Local farmers sustain Stone Hill cattle tradition despite challenges

Most students at the College are familiar with the cows on nearby Stone Hill, yet few know their deeply rooted and moving backstory. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor.
Most students at the College are familiar with the cows on nearby Stone Hill, yet few know their deeply rooted and moving backstory. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of scenic Stone Hill is the familiar mooing of cattle. These cows are favorites of both the College community and visitors to the Clark Art Institute. The site of these animals on the hillside hearkens back to the region’s pastoral roots.

The presence of the cows predates pretty much everything on or around Stone Hill. Since the early 1800s, the Haley family has raised dairy cows on the surrounding pastures. Rich Haley and his cousin Carl Sweet still raise cattle on their family farm right off Cold Spring Road, bordering the Clark.

The cows spend their winters indoors at the nearby Hopper Farm at the base of Mount Greylock but, during the rest of the year, they graze on Haley Farm’s pasture, often wandering through the woods onto the Clark campus, where students welcome them with open arms. There they remain through the summer and fall, delighting visitors with their lazy antics.

Sally Morse Majewski, manager of public relations and marketing for the Clark, explained how the museum is more than willing to let Haley and Sweet’s cows graze on Stone Hill.

“They need more pasture then  Mr. Haley has for the spring-fall period, so, with their land adjacent to ours, we allow then to graze,” Majewski said. “It keep some semblance of the agriculture roots of the community and keeps the Clark land active in agriculture.”

Despite the vestige of pastoral life that the cows’ presence on Stone Hill provides, the area has undergone massive changes, especially in recent years. Haley explained that, when he was growing up, there were 15 to 20 farms in and around Williamstown — today, there are only a handful. Until 1987, the Haleys owned 47 cows and sold their milk to earn a living, but, as the price of farm goods went down and taxes went up, farming became a less viable option for them.

Today, both Haley and Sweet work extra jobs and keep a small number of cows around for the joy of it and to maintain a multi-century family tradition. They purchase the cows as calves, feed and care for them for around two years and then sell the mature cows to large-scale dairy operations, sometimes at a small profit, but most of the time at a financial loss, according to Haley.

Not only do the cows represent a financial burden, but also a massive time commitment and responsibility. Haley explained that it falls on him and his cousin to ensure the herd has the optimal number of cows at all times. Too few will fail to delight visitors, but too many will deplete the native plants of the meadow.

He also has to make sure they don’t run off and cause damage to anyone else’s property. He recalled one frightening night when construction on a water tank on the Clark grounds accidentally destroyed a fence, forcing Haley to run around at 2 a.m. trying to round up his cattle from all over the surrounding area.

Despite the stresses and burdens of raising cows, Haley and Sweet continue to toil out of sheer joy and respect for tradition. As Majewski noted, “They continue to do this out of love for the work.”

But even this love of raising cattles may not be enough to keep Haley and Sweet at this work for much longer.

Haley said when his mother got sick, his father decided to take care of her at home, since the nursing bills would have pushed the family under and forced them to sell the farm and the cows. Haley now faces a similar choice between upholding tradition and financial stability and although he and  Sweet want continue the family legacy, Haley expressed concerns about the farm’s future.

Haley currently has two sons, both entering early adulthood, who have their own jobs and lives, and it remains to be seen whether they will be able to continue the laborious task of raising cows. With the cost of taxes and insurance continuing to rise, as well as the legal barriers standing in the way of land inheritance, the future of the Haley farm and its iconic cows is now more uncertain than ever.

There does seem to be hope on the horizon, however. With many of the Clark’s summer visitors coming to see the cows, according to Haley, he hopes to work out some sort of agreement with the museum to keep the farm afloat. Last spring, Haley and the Clark entered talks about the possibility of the museum partially subsidizing the farm, although the museum has not yet offered any financial assistance.

In the meantime, Haley and Sweet continue caring for Stone Hill’s cows out of their deep-seated enjoyment of the lifestyle and commitment to upholding this tradition. Despite the challenges, they hope that the unstoppable tide of the modern world can be stemmed for just a little while longer in the beloved little meadow known as Stone Hill.