MEET THE FARMER: Jesse & Cally McDougall

An Article from our partners Farmers Footprint

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. 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.

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 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.”