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John McMahon proudly shows off his mounted collection of arrowheads which have all been found on his 714-acre farm located along the Hoosic River on Indian Massacre Road in Petersburgh and straddling the Vermont state border. A state historian has determined that some in the collection date back as far as 6,000 years. John explains, “My son Dan plows deep. Because of the rich, deep river-bottom soil here, you can plow 12” instead of the usual 8”and we’re always turning up arrowheads. People have been hunting, fishing and living here for a long time because it’s such a fertile valley. It’s also a great place to farm. ”
Determined to become a dairyman
John’s grandfather owned a dairy in Salem but his father was allergic to cows and became a dentist in Albany where John was born and raised. Although he worked on an uncle’s dairy farm in White Creek as a young man, John went to Georgetown to study dentistry and follow in his father’s footsteps. But farming was in his blood. Lucky for him his younger brother wanted to be a dentist, and John seized the opportunity to switch to Cornell and become a dairyman.
After college, John met Mary, who’d grown up on a dairy farm in Eagle Bridge. They got married and he spent some time working on her brother’s farm while they looked for a place of their own. When the farm in Petersburgh came up for sale John hurried down immediately and recalls, “It was 10 o’clock at night and too dark to see much, but I could smell the good river bottom soil. I talked to the owner, gave him a down payment and bought it right then and there.”
Land so good it would be a crime not to farm it
They named the farm Hooskip after the Hoosic River and Skiparee Mountain, much of which is part of the farm. They’ve raised 4 children and have 11 grandchildren. They wanted to keep the farm small and self-sustaining and today, John and his son Dan milk 115 registered Holsteins, raise almost all of their feed on the farm, harvest timber and provide enough fire-wood to heat their homes. John explains, “If it wasn’t for Dan taking over, I wouldn’t still be farming. The hours are long and it requires patience and good health. It’s not a job—it’s a way of life”.
The farm’s rich history and superb soils inspired John and his family to protect their land. They protected 371 acres in Pownell with the Vermont Land Trust and then worked with ASA to apply for funding through the New York State Farmland Protection Program to protect the adjacent 343 acres in Petersburgh. John has inspired a number of neighboring farmers to protect their land as well. Including the portion of his farm in Vermont, there are now 1,492 acres that have been or are in the process of being protected in this rich river valley.
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