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  • JACQUELINE SUSSMAN

Studio Hill Farm: A story of resilience and regeneration

BY JACQUELINE SUSSMAN, STEWARD

Livestock roam and graze grasses on a rotating basis, thoroughly distributing their natural fertilizers across the vibrant, green pastures. The land is supporting an abundance of life, from the teeming microbe-rich communities deep in the soils to the pollinators frequenting the flowers above. Visitors regularly pass through to learn about the regenerative techniques used to remove and store atmospheric carbon as a holistic way to mitigate climate change. This is Studio Hill.

Coop: Studio Hill raises chickens and other poultry on pasture. Photo provided by author.
Coop: Studio Hill raises chickens and other poultry on pasture. Photo provided by author.

An intergenerational, regenerative sheep farm, Studio Hill is owned and run by Caroline and Jesse McDougall in Shaftsbury, Vermont. Caroline’s great-grandparents purchased the pastoral hilltop property in 1936. Like most people at the end of The Great Depression, they were looking for a way to ensure long-term food security for their family. After two generations in operation as a small dairy, Caroline’s aunt Edie converted the land to an equestrian center and hay farm. A real-life “superhero,” Edie’s repertoire included equestrian training, piloting planes, and running a thriving tack shop business out of the barn. Edie was a pillar of the community for 40 years, and in the summers Caroline would follow her around to learn the ins and outs of the hay operation.

In those days, there was one model to successfully manage land: heavy tillage to prepare the ground, synthetic fertilizers sprayed to fuel new growth, herbicides to snuff the weeds, and pesticides to kill any unwanted bugs. The farm ran a corn and hay rotation, using Roundup and other synthetic chemicals to remove all invasive species. This was the way of most hay production at the time, and it was prosperous. Then in 2011, Edie got sick with an aggressive form of brain cancer. Edie passed after a year-long battle, devastating the family and leaving the farm without a steward. Together, Caroline and Jesse decided to honor the work of three generations of the family before them by restoring the ecosystem from the soil up. Fearful of the possible connection between the agrochemicals and Edie’s cancer, they were unwilling to spray another drop on the land.

Yet the hayfields didn’t flourish without the chemicals; to Caroline and Jesse’s great despair, they worsened. Bouncing their baby son, Angus, on his knee one night, Jesse stumbled across Allan Savory’s TED Talk on reversing desertification and restoring grasslands through the holistic planned grazing of livestock. Here was the gateway to holistic land restoration and carbon farming they’d been searching for.

Jesse and Caroline began a grazing plan with 50 chickens, rotating them in a mobile coop every 12 hours to break up soil capping and work natural fertilizers deep into the soil. Within a month, the driest patch of land had sprouted lush, green grass. By the end of summer, the ecosystem was bursting, showing new signs of biodiversity and the McDougalls knew they were on the right track. On full scholarship by New England Farmers Union, Jesse underwent a holistic management training intensive at the nearby dairy farm Stonewall Farm in Keene, NH, became a Savory Institute Holistic Management Accredited Professional and made Studio Hill a Savory Influencer Hub. They now graze chickens, sheep, and pigs on pasture in their soil rehabilitation program. When they dig into the fields these days, they find earthworms, grubs, beetles, roots–a biodiverse ecosystem enriching the soil fertility, all made possible by the transition to holistic land management. The regenerative philosophy of Studio Hill emphasizes two carbon sinks that are in dire need of restoration–the soil and the forests. Their practices sequester atmospheric carbon into the ground through holistic planned grazing, perennial tree crops, and no-till vegetable production.

On a four-acre section of their property between an old oak forest and pasture, Jesse and Caroline are building a perennial food forest that emulates the high-yield polyculture savanna. Instead of using fossil-fuel run heavy machinery to clear out logs and unwanted vegetation, they used pigs to remove underbrush and break down rotting logs and other bio-matter, speeding up decomposition while sequestering carbon. The forest will optimize the vertical space for food production and carbon sequestration per square foot of soil, producing apples, stone fruits, berries, and more without the energy required for traditional orchards.

In tandem with the land restoration, Jesse and Caroline renovated a 19th-century schoolhouse on the property, which hadn’t been updated for nearly 70 years. While they initially planned to make this their new family home, they decided to try renting it on Airbnb to help recoup the money invested in the renovation. Soon after listing, it was fully booked for the upcoming year, and actively funding their regenerative management endeavors. The agritourism income has provided the fiscal flexibility and necessary patience for the biological transition on the farm. In partnership with their regenerative agriculture lender, Steward, Studio Hill is currently in the process of increasing their acreage, growing the livestock herd size, and expanding the farm stay capacity to provide more opportunities to share their knowledge and passion for holistically managed farming.

All of this work goes beyond the borders of Studio Hill for Caroline and Jesse. They envision a regenerative ethos taking hold across Vermont, and hopefully the country. Their work is to be shared, which they do in hosting school groups of all ages, consultations, and webinars to show others how it’s possible to manage land without chemicals and institute regenerative practices that benefit local ecosystems and sequester carbon to combat climate change.

Sheep: Studio Hill raises sheep on pasture as part of their holistic management plan. Photo provided by author.
Sheep: Studio Hill raises sheep on pasture as part of their holistic management plan. Photo provided by author.

Jesse is a founding partner of Regenerative Food Network Inc.–a regional effort to rebuild farming infrastructure throughout the northeastern United States, providing small farms access to the processing equipment and markets needed to create and sell value-added products. He also serves on the advisory board for the organization Soil4Climate, which educates people on regenerative land management as a climate mitigation solution.

Studio Hill serves as an encouraging example of how conventional farmland can gradually transform into a fertile, ecologically thriving, carbon-sequestering oasis. Their young kids are the fifth generation to farm this land, and the McDougalls are always thinking about the bigger picture when it comes to regenerating both land and communities.

“There’s another generation coming. We view ourselves as stewards of this land, but we have to expand our definition of stewardship from what we own, to the things we care for: the community, the school, the wider natural resources of the region. I would like to see the societal expansion of stewardship—a reacceptance of the responsibility of passing on something stronger and better for our kids,” says Jesse.

Resources: Allan Savory’s Ted Talk

Steward is a private lending partner that helps human-scale regenerative farms access the capital they need to grow. Learn more at gosteward.com, hello@gosteward.com.

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