A Wing and a Prayer

Peter McDonald was at a crossroads. He had an ag science degree, a 220-acre parcel of land he’d bought at a tax sale and no earthly idea what to do with it. He was 35, ready to quit the life he’d made producing commercials for Time Warner and spend more time with his young family.

Romulus-based McDonald Farms raises pasture-raised ‘clean’ meats

Photos by Robyn Wishna

Peter McDonald was at a crossroads. He had an ag science degree, a 220-acre parcel of land he’d bought at a tax sale and no earthly idea what to do with it. He was 35, ready to quit the life he’d made producing commercials for Time Warner and spend more time with his young family.

“I was standing in one of the fields one day, saying, ‘Lord, I don’t know what to do with this place,’” says McDonald. “I said, ‘You know I like being outside, I like open spaces. Hopefully what you’ll have us do will be agriculture.’ And as clear as anyone ever heard God speak to them, I heard, ‘Grow chickens.’”

Dazed, McDonald headed to the feed store. His car was acting up. When he asked to use the phone to call a ride—this was the pre-cell-phone days of 1991—the customer in line ahead of him offered a ride home and turned out to be a nearby chicken farmer who kindly shared some tricks of the trade.

“He gave me so much information on that trip home,” recalls McDonald. “He said, ‘I can’t even believe I’m telling you this, it took me 30 years to figure this stuff out.’”

The man became a comrade of sorts as McDonald got his footing in poultry farming. “I loved the chickens so much I never thought about selling them,” says McDonald of his early enthusiasm. But when his total bird count neared 2,000, he figured he needed to start searching for markets. Again, serendipity struck. He approached the Ithaca Farmers Market, only to learn their key local poultry provider had defected mere weeks earlier. He slid into the former Chicken Man’s station—booth 64 back then—and the transition was so seamless some customers never noticed the difference.

“They were so used to coming to that booth [for chicken,]” says McDonald. “I tried to tell them, ‘Y’know, I’m not the same guy,’ but it didn’t matter.”

McDonald, now 58, is a man of clear convictions, and he is unshakable in his faith that his beginnings in farming—the vision, the car trouble, the local chicken farmer and the serendipity at the Ithaca Farmers Market—were all part of a higher plan. But regardless of the provenance of McDonald’s success, success is what it is: Today, the farm raises pastured broilers in 2,000-poult batches, alongside some 300 turkeys and almost as many laying hens, 100 or so sheep, 70 pigs and as many beef cattle.

After starting out on a literal wing and a prayer, McDonald’s customer roster has grown to include folks willing to drive from far and wide to visit his Romulus location and buy “clean food”: animals raised organically with as much access to forage-filled pastures as McDonald can provide.

“I have a responsibility to the animals here,” he says. “The way I fulfill it is by making sure they have what they need. Making sure they have that sparkle in their eyes.”

McDonald’s nine kids—ages 8 to 25—play key roles in the farm’s success. “They’re all grass-fed and certified organic,” McDonald quips. “They know their jobs and they do them well.” Rebecca, 15, serves as a one-girl public relations department, staffing her family’s booths at the Ithaca and Rochester farmers’ markets and handling packing and customer requests on the farm. “I can’t tell you how many times people come up to us [at the market] and say, ‘Wow, thanks for doing what you do,’” says Rebecca. “For people with health problems, this is literally the only meat they can eat.”

Though McDonald had worked in plenty of commercial farms—farms with dairy cows in confinement and laying hens in battery cages—when he first started out he wanted to try doing things as naturally as possible. “I wanted to let them be in the sunshine. That’s the greatest antibiotic in the universe—sunlight,” says McDonald. On the farm, his chickens, turkeys, and pigs enjoy a pasture-based diet rich in forage, supplemented with organic feed. His cows and sheep, meanwhile, rely on pasture alone for their nutrition. “They’re biologically designed to consume large amounts of roughage,” he says. “It gives them the energy they need to grow big and healthy.”

McDonald’s acres of healthy pasture were hard-won. His land, a former “gentleman’s farm,” had been thoroughly stripped of nutrients by years of intensive row cropping. “I had a soil expert come out, and he said the last owner was ‘mining,’” recalls McDonald. “When I asked him what I should plant, he said, ‘Plant fence posts.’” A well-managed grazing operation will regenerate the soil and the pasture: Animals spread their own manure over damaged fields, while their systematic grazing habits slowly turn the pasture composition towards desirable protein-rich legumes and grasses. “You’ll eventually end up with fields full of plants that can handle grazing,” says McDonald.

At evening on the farm, the animals settle down into their nighttime routines, munching grain in the barn or heading in to roost. McDonald recalls one such evening, reaching the realization that he’d made the right decision for his and his family’s health.

“I just remember looking around and thinking it was almost like the Garden of Eden,” he says. “This really is—of all the jobs [I’ve had] it’s the one thing I get excited about every day. Even if it’s the same thing every day, it’s really never the same.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of the magazine.

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