neighborhood.
Credit Town of Peterborough

Cows can do something lawn mowers can’t. Cows graze, which stimulates root growth, and they leave healthy piles of manure behind.

Fry says that after a few years of intensive rotated grazing, this field will be full of healthy plants and thriving soils and bees. That aesthetically, the field will just get even better.

“I’m really interested in aesthetics. I don’t want to do anything that will destroy the way this property looks,” he says.

The challenge Fry faces is that from a distance, the field appears to be healthy.

“Yeah, I think that’s a little bit of the difficulty that we’ve been dealing with. People look at this, and say, what’s wrong with it? And you can point to problems with the soil and the people say, well that doesn’t matter, it’s a meadow. And I guess I feel differently. I think this could be a much more attractive field than what it is now.”

Fry is looking for a deal with Peterborough. Lease him the land, and he and his cows will make it better. But when news of this proposal hit the local papers recently, the neighbors got organized.

At a meeting of the Peterborough Select Board earlier this month, every seat was taken. A big aerial map was projected onto the wall, and Fry was given a few minutes to make his pitch.

“I made this proposal to the town not imagining it would be this kind of controversy,” he said to some laughs.

After wrapping up his presentation, Fry sat down and opponents of the cows stood up.

Some questioned his prognosis of the land, with many people describing it as a thriving ecosystem.

There were concerns raised about the possible smell, the mooing, and the electric fencing that would have to be erected. Would it cut off access to the trails? Would it be dangerous for kids?  

“If a ball were to roll under the fence, I understand that it is not a significant pain, but should they have to risk that, going in their own backyard to chase a ball?” asked Ashley Concha Vera.

But perhaps the strongest argument made against the cows had to do with the history of the field. In the 1980s, a group of 43 neighbors chipped in their own money and bought the land from a developer. They feared a bunch of houses were going to go up.

The land was then donated to the town through a conservation easement.

The neighbors who led that effort are named Dick and Judy Fernald. Their son Mark was once a candidate for governor in New Hampshire. The three Fernalds, all still local residents, came to this Select Board Meeting, and made their firm anti-cow sentiments known.

“The issue is not whether Stan Fry could improve this property by some measures,” said Mark Fernald, speaking on behalf of his elderly parents.

“The issue is whether it makes sense to take public land and make it essentially private land, because if you lease the land to a private person, and the private person puts up fences, it is really not public land anymore,” he said

For Fernald, this isn’t about cows. It’s about precedent. It’s about what the 43 neighbors who donated this land thought they were giving to the community.

“What is the sense of public land if the public can’t use it? And what is the sense of improving land for future generation of cows if the people don’t never get to use it?” he said, garnering a round of applause.

Fry walking the Cheney Avenue Field earlier this month.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

While Stan Fry did have supporters, most people who spoke were opposed. Before the meeting ended, they submitted a petition with more than 200 signatures.

After the meeting, as dusk was settling, folks lingered around the steps of Town Hall, including Jack Ellerkamp. He’s openly suspicious of the whole plan.

“He owns, what did he say, 200-, 400-plus acres on the Peterborough-Dublin line? He’s going through all this trouble to put five or six cows on this land? Can’t he fit five or six more on 400 acres? I’m sure he can. Something seems off about this to me,” said Ellerkamp.

If Stan Fry doesn’t need the land for his cows, then why go through all this trouble?

Ellerkamp and many cow opponents believe Fry’s angle here has to do with a real estate play.

Fry currently owns a parcel of land across the street from the field. There are very early stage plans to build a farm-centered neighborhood development on the property, what’s called an agrihood.

Cows in the distance, the suspicion goes, would help you market the property to people who want to live the agrihood lifestyle.

Fry disputes this. He says the housing development, which is being led by a different person and hasn’t even filed for permits yet, is totally unrelated to the cattle grazing.

For Fry, this isn’t about real estate deals or money. It’s about good land stewardship - about soil health, and living up to idyllic Peterborough’s own ideals.

“It is, and it is sort of ironic, because we are all interested in conservation,” said Fry. “Just different ways of looking at what conservation is.”

In the end, it’s the town’s Conservation Commission, appropriately enough, that gets final say over how best to conserve land in Peterborough.

The ‘ConCom’ met last week, and after two hours of debate, voted unanimously to reject Stan Fry’s proposed lease. They argued his cow plan was “incongruent with the intent” of the neighbors who originally donated the land.

Stan Fry wasn’t at the meeting, and is currently travelling. In an email, he writes, simply, “We  are going to keep trying!”