Meet Jesse and Cally McDougall

STUDIO HILL FARM

Shaftsbury, Vermont

      

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The story of Studio Hill Farm began in 1936.
When Cally’s great grandparents saw the collapse of societal systems during The Great Depression, they decided to find land for food security for themselves and their family. They found a hilltop farm in Vermont.

It began as a small conventional dairy farm and was run that way until 1963.

In the ‘70s, Cally’s aunt, Edie, transitioned the farm business into horse boarding and hay production—using the conventional methods that were popular in the area: tillage, monocropping, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

Studio Hill Farm
LOCATION:

Shaftsbury, Vermont

WEBSITE:

www.studiohill.farm

CONTACT:

(802) 379-9070

 

Forty years later, in 2011, Edie was diagnosed with brain cancer. She passed away one year later. Cally and Jesse asked to take over as the farm’s 4th-generation farmers, but they were determined to do it differently.

They were terrified of the possible connection between the chemical usage on the farm and Edie’s s cancer.

Their first decision was to stop chemical use on the farm.

“We experienced failure after failure for two and a half years trying to understand where the breakdown of the ecosystem was happening and how we could fix it without chemicals or tilling.”
When they stopped using chemicals, the grass in their fields struggled to grow. They thought they had made some huge mistake. It was only later that they realized their decision to stop using inputs just revealed the dead ecosystem that the previous decades of inputs had covered up.

Jesse and Cally had to find another way, and looked to other farmers and farming organizations, and began to research options to restore the farm. “We called all the farmers we knew and asked, ‘How do we manage 100 acres of hayfield without chemicals?’” Jesse recalls.

Late one night, Jesse was up late with his baby boy, rocking him, and letting TED Talks play on loop when he stumbled across Allan Savory’s TED Talk. Everything clicked. The desertification and the collapse of the soil ecosystem which Savory describes in the Talk was exactly what was happening on their farm.

This was the “a-ha” moment they needed, and they decided to bring livestock onto the farm—starting with 50 chickensin “Joel Salatin style” coops, moving them every 12 hours.

“We want to bring money back into the rural communities while regenerating ecosystems.”
And finally, it started to work! Jesse remembers being able to see the regeneration of the land where the chickens had roamed. They expanded with more chickens, turkeys, and sheep. The ecosystem began to get stronger and stronger.

The grass rebounded far beyond what the chemicals had supported and life began to come back to the farm.

The next year, 2014, Jesse and Cally’s Studio Hill Farm was home to 300 chickens, 40 turkeys, and 50 sheep. The combination of poultry and sheep, holistic management, allowed the regeneration of 20 acres of hayfields in just one year.

Before the experiment—just after the chemicals stopped—hay production had been down 80 percent on the fields without animals. But in fields where animals grazed with holistic management, they saw five full growths of tall, lush grass, and those fields came roaring back in the spring. 

In just a few seasons, the hay bale count was back up to where it had been under conventional management, but the grass was greener, leafier, and more nutritious than ever before.

“Once the soil microbiology came back, everything else did too… the worms, then the birds, then the foxes, then the wild turkeys, then the deer, the coyotes and life started to flock back to our 270-acre farm. It brought tears to my eyes. It still does.”

Jesse and Cally now have a strong desire to educate and support farmers—no matter how they farm. . When we asked what they say to conventional farmers that may unable to financially take the risk of transitioning their land—or believe transition is impossible— Jesse invites them out to the farm. No fight. No judgement. Just come out and see.

“It’s all about getting people out on the farm to see the ecological and economical impact of the decisions we made which was really just shifting one thing – the way we managed the farm.”
 

As for the future, their dream is to build twenty rural food hubs to aggregate certified regenerative food from local farms and six urban hubs in bigger markets—all connected with an electric truck network—to allow for regenerative produce and products to go directly to consumers and restaurants in the cities.

“We want to bring money back into the rural communities while regenerating ecosystems.”

So, if you want to see the transformation happening at Studio Hill Farm, do as Jesse says and get out there to see it for yourself. You can even stay on their farm at their Airbnb cottage! Also, you can follow their journey on social media.