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. 


Inside CBF: Carrie Vaughn, Clagett Farm

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Clagett Farm's Vegetable Production Manager Carrie Vaughn. Photo by Hannah Holt.

If you live in an urban area, your food source may not be top of mind. However, a farm is always close by in the D.C. region, including CBF's own sustainable Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

Clagett produces organic vegetables for a weekly community-supported agriculture (CSA) share as well as donates produce to local non-profits such as the Capital Area Food Bank. This takes a lot of coordination I soon discover, most of which is managed by Carrie Vaughn, the farm's vegetable production manager.

On a sunny Wednesday, I visit Clagett Farm to help with the harvest and to meet with Vaughn. Several volunteers greet me as I arrive and immediately put me to work unloading freshly picked heirloom tomatoes followed by harvesting onions and setting up baskets of vegetables for CSA pickup.

The farm schedule is somewhat predictable: Wednesdays and Saturdays are harvest days, when Clagett Farm staff direct hard-working volunteers who help pick the vegetables. The rest of the week is dedicated to managing other volunteer projects on the farm. Today being a Wednesday, Carrie determines which vegetables are appropriate for this week's share. After deciding on heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, squash, and the onions we'd just dug up, Vaughn oversees the CSA pickup and then settles in for a chat.  

"It varies a lot," says Vaughn of her typical day on the farm. "I think that's one of the nice things about the job: That it's not the same thing day after day. Sometimes I'm working on the tractor alone; sometimes I'm with a lot of people I've never met before; and sometimes I get to work with people that come back all the time, [that become] friends."

Veggies
Photo by Hannah Holt.

Vaughn started her career at CBF as a volunteer fresh out of college where she had studied biology and decided she wanted to pursue a career in agricultural research. But, as we know, some things don't always go to plan in life. "I came here to learn about what it's like to be a farmer, so I could be a better researcher. I guess I just fell in love with farming and never left!"

As Vaughn and I continue to talk through the morning, there are many things, I learn, that you can do while gardening or selecting your food to help restore the Bay and its waters. Allowing native plants to flourish and grow is just one of them. "People have to let the clover live in their yard. All that diversity in their lawn is really helpful," says Vaughn. "It's naturally fertilizing."

As expected Vaughn is a tremendous advocate for supporting local agriculture: "A lot of people think that buying organic is about being healthy for the consumer, but for me the purchasing decision has a lot more to do with the health of the whole ecosystem. You want to make sure you're supporting a healthy ecosystem through the farms that are giving you food."

—Lindsey Kellogg, CBF's Communications Intern 

Click here to learn more about Clagett Farm and how you can get involved!


Inside CBF: Q&A with Melissa Simmons, Clagett Farm Education Program Manager

Melissa&chicken In March of 2007, a soft-spoken, gutsy South Carolinian with a big heart and big vision, moved to Annapolis, Maryland, to join the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). As the Clagett Farm Education Program Manager, Melissa Simmons shows more than 1,500 students and teachers each year the value of different land uses and their effects on the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Why CBF?
The thing that really drew me to CBF was the passion that everybody here had for what they do. It’s not as if they just talk about saving the Bay…everybody here that I’ve had interactions with, they don’t just talk it, they walk it. And I think if we really are going to make a positive impact on the environment you have to do just that.

What’s it like in the field versus the days of being in the office? 
The cool thing about being in the field for me is really getting to know your environment that you’re in…feeling, literally feeling, the seasonal change, not as you’re walking in and out of a building, but being out in it. And when you’ve worked on the program for more than two or three seasons, you start anticipating things: When are the peepers gonna come out; when is this flower gonna bloom; when are you gonna feel that cool breeze when you’ve just had enough of summer. For me, it awakens something inside of me that I didn’t realize was dormant, so being out and noticing it and then sharing it with other people is extraordinary… Clagettfall2010 By being observant of what’s going on in the season and being in the moment, you can be a better educator and better ambassador to the natural world. 

