Farmer story: Studio Hill Farm

At first sight, Studio Hill Farm may seem like any idyllic Vermont farm: chickens, turkey, pigs and sheep grazing on the pastures, and farmers Jesse and Cally McDougall busy at work chasing the animals and their two children.

But look more closely, and it turns out that so much more is going on on this fourth-generation farm: the McDougalls are pioneering regenerative farmers, activists, and educators. They are growing food while restoring the farm’s soil to health in the process. The latter part is not optional, or an afterthought—it is why they do what they do: “We are carbon farmers. Our goal in farming is to pass on land to the next generation that is outrageously fertile.”

Some of you will be asking: “What’s a carbon farmer?” Thankfully, the McDougalls have at hand one of the best-articulated definitions we at Project Grounded have seen:

“Regenerative agriculture, or—as it is sometimes called—carbon farming, is the agricultural production of food, fuel, or fiber using methods that put more carbon into the soil or above-ground biomass than they release into the atmosphere. By focusing on pulling atmospheric carbon down into the earth, carbon farmers all over the world are able to improve the fertility of their land, produce more nutrient-dense forage and food, improve water retention and filtration, restore the land’s natural cycles, improve profits, and free their lands from the dependence on chemicals.”

That sounds like magic, doesn’t it? But how do farmers actually do this—how do they pull carbon down into the earth?

In the case of Studio Hill Farm, the answer has been: animals. Or to be more precise: the intentional integration of animals in the landscape following a carefully planned system of managed grazing.

Jesse and Cally didn’t start out intending to raise livestock; they chose to do it because of the animals’ amazing natural ability to restore the soil on which they graze. In the past, the farm was a conventional farm growing corn and hay in rotation. Decades of heavy tilling, synthetic fertilizers, and GMO crops gradually depleted the fertility of the land as well as the health of those who lived on it.

When Jesse and Cally took over a few years ago, they began to ask, “How can we do this differently?” They immediately stopped spraying chemicals, and started learning as much as they could about regenerative agriculture. When they came across Holistic Management and the work of Allan Savory, something clicked. Savory’s work has demonstrated that animal activity plays a key role in revitalizing the soil.

The McDougalls first introduced chickens onto the pastures in a mobile coop.

Later, turkeys and sheep were added into the rotation. The result has been a visible explosion of ecological health: the once-lifeless fields have sprung back into life with thick, lush green grass and incredible biodiversity. If you’ve been following regeneration in the news for a while, you may have seen the contrasting photo below before:

Corn in near-bare ground in 2012. Grass so deep that it hides sheep in 2016.

How does this work? The animals’ hooves, their manure, and their grazing activity all combined stimulate the microbial activity in the soil, as well as the growth of the grass. And if you remember anything from your biology schoolbooks, growing plants draw CO2 out of the air. The carbon gets stored in the soil, where it again helps to stimulate more microbial activity and help to produce more food.

This ecological revitalization has brought with it a corresponding economic benefit. The McDougalls now run a regenerative meat CSA that delivers to the surrounding areas and as far as Boston. Jesse notes that the demand for regeneratively grown, grass-fed meat is growing by the year.

If by chance you want to witness a true regenerative farm in action, Studio Hill Farm presents a beautiful opportunity to do so: the idyllic, newly-renovated old schoolhouse is now available for rentals via Airbnb.

The McDougalls are not only farmers, but regenerative farming activists and educators. Jesse is on the Advisory Board of Soil4Climate, and originated the pioneering Vermont Regenerative Soils Bill that was submitted to the Vermont Senate in January 2017. Studio Hill’s blog is also an exceptionally inspiring and informative resource for anyone who wants to learn more about regenerative agriculture—that is, if you don’t get distracted by all the beautiful images of healthy animals and children on lush pasture, and want to join Jesse and Cally in chasing them.

Photo credits: Studio Hill Farm

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