A Promising Culture
As I drive down Shepard’s Lane in Ellicott City, Maryland, the surroundings don’t seem too special. It’s just another typical suburban road, with grass on one side and woods on the other. Suddenly, however, a white sign with writing pops up: “100% GRASS-FED BEEF,” it reads in red, with “Mary’s Land Farm” written in blue below. Several more signs similar to this one appear in quick succession, one of which reads “NON-GMO SOY-FREE EGGS.” Finally, a gravel road on the right appears. After I follow the road up a few small hills, a wide, open space appears, surrounded by dark green trees. There are cows grazing all around, and oddly enough, there is a sheep standing among them! I later learn that the animals are able to walk freely throughout the land, and this mischievous sheep in particular has exercised this right more than his fellow animals.
After traveling down the road for some time, I see a congregation of some farm buildings ahead, one of which is a red, wood-paneled barn with the words “Welcome Center” written on the wall. On a rainy Monday afternoon, I find the cabin-like inside of the store to be warm and comforting. There are shelves and tables of food and food-related products all around, including jars of honey and dishes for olive oil. There is meat stored in refrigerators on one side of the room, and a woman at the cash register is situated near the center of the room. There are several customers walking around, most of whom are on the older side. There are many reasons as to why these people could be drawn to Mary’s Land Farm, from its ethical practices to the freshness of its food. However, one thing is certain: this place is special, both in the way it is run and the mentality of those who run it.
Mary’s Land Farm is a 160-acre, family-run farm whose food products include meat and perennial plants. Four years ago, in the fall of 2014, the farm was bought by Tom Cunningham, a kindly, middle-aged man that made his money as a tech entrepreneur, and his wife Rosy. On his website, Cunningham writes how after the birth and subsequent death of his seventh child, John Paul, to Trisomy 18, “the hospice nurse made a casual and life-changing comment”: in her 30 years of practicing, she had never seen a Trisomy 18 child, and she went on to conclude that “it must be something in the environment.” After this event, Cunningham “became more and more aware and then more and more concerned about the impact of the environment on [his] children.” Having read many books, including Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cunningham came to realize that the nature of the food he was feeding his children was of utmost importance. As he writes, “One Bible verse hung with me and started to prick my conscience. Matthew 7:9 “Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone?”” Cunningham did not want to feed his children stone. “There was only one way to guarantee good food for my family. We had to buy a farm!”
Thus, the farm uses fully organic sources to feed its animals, which include cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. All of the animals on the farm, save the ducks as well as the ponies that are used for “Unicorn” parties, are raised for meat. The ducks, along with the chickens, produce eggs that the farm staff collects. The cows and sheep are fed grass, and everything else is fed non-GMO, soy-free, certified organic grain in addition to their grazing. Thomas, who is one of the six Cunningham children and in junior year of homeschooling, says cows at the farm are of a species called Devon cattle, which are the only species of cow “made to thrive on grass,” hence the farm’s ability to let them graze on grass; the breed of sheep on the farm also relies on grass. Contrary to industrial meatpacking facilities in which hundreds, even thousands, of animals are stuffed into tightly packed spaces, the animals at Mary’s Land Farm are able to go essentially wherever they want on the property, which explains why there could have been a sheep standing among the cows.
Thomas says that other farms often use “tricks” and loopholes in order to gain certification that is misleading to consumers. For example, he says that “you can take a chicken, put him in a one-by-one foot area, and call it free-range or cage-free if you get certified, whereas here, you can actually see [how] the animals [are raised] for yourself.” Similarly, he says, cows can be certified grass-fed even if they’re fed corn their whole life because the farmer can give the excuse that they don’t have access to adequate grass in their area, absurdly enough. As for what certification Mary’s Land Farm has, Stephanie Kribs, who is part of the staff at the farm, says that the farm is certified naturally grown, but it derives its certification from “peer review”—other farms and its customers—rather than any government-based organization. She says that USDA Organic certification is normally for when there is a third-party involved in journey of the product to customer, and Mary’s Land Farm is generally focused on interacting directly with the customer.
Back at the Welcome Center, Kribs picks me up in her golf cart and takes some time out of her busy schedule to show me around the farm. In the next hour and a half or so, I see many heartwarming sights that fully demonstrate the farm’s commitment to raising its animals happy and healthy. We stop by the hen houses, where I see dozens of the creatures scurrying around outside. A few are walking on the road, and, as the golf cart stops, some of the more adventurous chickens hop up onto the cart to say hi! There is also a beautiful, three year-old white dog that is sitting among the chickens, and Kribs tells me that she lives with and protects them from predators such as foxes. On a different part of the farm, I see a smiling Barb Haigwood feeding a large pumpkin to a sow (a mother pig) and her several babies. Her hand is resting on the mother’s back, and the babies all nibbling away at the inside of the pumpkin. Not far off, there is a small pond where I see many ducks swimming and waddling about, with a white tent for them to stay in and several grain dispensers nearby. I also get to see the ponies that transform into “unicorns” during birthday parties and other special occasions. Clearly, the animals on the farm enjoy the fresh air, space, and food that they deserve.
