Dr. Charles Mess has been a resident of Montgomery County since completing his medical training from the Mayo Clinic in the early 1970s.
An avid trail rider, Dr. Mess began seeking a lot where he could build a family home and keep his horse. What he ended up with was a 200-acre farm in Sandy Spring, Maryland, and over 60 head of cattle. With it came a need for conservation, and Dr. Mess found an ally with the Montgomery Soil Conservation District (SCD).
Almost immediately, Dr. Mess consulted with the University of Maryland Extension and obtained nutrient management guidance tailored for his pasture and hay operation. He saw benefits in recycling his manure and bedding and began applying it to his fields in the mid-1970s.
The initial results were less than extraordinary. Along with the nutrients in the manure, Dr. Mess soon realized that he was also recycling weed seeds. He admits his pastures didn’t look all that good in those days. To help with the weed issues, Dr. Mess began regularly liming his fields. He also established a rotational grazing system, which gave him flexibility in applying manure, controlling grazing, and harrowing his fields after each rotation. Dr. Mess also saw the benefits of mob grazing, a practice he continues today.
In the mid-1980s, Dr. Mess began transitioning away from cattle to horses. By 1996, he had sold his last cow and began construction of an indoor riding ring along with new fencing. His previous fencing had come with the farm and used barbed wire, which he wanted to avoid with the horses, so he began replacing the old fencing with high tensile and board-on-board fence. During this process, largely done without cost-share assistance, Dr. Mess built new fencing to exclude his animals from the streams running though his property.
Working with the Montgomery SCD, Dr. Mess installed a composting pad and began composting manure in the late 2000s. He quickly discovered that using compost instead of fresh manure significantly reduced the presence of weeds in his pasture, which the horses were much less apt to eat than the cows had been. Dr. Mess continued working with the soil conservation district and, following the destruction of his old indoor riding ring as the result of the 2010 blizzards, he constructed the new ring with a roof runoff system and solar panels.
During the last 10 years, Dr. Mess has continued working for greater soil health on his farm. He has installed several heavy-use pads both with and without financial assistance and installed automatic watering systems. He remains active in local organizations and warmly welcomes anybody who wants to learn about farms and soil health. He frequently invites youth, community and education groups to visit his farm and host trainings and seminars there.
After 40 years in soil conservation, Dr. Mess continues to go strong. While increasingly smaller parcels present a challenge for many in his region in properly managing stocking rates and pasture, they also present an opportunity for more people to experience the benefits of good soil health. With a USDA soil health score of 75 – excellent – Brooke Grove Farm continues to set a standard for good soil health management in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Updated November 2019.