Photo by Melissa Simmons/CBF Staff.
The air has turned cooler and the sound of geese resonates high above the clear skies. Students from across Maryland are back in school and their teachers are bringing them to CBF’s Clagett Farm for a first-hand, organic agriculture experience. While here, these students are also learning what they can do to improve the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay whether it be planting stream buffers and fencing off cattle or deciding to eat only grass-fed beef.
Clagett Farm has seen many fall seasons. Formerly a working tobacco farm, the Clagett family passed nearly 300 acres to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in 1981 to run as an educational working farm. Since then, Clagett has grown over the years to offer a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program with its vegetable production, grass-fed beef, and native tree nursery, as well as educational programs. From pulling weeds, to moving cattle, to collecting chicken eggs for our CSA program, students who participate in CBF’s Clagett Farm Education Program have the opportunity to engage in real-life, hands-on farm work.
On a recent sunny, fall day, I find myself working with a group of Baltimore high schoolers. After loading into a hay wagon, I inform them that we will begin the day with a very important task: moving the cattle. On our hay ride over to the cattle, our farm manager, Michael Heller, speaks to the students about why we raise our beef on grass, and why he considers himself a grass farmer.
Raising beef on grass is better for the farmer, the consumer, the cow, and the Bay he tells us. The farmer can charge a higher price for grass-fed beef (not to mention that he/she experiences less back problems than working on concrete, which is often found in non-grass-fed situations). The consumer enjoys beef that is less fatty and higher in healthy omega fatty acids—found in grass-fed beef. The cow enjoys a fresh patch of clovers and freshly sprouted grass every two days instead of being locked into a confined situation. And finally, the Bay wins because the cow manure is absorbed in the roots of the grass rather than running off a concrete lot and adding to water pollution.
The students begin to see why grass-fed beef could be better for the Bay, but still need more convincing. Once we arrive at the cattle, we divide the students in two groups: One to arrange the electric fence, and others to herd the cattle. The students are fascinated once they see the cattle—they ask about the breed of the cows, their weight, and how they taste. The cows know they are about to see greener pastures and trot towards the open gate. Once the cattle have made it into the new pasture, all goes quiet.
This moment of silence with the backdrop of bright green rolling pasture is the perfect opportunity to connect students with where their food actually comes from. We ask questions: Why is it important to buy locally? and How does this farming operation effect the Chesapeake? At last the students start to get it. Through these hands-on moments on the farm, students begin to see agriculture’s impact on the watershed and make connections between where their food comes from and how it effects the health of the Bay.
—Phillip McKnight, Clagett Farm Educator