However, even considering other “organic” farms, Mary’s Land Farm’s innovative use and maintenance of its land stands apart from the rest. What really sets the farm apart is not its organic practices, which are still unique taken alone, but its use of natural systems to raise food using a method called permaculture. Permaculture, derived from the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” describes a method of farming in which natural systems are utilized, or “mimicked,” for various farming purposes. Mike Haigwood, a farming veteran and permaculture expert that assists Mary’s Land Farm, helped introduce the practice to the farm with his wife Barb and explains the term to me. To him, permaculture is “a way of thinking,” rather than any concrete technique or design. He describes how permaculture is characterized by biomimicry, which is “to learn and replicate what nature does,” and sustainability, or “doing the something over and over and achieving the same results”—in agriculture, this is a good thing. Biomimicry is much what it sounds like: modeling processes based on naturally occurring processes. After all, such processes in nature have evolved over countless years, so it makes sense that they have been refined over time to be incredibly reliable models.
Previously, before the Cunningham family bought the farm, the land had been used for monoculture, row-crop farming, in which only one crop, either soy or corn, was being planted every other year. “The soil has life,” Haigwood says, and he describes how using acres and acres of land just for a single crop is “less stable.” The soil needs plants year-round in order to be properly sustained. “There is a whole complex ecosystem in the soil. When we simplify the above-ground plants, we reduce the diversity and resilience of the ecosystem that leads to plants that are not capable of fending off pests and pathogens.” Haigwood cites the most “dangerous and destructive” aspect of monoculture farming as being that “most of the soil is bare of any cover,” leading to “erosion to that washes down to streams and, in this part of the country, goes to the Chesapeake Bay.” Such erosion leads to algae blooms and dead zones, which are caused by excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers from farms, entering waterways.
However, ever since the farm was bought by Cunningham, much has been done to ensure that the negative effects of the type farming done on the land before would not occur again. Cunningham views the farm’s permaculture practices as “an orchestra of water, soils, plants, grasses and animals to keep each in balance.” With the introduction of animals and perennial plants (which exist throughout the year) to the land, Mary’s Land Farm has been able to utilize a naturally occurring relationship between the plants, animals, and land. Haigwood says that with synthetic fertilizers, the natural process is being “bypassed” when the plants are being directly fed the nutrients. However, using manure or compost as a natural fertilizer instead “feeds the whole system.” With the consumption of organic grains and grass, animals at Mary’s Land farm provide a natural source of nutrients for the soil, which helps grow grass that can feed the animals once more. A notable aspect of the farm that Haigwood mentions as well is that the soil is covered with living material throughout the property. “Of the 160 acres, at no point is more than one to two percent exposed,” much unlike how it was before the Cunninghams bought the farm.
The farm’s use of berms and swales are also a prime example of permaculture on the farm; their primary function on the farm is to maximize water retention and redirection back into the soil. Swales are essentially reservoirs for water that are created along natural contours of a given area of land to prevent soil and nutrients from being washed away. Normally, in the absence of swales, water would travel down slopes, carrying these substances, and enter waterways. Haigwood says “A berm is the soil down hill from the swale, essentially a dam or mound on contour.” They can be thought of raised beds or terraces located around the swale that help to further retain water. At Mary’s Land Farm, such berms and swales have been set up throughout the property, with plants such as fruit and nut trees located on the berms being able to thrive on water that would normally carry excess nutrients into waterways.
As one may guess, such a diverse and complicated plot of land as Mary’s Land Farm is not without its labor. Early on a cold, Saturday morning, I’m on a golf cart with Thomas, who is taking me along to do the morning chores. The chores are listed on a worn-out iPad that Thomas has me hold as he drives to the hen house, and we’re both sniffling our noses on the way there. Once we arrives, I get to see the spacious inside of the building that the chickens are kept in. There is a long feeding trough running along the ground, a line of cubbies for hens to lay eggs, several elongated wooden ladders, or playsets, if you will, that the chickens can hop up on. Thomas opens a large metal door to let them out, and we go into a separate room to collect eggs on an electronic conveyer belt that delivers them from the hens’ nests. After filling up a few blue baskets, we head over to a different building that has rooms for storing and washing eggs, where we place small stickers that say “Saturday” on the basket and drop them off. We see Thomas’ father, Tom Cunningham, working on a different task in the egg room, and, judging by the way Thomas and his “Papa” interact with one another and go about their work, it is clear that this is an ordinary day for them. After that, we go to the duck pond. We break the ice in the pond so that the ducks can access the water, and Thomas releases the ducks from the white tent that housed them during the nighttime. The ducks rush out of the tent in a white blur, some flying and some waddling, and make their way to a dispenser. We refill the grain in the dispensers next to the pond, flip the soil within the tent, and collect duck eggs from wooden crannies in the tent to bring back to the same building as before. We then create milk using milk powder and water for a calf whose mother had died. In response to me asking why they don’t just use milk from another mom, Thomas tells me that “it would create stress on the mom,” and and a different mother’s milk may also make the baby sick. Finally, we go around to different water containers around the farm with hammers in order to break ice off that built up overnight so the animals can drink. Several of these water containers are out in the forest where the pigs are often rooting, and I see a berm and swale running through the land nearby. Thomas tells me about how he has to balance his weekly homeschooling work as a junior with his work on the farm, which consists of “morning” and “night” chores. He has to get through a certain number of books and online courses by the end of a year, which takes a certain amount of long-term focus and dedication.
After working with him throughout the morning and getting a glimpse into life at the farm, I can tell that he, along everyone else I met at the farm, definitely possesses a high level of dedication, strong work ethic, and deep appreciation for the world around them.