Michael Heller, a regenerative farmer and environmental advocate whose career spanned more than 40 years, retired this month from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Heller’s foundational work in the Bay watershed has helped usher in a new cohort of regenerative farmers focused on improving soil health, reducing pesticide and fertilizer use, and understanding the ecosystem benefits derived from farm diversity.
“Michael is a quiet leader, never seeking attention, yet his footprint is broad and deep,” said Beth McGee, CBF’s Director of Science and Agricultural Policy. “From helping to form influential groups to conducting research to test out new innovations in agriculture, his vision and leadership are unparalleled. Over the years, he has hosted hundreds of events and educated thousands of people. Michael has had a positive, lasting impact on CBF and our work as well as on the entire regenerative agriculture movement.”
Heller joined CBF in 1982 to manage Clagett Farm—a 285-acre farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland—after leaving a position teaching plant ecology at the University of Maryland, where he was studying for a doctorate.
Before the farm was donated to CBF, the farm’s soil had been depleted through decades of intensive tobacco and corn production. Heller’s task was to restore it. He did so by taking land out of crop production and turning it into a pasture. He planted diverse vegetable crops where appropriate. He brought in cattle and sheep and began rotating them through the farm’s pastures to restore nutrients to the soil.
“The farm has changed dramatically,” Heller said. “I’d say many farms in Maryland have changed, but maybe none more than Clagett. The farm has gone from pretty much corn and tobacco and intensive tillage to an operation that really strives to be regenerative agriculture in a true sense, where building healthy soil is really a top priority along with sound economics. That was one of my proudest things—our focus on soil.”
As Heller undertook this work, he also connected with other farmers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed to promote these methods of regenerative agriculture. Heller co-founded the nonprofit Future Harvest in 1998 to help train farmers about rotational grazing, limited use of pesticides, and how to increase organic matter in the soil. He also launched the Maryland Grazers Network to connect young farmers who produce meat with mentors to assist them with marketing, business, and pasture management.
This year, Heller was honored with Future Harvest’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Quite simply, we wouldn’t be here without Michael,” said Jess Armacost, Future Harvest’s Interim Executive Director, on behalf of the organization’s staff and Board of Directors. “In 1994, he wrote a grant to the Kellogg Foundation for a project that, in 1998, became Future Harvest. As one of the founding members, Michael has remained actively involved. His work educating farmers and consumers about what sustainable and regenerative farming means – and why it’s important – has helped to grow the region of producers, purchasers, and advocates that make up our community today. Michael’s leadership and generosity positioned Future Harvest to be a leading voice for agriculture and we were thrilled to award him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at our annual conference this January.”
Heller’s efforts have had a lasting impact on the regenerative agriculture movement in the Bay region, where reducing agriculture pollution is a necessity for improving water quality in local streams, rivers, and, ultimately, the Bay. The techniques honed by Heller and others can significantly cut down on the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that enters waterways from farm fields by enabling the soil to absorb more water and prevent runoff. The methods also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A recent multi-year CBF study of regenerative farms found emissions on the farms in the study fell an average of 42 percent.
Heller said he has taken great pride in watching the regenerative agriculture organizations he helped get off the ground expand and broaden their reach during his time as Clagett Farm Manager at CBF.
“I also really like our collaboration with the Capital Area Food Bank to get a lot of the vegetables that we grow to families that are in need,” Heller said. “We’ve been doing that now for more than 25 years.”
Each year, CBF donates 40 percent of the produce grown at Clagett Farm to the food bank. In 2021, that amounted to 17,000 pounds of fresh produce.
For the people that worked closely with Heller, it’s his personality that drew them together.
“He likes to slow things down,” said Jared Planz, Clagett Farm’s Vegetable Production Manager, who has worked with Heller for six years. “You can be having an important meeting with him, but first he’ll take you to meet the sheep, look at 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 the feeling of what a farm should be, not just talk about it.”
Heller credited his co-workers and colleagues for his success and said he’ll miss working with them each day, although he plans to continue to visit 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, care for bees, and tend a vegetable garden. He’s also interested in serving as an advisor for other organizations or farmers seeking to implement regenerative agriculture.
He hopes CBF will continue to expand its outreach to farmers and interest in soil health as he enjoys his retirement.
“I think CBF’s focus on soil health is really on the right track,” Heller said. “And I love seeing the interest in climate change issues because soil health and agriculture is such a major part of that as well. When you talk water quality to a farmer, they may be defensive. But when you talk soil health, all of us farmers realize, that’s our bank account, you know, good healthy soil.”