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Regenerative Ag Pioneer Retires from Chesapeake Bay Foundation | The latest environment and conservation news

Michael Heller, a regenerative farmer and conservationist whose career spanned more than 40 years, retired this month from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Heller’s seminal work in the Chesapeake Bay watershed helped usher in a new cohort of regenerative farmers focused on improving soil health, reducing pesticide and fertilizer use, and understanding of ecosystem benefits from agricultural diversity.

“Michael is a quiet leader, never seeking attention, but his footprint is wide and deep,” said Beth McGee, the foundation’s director of science and agricultural policy. “Whether it’s helping form influential groups or conducting research to test new innovations in agriculture, his vision and leadership are unmatched. Over the years, he has organized hundreds of events and trained thousands of people. Michael has had a positive and lasting impact on CBF and our work as well as the entire regenerative agriculture movement.

Micheal Heller retired as director of Clagett Farm after 40 years with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Heller joined the foundation in 1982 to manage Clagett Farm – a 285-acre farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland – after leaving a teaching position in plant ecology at the University of Maryland, where he was studying for a doctorate.

Before the farm was donated to the Bay Foundation, the soil on the farm had been depleted by decades of intensive tobacco and corn production. Heller’s task was to restore it. He did this by taking the land out of agricultural production and turning it into pasture. He planted various vegetable crops where necessary. He brought in cattle and sheep and began to rotate them in the farm’s pastures to restore nutrients to the soil.

“The farm has changed dramatically,” Heller said. “I would say a lot of farms in Maryland have changed, but maybe not more than Clagett. The farm has gone from just about corn and tobacco and heavy tillage to a farm that really strives to be regenerative agriculture in a real sense, where building healthy soil is really a top priority with a healthy economy. It was one of the things I’m most proud of – our focus on the floor.

As Heller undertook this work, he also connected with other farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to promote these methods. Heller co-founded the nonprofit Future Harvest in 1998 to help train farmers in methods such as rotational grazing, limited pesticide use and how to increase organic matter in the soil. He also started the Maryland Grazers Network to connect young meat-producing farmers with mentors to help them with marketing, business and pasture management.

This year, Heller received Future Harvest’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.

“We simply wouldn’t be here without Michael,” said Jess Armacost, acting executive director of Future Harvest. “In 1994 he wrote a grant to the Kellogg Foundation for a project which in 1998 became Future Harvest. As one of the founding members, Michael remained actively involved. His work educating farmers and consumers about what sustainable and regenerative agriculture means – and why it matters – has helped grow the region of growers, buyers and advocates that make up our community today. . Michael’s leadership and generosity have made Future Harvest a leading voice for agriculture and we were delighted to present him with a lifetime achievement award at our annual conference in January.

Heller’s efforts have had a lasting impact on the regenerative agriculture movement in the Bay Area, where reducing agricultural pollution is a necessity to improve water quality in streams, rivers, and ultimately , the Bay. Techniques perfected by Heller and others can dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that enters waterways from agricultural fields by allowing the soil to absorb more water and prevent runoff. The methods also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A recent multi-year baseline study of regenerative farms found that emissions from the farms studied decreased by an average of 42%.


Michael Heller with sheep in the snow at Clagett Farm.

Heller said he was very proud to see the regenerative agriculture organizations he helped start grow and expand their reach during his tenure as director of Clagett Farm.

“I also really like our collaboration with the Capital Region Food Bank to provide much of the vegetables we grow to families in need,” Heller said. “We’ve been doing it now for over 25 years.”

Each year, the foundation donates 40% of produce grown in Clagett to the food bank. In 2021, this represented 17,000 pounds of fresh produce.

For people who worked closely with Heller, it was his personality that brought them together.

“He likes to take things slow,” said Jared Planz, the farm’s vegetable production manager, who has worked with Heller for six years. “You can have an important meeting with him, but first he takes you to meet the sheep, watch the bluebirds, and then your mindset is in the right place to make the big decisions you’re trying to make. He wants to give people a sense of what a farm should be, not just talk about it.

Heller credited his co-workers and colleagues for his success and said he would miss working with them every day, although he plans to continue to visit them from time to time.

As for what’s next, Heller has a new 5-acre farm in Bowie, Maryland, where he plans to raise sheep and chickens, tend to bees, and tend to a vegetable garden. He is also interested in serving as an advisor to other organizations or farmers seeking to implement regenerative agriculture.

He hopes the foundation will continue to expand its reach with farmers and focus on soil health while he enjoys his retirement.

“I think CBF’s focus on soil health is really on the right track,” Heller said. “And I like to see the interest in climate change issues, because soil health and agriculture is also an important part of that. When you talk to a farmer about water quality, he may be on But when you talk about soil health, we farmers all realize that it’s our bank account, you know, good healthy soil.