Regenerative Farming Up Close: Our Daily Planet’s Field Trip to Clagett Farm

Last week we got a chance to visit Clagett Farm, one of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s working farms that supports the development of sustainable agriculture practices. The farm raises vegetables, fruits, beef cattle, and sheep and supports a Community Supported Agriculture program as well as a tree farm. We write a lot about farming and better land-use practices but Monica and I wanted to meet some farmers and understand the challenges and opportunities that they face in growing our food. Clagett Farm manager Michael Heller was kind enough to show us around and tell us a bit about why he prefers the term “regenerative farming” to “sustainable farming.”

What is Regenerative Farming? As Michael put it, sustainable farming seeks to sustain what’s already happening but regenerative farming works to restore the composition of farming soil, its nutrients, and its healthy blend of bacteria, nematodes, fungi, and protozoa that sustain food production without the use of synthetic fertilizers or tilling.

Clagett Farm manager Michael Heller demonstrating the runoff caused by various ground cover types. 

What’s Special About Clagett Farm? Aside from its beauty and lovely staff, one of Michael’s most prominent farming techniques includes using grazers (cows and sheep) to help rebuild the soil ecosystem of the farm. Rotating grazers from pasture to pasture helps soil to become less compact and for more water to be absorbed into the soil and into plant roots and best of all it greatly reduces runoff into waterways. Additionally, this allows for the production of grass-fed beef cows who have lived a life of dignity.

Why Isn’t There More of This Type of Farming?

  • Firstly, not every farmer has the knowledge and support to begin a regenerative farm. Michael helps run the Maryland Grazers Network which is a mentorship program that pairs experienced livestock, dairy, sheep, and poultry producers with farmers who want to learn new grazing skills.  This network was the inspiration behind a recently formed regional group called the Mountains-to-Bay Grazing Alliance composed of grazing groups in MD, VA, PA and WV. The hope is that more states develop similar programs.
  • Secondly, federal farm subsidies run against small farmers. Vegetable farmers don’t get subsides and those looking to turn to regenerative farming have limited resources to make the switch—USDA’s SARE grants aren’t close to being funded well enough.
  • Lastly, in our society, farmers are rewarded by yield and not so much by eco-friendly methods used to grow produce and raise sustainable livestock. We must create more financial incentives for farmers to make the shift to this way of farming.

Other Barriers: There isn’t a ton of research about regenerative agriculture happening in the universities that are the biggest arbiters of agricultural knowledge. This is because a lot of their research is funded by companies like Monsanto and Cargill, companies that have an interest in selling proprietary seeds, herbicides, and pesticides to farmers—products that aren’t needed in regenerative farming practices.

 Why This Matters: We owe a lot to farmers, like the fact that we have food to eat every day. We recently wrote a story about how farmers are asking for our help to farm more sustainably and we must listen!

  • Purchase a CSA share if you’re able to but most importantly, in our national conversation about climate change, we must start talking about programs that can help us use our land more sustainably and on the level that the IPCC recommends.
  • This is largely a non-partisan issue, farmers want the support and we all want healthy food and a healthy planet.

Thanks so much to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for inviting us to Clagett Farm and for giving us the opportunity to see regenerative farming first hand—while also getting to pet some really cute sheep!

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