Taking Root in Vermont
Written onAugust 17 , 2016
In 2012, new farmers Jesse McDougall and his wife, Cally, decided not to spray the kinds of chemical pesticides and fertilizers that had long been applied to their hayfields in Shaftsbury. Their 50-acre farm, which had been in Cally’s family since 1936, was previously managed by her Aunt Edie for nearly 40 years, using a management style that mirrored many Vermont farms growing corn and hay: a mix of chemicals, tillage, and re-planting.
Expecting their meadow ecosystem to rebound after the chemicals were stopped, Jesse and Cally were quite unprepared for what actually happened next: rather than becoming green pasture full of wildlife, their fields dried up and the grass turned brown—in the middle of a Vermont summer.
“It got to the point in 2013 that you could walk from one end of a 10-acre field to another without stepping on grass,” Jesse says of their first full season on the farm. “What used to be lush, green, beautiful fields were now turning to desert, and it was terrifying.”
As novice farmers, they weren’t sure what to do next, but even as they faced the loss of their hay crop, they stuck with their commitment to farm without chemicals. “We called all the farmers we knew and asked, ‘How do we manage 50 acres of hayfield without chemicals?’” Jesse recalls. “No one knew… Then we went down our own path of research and came across Allan Savory’s TED talk.”
The talk summarizes ecologist Allan Savory’s research into the desertification of African grasslands. He concludes that grazing animals play an integral part in restoring soils, and therefore in restoring grassland ecosystems. During the talk, Jesse and Cally realized that everything happening in Africa—such as the dying back of grasses and the appearance of moss and green slime coating the ground—was happening on their farm. Even their spreading of manure on the fallow fields failed when, devoid of any way to mix into the layers of soil, the manure burned off in the sun.
After watching the TED talk and at Cally’s suggestion, the couple decided to put animals back on their land, even though they still weren’t sure they could get good hay from land that animals grazed. They went ahead and turned the cornfields into a poultry pasture, beginning with 50 chickens in coops that were moved twice a day. Within one month, a green strip of lush grass ran down the field. Eventually, Jesse and Cally sold their chickens for meat, and suddenly they were economically and ecologically onto something. “We dumped the expense of chemicals and tillage and replaced it with a fertilizing revenue stream,” Jesse says.
The next year, 2014, Jesse and Cally’s Studio Hill Farm produced 300 chickens, 40 turkeys, and 50 sheep. The combination of poultry and sheep, rotationally grazing, allowed the regeneration of 20 acres of hayfields. Before the experiment—just after the chemicals stopped—hay production had been down 80 percent on the fields without animals. But in fields where animals grazed, Jesse and Cally saw five full growths of tall, lush grass, and those fields came roaring back in the spring. In just one season, the hay bale count was back up to where it had been when Aunt Edie was in charge, but the grass they cut was greener, leafier, and more nutritious than ever before.
Studio Hill is not alone in its pursuit of regenerative agriculture. Regenerative International, which launched in 2014 in the aftermath of the Paris Climate Summit, is a nonprofit dedicated to increasing regenerative practices throughout the world; Studio Hill is a member farm of the organization. Regeneration Vermont, a newly formed state chapter of the international organization, has a goal of shifting Vermont agricultural practices to a regenerative model.
According to Regeneration International, “The key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only ‘does no harm’ to the land but actually improves it, using technologies that regenerate and revitalize the soil and the environment. Regenerative agriculture leads to healthy soil, capable of producing high-quality, nutrient dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading land, and ultimately leading to productive farms and healthy communities and economies.”
A key foundation and goal of regenerative agriculture is its ability to decrease carbon levels in the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in the soil, thereby turning the agricultural industry into a solution for climate change. Regenerative practices also improve water quality and increase a land’s ability to withstand both flood and drought. This happens through the building of soil and organic matter, and on farms like Studio Hill, soil is built as livestock graze, drop manure, and subsequently work that manure into the soil.
Chickens and turkeys work the top layer as they scratch, while sheep incorporate matter into deeper layers with their weight and hooves. If this makes you imagine a prairie ecosystem, filled with grouse and bison, that’s because it’s modeled after it.
Regenerative practices can happen on vegetable farms, too; such farms often keep livestock on the side, and runoff and erosion can easily happen. And vegetable farmers can utilize regenerative practices such as covering bare soil, using cover crops, reducing tillage, and including crop rotations, even if they don’t have animals on their farm.
Jesse’s experience eventually led him to pitch the idea of a “Regenerative Agriculture Certification” to his Vermont state senator, Brian Campion, who in turn worked with Jesse to write and introduce a bill to the Senate Agriculture Committee during the 2015–2016 legislative session.
“My initial impetus to write the bill came while sitting in a hayfield, making hay, thinking about how much work it is to do this regenerative agriculture,” Jesse recalls. While his conventional farming counterparts keep animals in a pen or an open barn, Jesse spends many hours rotating animals on pasture, which demands more time, takes more human hours, and can therefore be a more expensive way to farm (speaking strictly in monetary terms). Jesse hoped a new certification could help get the idea of regenerative ag into the mindsets of consumers, who might then be willing to pay a premium for regenerative products, much in the way certified organic products can garner higher prices for farmers. Jesse thought that with this monetary pathway, farmers might be more willing to implement regenerative practices.
