Upper Marlboro, Maryland
Prince George’s Soil Conservation District
Since 1982, Michael Heller has farmed the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) 285-acre livestock and vegetable operation in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The farm markets its vegetables through a 270-member CSA, sells grass-fed beef and lamb direct to local consumers, and raises 10,000 trees for CBF to utilize in riparian plantings designed to protect water quality. Heller has served as president of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture’s Board of Directors, was a founding board member of Future Harvest/CASA, and has sat on the National Operations Committee for USDA’s SARE Program (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and on the Administrative Council for the Northeast Region SARE. He also works closely with Prince George’s Soil Conservation District.
On the CBF operation, Heller uses cover crops year around (summer and winter annuals), composts, and grows various vegetable crops in alternate strips of uniform width on the same field – a system referred to as strip cropping. He also uses mulch to conserve moisture in the soil – a practice Heller says has been critical in times of drought during the summer and fall. “Mulching has also been great for controlling pests (such as the Colorado potato beetle) and for building soil, too,” he added.
In addition, he practices management-intensive grazing – a system that divides large fields into smaller paddocks – for the farm’s cattle and sheep. In this system, animals are moved frequently at high stocking rates, providing the highest forage production and use per acre, while allowing paddocks to rest and regrow completely.
The farm had been in tobacco and continuous corn production in the past, and as a result, soil erosion has become highly problematic and the fields had very low organic matter content. Heller started using soil health management practices 34 years ago while raising cattle. Since then, he’s added organic vegetables to his operation and marketed them through a CSA. He has also added a native tree and shrub nursery to utilize the animal manure compost generated on the farm.
“When I brought cattle to the farm to build soil health and implement permanent pastures, cattle prices were very poor,” Heller told NACD. “I persisted in order to build soil organic matter levels.” With time, the public’s growing interest in grass-finished beef and lamb made the addition of animals to the farm a strong economic benefit. With raising organic vegetables, he said, the challenge has been to reduce tillage while managing weeds effectively. Heller says he has utilized no-till with the vegetables, but generally has found some tillage actually enhances yields and helps control slugs. “Over time, we are moving more to strip tillage with the use of dwarf white clover in alleys,” he added.