Michael Heller has a knack for being there at the start of the “next big thing” in sustainable agriculture in Maryland.
He’s been at Clagett Farm in Prince George’s County since the Chesapeake Bay Foundation bought it in 1982, way before sustainability was a buzzword in Maryland. Leaving his job teaching plant ecology at the University of Maryland, he moved to what had been a corn and tobacco farm, what the soil conservation said was “the worst farm in their three-county jurisdiction,” with a mandate to transform it into a living model of sustainable farming.
He began by grazing cattle to build up the soil, then added organic sweet potatoes, squash and sweet corn, which he sold wholesale for a few years. In 1992, he started From the Ground Up CSA to provide organically grown vegetables directly to shareholders and to low-income families through a partnership with the Capital Area Food Bank. “The CSA has been wonderful for us and because we are connected with the Capital Area Food Bank, many people are as concerned about that collaboration as they are about being a member of a CSA,” Heller says. Shareholders’ donations of money and time “make it possible for us to donate 40 percent of the vegetables [we grow] to the food bank” he says. “It’s really enriched the CSA because people are so invested in it.”
But running a model sustainable farm and socially responsible CSA wasn’t enough for Heller. In 1994, he wrote a grant to the Kellogg Foundation for the project that eventually became Future Harvest CASA in 1998. As one of the founding members, he’s been actively involved as Future Harvest-CASA has evolved into a collaborative effort of regional farmers committed to environmental and economic sustainability. The work of educating both farmers and consumers about what sustainability means and why it’s important has helped to grow the community of sustainable food growers, purchasers and advocates and positioned Future Harvest-CASA to be a leading voice for agriculture during the current wave of interest in sustainability issues.
Heller’s latest project is the Maryland Grazer’s Network, which he founded three years ago with a group of experienced farmers and the help of the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network. The goal of this group is to help others learn how increase their profitability while improving the health of the Bay by grazing their animals on pasture. “It’s powerful how our grazing dairies average $150 per cow more profit than the confinement dairies.” According to Heller, “The farmers in the network say ‘How could anyone NOT be grazing?’ Not a single one of them would ever consider going back to confinement. Treating animals humanely . . . ends up being economically profitable and environmentally better.”
Underlying these kinds of successes, a basic love of farming keeps Heller committed to his work and the lifestyle. “I love being outside, I love the stimulation of farming because it is very much a physical, but also a cerebral kind of thing,” Heller says. “There’s a lot of thought that goes into a farming operation to make it successful.” He adds, “The community that has evolved here over time, it just gives you energy.”
-- Renee Brooks Catacalos