It is possible, of course, for livestock farmers to become certified organic and attain those higher prices, but Jesse wanted more than that. He wanted to spark a conversation about how food can either improve or degrade the environment, and to give consumers a new way to support family farms and fight against climate change. While most people in the organic movement would contend that certified organic farming is also regenerative, Jesse doesn’t necessarily agree, pointing out that “industrial organic” seeks to emulate the streamlined, pared-down efficiencies of factories over complex natural systems. ”Certifiable organic does not always mean regenerative,” he argues.
Maddie Monty, policy advisor at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), believes otherwise. Just as soil is the foundation of regenerative agriculture, she says, “soil health and maintaining or improving soil fertility over time is one of the key foundations of organic. There are a lot of practices already required under organic production methods that do some of that work of building soil health, which in turn improves and protects water quality and also can store carbon. Common practices like cover cropping, crop rotation, and buffer zones are already incorporated into organic standards. More innovative practices like no-till can lend themselves to raising the bar on the standards that organic has already set.”
During the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Jesse’s proposed bill, Maddie testified on behalf of NOFA-VT, arguing that creating another certification is not the way to go right now. In a phone interview, she said that, “While NOFA and VOF [Vermont Organic Farmers, the certification wing of NOFA-VT] are very supportive of farmers using regenerative practices, and innovating and managing their land in ways that can store carbon and build soil, we don’t believe the right approach is to build another certification program. The process of creating a certification takes a very long time, and it would take a long time to develop a market demand for that certification, whereas organic as been around long enough—and frankly, consumers to some extent are still not aware of everything that is involved in organic. Regenerative agriculture is not as well recognized and well established in the minds of consumers, so my concern would be farmers paying in to be certified in a program that wouldn’t pay them back with that market premium.”
While it’s possible to create a certification program outside of the legislative process, Jesse went to the state in part because he ran into strict labeling rules from the slaughterhouse he uses, which is overseen by the state, and inspectors did not understand what regenerative agriculture meant. A bill would clearly define the term and allow him to market his products as regenerative on the packaging. More important, though, Jesse says: “I went to the state because I think it is in the interest of all Vermonters to support farms that enhance and strengthen our shared natural resources.”
The bill, which received testimony from both farmers and nonprofit agriculture groups, did not pass out of committee, largely because it was introduced during the second year of the legislative biennium with no co-sponsor, and it is rare for a bill to make it into law in one year, especially one without a wide range of support from legislators. The bill called for the VAAFM to act as the certifying agency, although agency staff testified that they do not have the time or resources to do this, nor should they be tasked with both regulating and certifying farms. Questions also arose regarding how to prove if a farm is building soil and sequestering carbon; it was decided that more research was needed on how to definitively declare a farm regenerative.
But Jesse was surprised that the bill got as far as it did. Jesse and Senator Campion are now working on a new draft of the bill, to introduce during the next legislative session. Although they were still working out the details as of this writing, the new bill will try to incentivize farmers to switch to regenerative ag.
As Studio Hill Farm was making its transition to regenerative agriculture, the state of Vermont was acknowledging a crisis in its waterways. In 2015, Act 64—known as the Clean Water Bill—was signed into law. Written to address the increasingly polluted state of Vermont’s surface water, the law recognizes agriculture’s role as a polluter of Lake Champlain and its tributaries, and instructs the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to rewrite the current Accepted Agricultural Practices, transition them into Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs), and expand the number of farms that are required to comply with certification requirements by creating a “small farm certification” (there is currently a medium and large farm certification requirement).
Because the updates to the RAPs represent substantial changes to agricultural policy in Vermont, there was a push for inclusion of—and an incentive toward—regenerative practices, as well as an acknowledgement of the risks associated with non-regenerative management styles. Although the RAPs include increasing buffer zones between fields and waterways, and increasing the use of cover crops, they focus heavily on the management of manure and how to limit runoff rather than how to shift management styles away from the animal confinement model currently used on the majority of dairy farms.
This is Jesse’s main issue with the RAPs. “It villainizes manure; in the writing and presentation of the RAPs, they spend the majority of the restrictions on manure. Where you can store, when you can spread, when and where you can graze animals. It gives the false impression that manure is a problem. Manure is not the problem—it’s the answer... Put animals back on the ground, and out of the barn. Focus on fields, increase organic matter and water retention, and decrease runoff.”
Andrew Bahrenburg, organizer for Rural Vermont, agrees, but understands why the RAPs focus so heavily on manure: “Because the RAPs are addressing agriculture’s contribution to Lake Champlain, of course they’re going to be preoccupied with manure, because the biggest problems with runoff are from the biggest farms, and those are the ones that are managed [with large-scale manure storage].”
Shortly after the regenerative agriculture bill was tabled, VAAFM announced a new Environmental Stewardship Program in response to Act 64. It is aimed at improving water quality through the use of regenerative practices.
Although the focus of the RAPs is on water and how to reduce water pollution, farmers and advocates who support regenerative agriculture continually come back to soil as the answer. Soil is the base of all agriculture, and soil loss is a big culprit when it comes to water pollution. Regenerative practices such as grazing, cover cropping, and no-till help to build soil and improve water quality by decreasing erosion and increasing the soil’s ability to both absorb excess water in times of flood and hold onto water in times of drought.
Whether a regenerative certification happens in Vermont, and whether the topic ever becomes part of the consumer conversation through a future regenerative agriculture bill or through a deeper understanding of organic farming, regenerative practices are taking root for the better. And as the soil benefits, so too will all of us.