What sets the Clagett Farm Program apart from other CBF education programs? 
What I think is really unique about the farm is that it’s a farm. It’s a land-based program, but we’re really drawing that connection between how you treat the land and what runs off into the Bay…  I love the fact that on the farm we can take that conversation and talk about what you’re using to fuel your body, what kind of choices are you making in your diet that actually impacts the Bay…there’s crazy statistics out there that your food is traveling on average 1,500 miles to get to your plate. If you eat food on the local level and in season, not only are you doing your environment a favor, but man, you’re doing your body a favor…you’re serving it greater nutrients…and it’s a big difference in taste. And getting that awareness out there is so important because a lot of kids and adults think, “well, my food Garden just comes from the grocery store, and that’s all I need to know.” But how did that food make it to that shelf, and what happened to it along the way?   

Where does your food come from?
I would say a good 50 percent of it comes from the farm. I participate in the [Clagett Farm] CSA which goes till almost Thanksgiving, so man it’s dark times in the winter…come January I’m fiending a fresh squash something terrible.

Why the Chesapeake Bay? What is it about this region that inspires you? 
My grandparents live on the Rappahannock River. I grew up in South Carolina, but many of my summers were spent on the River…So [I have] very strong memories of pulling crab pots up off their dock with my cousin…and when I first started looking around and trying to figure out M&cow what I wanted to do with my life after college, I met some people [at CBF] that really impressed me…and from the word of mouth of people working in the environmental community, [CBF] is the best, and I wanted to be a part of the best.

Do you think we can do it, do you think we can Save the Bay?
We have to believe that we can Save the Bay…why would we get out of bed and come to work every morning. Is it going to happen in the next 10 years? No. But, could it happen within our lifetimes? I hope so. I think with the opportunity to enforce the TMDL [or “pollution diet”] and the more we can get the awareness out there and get people fired up about it…yeah, it can be done. 

—Emmy Nicklin

Editor’s Note: Maryland recently became the first state to require its high school seniors to be environmentally literate in order to graduate. This historic action validates and reaffirms CBF’s many outdoor, environmental education programs such as Clagett Farm. For more information about Clagett Farm please visit: http://www.cbf.org/page.aspx?pid=339 or http://cbf.typepad.com/clagett_farm.


Inside CBF: Q&A with Maggie Rees, Communications Intern

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Photo by Johnny Haworth

It’s that time of year again…summer-intern time! We are grateful to all the interns across the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) who are so vital to our efforts. We sat down with one such intern, Maggie Rees, a rising junior from Dickinson College, to find out why she chose to spend her summer with CBF.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in environmental studies?
Honestly, it always comes back to the two programs I did in elementary school. In fourth grade we did a project where we grew celery grass in the classroom. We took pH and other scientific measurements, and a few of us got to eventually plant the grasses in the Chesapeake Bay. It was so much fun. And in sixth grade, I actually did a Smith Island trip with CBF (http://www.cbf.org/Page.aspx?pid=375).

Why CBF?
It’s such an important organization. I’ve grown up admiring it. Its mission and work have always been very close to home.

Why is the Chesapeake Bay important to you?
It’s about protecting and maintaining the whole system—not necessarily just the crabs and the oysters, but the people that depend on them, too. [It’s about] keeping that system in order so it can be self-sustaining in the future.

Tell me about what you’ll be doing this summer.
We’re looking specifically at college kids—how to better engage college kids and the millennial population [in CBF’s work]. I think this is a really interesting topic. We are a completely different generation and figuring out how to reach this audience is important.

What do you hope to get out of your time at CBF?
Obviously the experience itself. Working at an organization like this is an amazing opportunity…hopefully leading to a job here would be ideal. Other than that, just getting to learn about the Bay, and Marcellus Shale (http://www.cbf.org/Page.aspx?pid=2410), and all the other important things that are going on here.  

Emmy Nicklin