Inside CBF: Clagett Farm Manager Michael Heller

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Pollution from agriculture continues to be the largest source of pollution to the Bay, rivers, and streams we all love. It is also the most cost-effective to clean up, and the sector on which the Chesapeake's states are relying on most to achieve their Clean Water Blueprint-reduction goalsNow more than ever, it is critical to understand how healthy farming practices are intrinsically tied to a healthy Chesapeake Bay and the rivers and streams that feed it. As such we revisit a summer's day last year, when we got to visit with and learn from CBF's Clagett Farm Manager Michael Heller in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Read on . . .   

It's a particularly steamy early Friday morning on CBF's Clagett Farm. The cows are testy, lined up, and waiting expectantly when Farm Manager Michael Heller and I pull up in his '96 Ford Ranger, windows down, Beethoven's Coriolan Overture on the radio drifting across the fields on warm June air. The minute they see Heller, the cows are especially vocal. The herd of Red Angus and Red Devon are anxious to move on to the next field for grazing, occasionally nudging Heller with their noses as they pass. "Our cows are very gentle," says Heller with pride.

DSC_0045Besides providing affection, the cows do wonders for the soil and as Heller says, "Building soil quality is probably the single most important thing to improving water quality." As soon as Heller started at Clagett in 1982, he was determined to use truly sustainable farming methods to make a healthier, more productive farm starting with the soil. "From day one I have not used pesticides," says Heller. "I didn't want them for my children; I didn't want them for the students coming out here. There were just so many reasons not to use them . . . when that's you're starting point, you have to be ecological in how you do things." So the plant ecology major cultivated fields of orchard grass, timothy, clover, hairy vetch, and other diverse plant species that never have to be tilled, therefore they protect the ground, soak up nutrients, build the soil, and improve water quality.      

"The beauty of working on the farm here is it directly affects water quality and the Bay," says Heller, "but also it allows me and CBF to get a real perspective of what farmers need to be successful. Because we don't want to make farmers unsuccessful; we want to help farmers be successful and protect the Bay."

It was only natural that Heller wound up at Clagett. The Pennsylvania native grew up working on the farm next door, bird watching with his mother, and tending his garden: "My friends used to joke that I was the only high school quarterback with a wildflower garden."

DSC_0013After stints at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the National Park Service at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and the University of Maryland, the avid environmentalist got a call from CBF asking him to run its newly acquired Clagett Farm. Here he would not only manage the 285-acre farm but run the education program and write grants. "It was a wonderfully impossible job," says Heller with a glowing enthusiasm, "and here 30 years later, the learning curve keeps going up and up . . . I still feel like I'm just getting started!"

We might argue otherwise considering Heller's substantial contributions to the farming and environmental communities thus far. He was instrumental in starting both Future Harvest, a regional sustainable agriculture organization, and Maryland Grazer's Network, a mentorship program where farmers learn from other farmers about successful and sustainable farming practices. In his downtime, Heller co-authored a cookbook about grass-fed beef, started Clagett's CSA (in which 40 percent of each year's harvest is donated to the Capital Area Food Bank), became a Johns Hopkins visiting scholar, raised three bright children, and spent as much time as possible either on a tractor or in a canoe. "I love to hang out in a canoe. I'm never happier than when I'm in a canoe, in a marsh, listening to marsh wrens and bitterns and rails calling." 

When asked why it's so important for future generations to come out and get a taste of Clagett Farm, Heller doesn't take long to answer: "I just know that my kids are different for having grown up on a farm. I wish every kid could grow up on a farm. When students come out here, they always work a little bit . . . I think they see that there's a tangible result to work. And they get a real sense of a connection between the land and what's happening in the water."

--Photos and Text by Emmy Nicklin
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media

Learn more about how farmers across the watershed are working to improve both water quality and efficiency on their farms in our Farmers' Success Stories series. 

Emmy Nicklin

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