Commentary: Can you love your burger and the Chesapeake Bay at the same time?

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Confessions of an environmental studies prof: When I ask my university students to name the best ways to save the Chesapeake Bay and the planet, and they answer, “Don’t eat meat,” I realize I might have gone a bit overboard or perhaps not put enough emphasis on “industrial” when I talk about industrial meat.

The environmental damage from mass-produced meat, the source of most Americans’ beef, poultry and pork, is quite real. The extreme concentrations of animals required, along with their manure, create serious pollution problems. The grain fed to them requires massive acreages of row crops that degrade water quality, even with environmental advances like cover crops and minimal plowing.

And there’s nothing wrong with forgoing meat for ethical/moral reasons. I’ve swung toward a veggie diet and back multiple times, settling on less meat than I used to, but most weeks, you can smell flesh cooking at my place.

Which brings me to Pops Old Place, Darlene Goehringer’s little farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that, for a couple of years, has been my source of what I’d call “responsible meat.” Photographer David Harp and I are working on a new Bay Journal film, focused on Pops and on the question: Can you be a carnivore and be good to the bay?

Darlene is part of a small but growing movement of meat, vegetable and even flower farmers who are striving to farm “regeneratively” — attempting to leave soil, air and water better off each year.

From 70 acres worked by her family for well over a century, she sells beef, lamb, pork and eggs. But what she really farms — the key to being regenerative — is grass, the permanent pasture that covers the bulk of her acreage.

The sight of sheep or cows grazing in lush, green fields may seem the height of domestication, but if the farmer manages it right, it closely mimics one of Earth’s dominant wild ecosystems for millions of years.

Grasslands grazed by wild herbivores — from Africa’s Serengeti to North America’s Great Plains, bethundered with bison — covered nearly half of the land on Earth: “the most functional and productive terrestrial ecosystems ever to exist,” says a 2013 annotated bibliography of research papers by ecologist Stephen L. Thomforde.

A study of six pastured livestock farms in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia from 2015–19 indicates that, compared with conventional grain farms, they were reducing bay pollutants dramatically. They were also reducing climate-changing greenhouse gases by an estimated 42%. The greenhouse gases fell despite an increase in one such gas, methane, from cattle belching as they digest. (While cattle are “guilty” of this, estimates are that North America’s original wild herbivores produced about 80% of what’s belched by current populations of both domestic and wild grazers, according to a 2020 book, “Sacred Cow.”)

Modern pastures don’t automatically confer all of the above environmental benefits. Darlene spends a lot of time seeding her fields with a complex mixture of plants to promote both soil and animal health. She must constantly rotate her animals from field to field, so their munching and pooping and peeing stimulates pasture growth and suppresses parasites, while not overgrazing. (In wild grasslands, wolves and lions did the job of keeping herbivores on the move.)

She only sells from her farm home near the towns of Preston and Hurlock. “I want my customers to see where their food comes from, … to know who raises it,” she said.

When you turn up the oak-lined lane to Pops (named for Darlene’s grandfather), you’re likely to see her herd of about 22 smallish cattle with unusual markings, known as Randall Linebacks. As is the case with all of the farm’s animals, they are no match for modern, commercial breeds that maximize size and fast growth.

Randalls, a breed that goes back at least a few centuries, were down to less than 20 in the world in 1986. Darlene began her herd by writing a letter to Cynthia Creech, a Tennessee woman who rescued them from extinction. Today, there are more than a thousand.

Darlene chose them partly for adaptability and easy management: “As much as I love raising farm animals, I love walking more. … Working with animals is a dangerous profession.”

But it’s taste that really drives her. The Randalls, she said, “keep being picked No. 1 in taste tests.” She’s also selected a sheep crossbreed to get “just the right bite” to the meat. For pigs, she went with “a lard hog, … not like the commercial, lean-meat breeds.” By managing their diet, including running them in her woods to eat acorns, she avoids too much fat and ends up with sausage and chops that routinely sell out.

Her relationship with the animals is complex. Most, of course, will go to slaughter, a reality that makes the job “hard to do every day.” She will put down a sick or injured animal herself, and she talks about celebrating twin lambs: “The first pays for its mother’s upkeep. … The second is your profit.”

Yet she’ll bring in a just-born, half-frozen calf and nurse it in her living room, knowing it will inevitably become a “pet,” nothing she could bear to butcher. She’ll walk outside on starry nights to sit on a haybale in the peaceful company of the sheep. The ewes will live out their lives at Pops even after they get too old to bear lambs: “That’s the deal we’ve made.”

Her farm may sustain the Earth and the bay, but can it sustain Darlene? That’s a question that hangs over small, regenerative farmers everywhere. Their products won’t be as cheap as big agriculture’s — at least so long as the latter gets some $38 billion a year in federal subsidies and does not pay the real cost of its impact on air, water and soil.

Darlene is close to making her farm “a place I don’t ever want a vacation from.” But she won’t continue if she can’t make a living. Having only recently given up her off-farm job, the jury’s still out.

Our film will follow Darlene’s journey, so critical for the bay and for Chesapeake-loving carnivores.

Tom Horton has written about the Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, Maryland, where he is also a professor of environmental studies at Salisbury University. This was first published by the Bay Journal.

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