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Becky Szarzynski: Promoting soil health on the farm and across the state

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

Becky Szarzynski returned to her family cattle operation in Rockbridge County at the age of 19 committed to helping transition the farm to more regenerative practices. Over the last 14 years, Mountain Glen Farm has focused on building an operation that is environmentally and economically sustainable. Becky also applies her knowledge across the state as a board member with the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council, the Coordinator of a farmer-to-farmer mentoring program, and a member of the Virginia Soil Health Coalition Steering Committee.

Read more below about Becky's work, why soil health is important to her, and what she is doing on her farm to build healthy soils.

Q: What was your journey into (and back to) farming?

A: I was raised on a small 180 acre Angus cow/calf operation in Rockbridge County. Both my parents had off farm jobs, but they both had formal educations in forest management so natural resource management was something I was very involved in throughout my life.

I was very involved in the farm as a child and spent a lot of time helping my dad with farm chores. Back in the 90s/2000s, we were what now I would call "traditional farmers." We rotated the cow herd every 7-14 days, we used chemical fertilizers on the farm to help with forage production and used growth hormones in our calves to increase weaning weights.

It wasn’t until I came home after completing three semesters of college that I decided I wanted to make farming my career. My parents pleaded with me to just finish my four-year degree before making any decision to come back to the farm. Of course, at 19, I thought I knew better. So, I came back to the farm with no formal degree and decided we needed to start taking “farming” seriously because I needed it to start paying its way and I needed a decent income.

My parents and I started attending workshops, reading a plethora of book and blogs, watching YouTube videos, and talking and visiting with other farmers who seemed to be doing things a little differently. A workshop that we attended featuring Greg Judy was a huge turning point for us. He started talking to the audience about practices that I had not heard of, such as intensive rotational grazing. Light bulbs starting going off in my head. We were starting to see that there just might be a different way to farm that was more attuned with natural processes, required less outside inputs and could possibly make a farmer a living wage. We decided to try intensive rotational grazing, using little or no chemical fertilizer and a different breed of cattle.

Over the last 14 years, we have been working to adjust to viewing our farmland as a living entity, learning to slow down and approach challenges differently, and taking on the risk of changing from one paradigm to another. While there has been a huge learning curve, we have seen substantial changes on our farm, the wildlife, the soils, the plant communities and our herd performance. Yet, it has been very challenging financially, emotionally and mentally. I have worked over 15 different full- and part-time jobs over the years in addition to farming. I’ve almost quit probably a 100 times over the last decade, but with the changes we have seen I don't think I could farm any other way.

After the abrupt passing of my Mom in 2018, my father and I almost sold everything because we no longer had our center piece and our voice of reason. The once stronger than steel relationship I had always had with him was no longer present. However, we stuck it out, have since mended and have taken steps towards continual growth of our farm land, regenerative farming practices and our livestock genetics.

I am now a member of the Virginia Forage And Grassland Council (VFGC) board, the Mentor Coordinator for the VFGC Mentor Program, and a South Poll Grass Cattle Association board member. I hope to continue to grow my social media presence to share with others a different way to farm and maybe in the future be able to help farmer’s voices be heard by legislators, government agencies and the general public. However, at this time I feel very blessed to still be able to be farming with the ever presence of my Mom who shows up in the song of a field swallow or a great blue heron majestically flying over as I put up poly wire fence, and with my dad, now 70, who has kept a very open mind when it comes to what we do and how we accomplish it here on the family farm.

Q: What does soil health mean to you? Why is it important to you?

A: Soil health is the key to it all. It is necessary and non-negotiable for human health, animal/livestock health, ecosystem health, and planetary health. I think we are just now starting to see the impacts of what mining our soils can truly do to a nation and the world. The most prominent issue we are facing today is the state of human health, which then bleeds into the state of our economy and of our environment. Right now, farmers are often considered the bad guy when it comes to environmental issues. But, consumers (including farmers!) are in the driver's seat. If people want to see change, then we all need to vote with our dollar.

If we want to see changes in our world then we need to start caring for the soil as a living thing. When we start nurturing the soil, it will start to nourish us. In some of our food products, we have lost over half of the nutrient value over the last half century. That is radical! So, to me, soil health goes way beyond just the soil itself, but it spans out into the entire world around us. Without a healthy functioning soil, humans will continue to see our problems grow. But, if we decide and acknowledge as a nation and world that our soils are living and play such an important role on this planet, then we will see a change in our communities and society.

Q: What do you do on your farm to keep the soil healthy and happy? Are there indicators of the positive impact of soil health practices on your operation's resilience?

A: The main practice that we utilize on our farm to take care of our soils is intensive rotational grazing of our cattle herds. This practice allowing grazers to feed on the native, non-native or planted forages that inhabit our farm. The general idea of this practice is to allow your livestock to graze, trample and distribute manure on a small paddock for a short amount of time (a few hours to a few days) then move the livestock to another small section of field to allow time for the grazed section to rest and regrow. During the regrowth phase, plants continue to photosynthesize and make sugars or “liquid carbon” that is pumped into their roots where it is exuded. These sugars are then exchanged with the soil life for plant available nutrients.

Since we started intensive rotation of our cow herds, we have seen a more diverse plant community, better drought tolerance, and improved cattle performance (95-100% pregnancy rates, less health problems, increased conversion of forage to fat on animals to harvest for beef, slicker coats during the summer, improved animal docility). We also feed less hay during the winter months which of course saves us money as well.

Along with our livestock reaping the rewards, the wildlife on our farms are thriving. We have many different species of wildlife that call our farmland home. Just the other day I was walking from the pasture to the barn and listening to 20 to 30 different bird songs when all of a sudden I heard a song that I hadn't heard in over 25 years. It was the sound of a bobwhite quail! The positive impacts of implementing practices that improve our soils are very dynamic and reach beyond our farm borders.

Q: What do you see as the biggest opportunity for advancing soil health in Virginia?

A: I believe that one way to advance soil health in Virginia(or any other state) is to have customers vote withe their dollar. Currently, highly processed foods are more highly sold and eaten than fresh raw foodstuffs as it is lower cost and tastes good. What we have done is taken the “medicine” of the food- the essential nutrients and micronutrients that you can only get from food that is produced in healthy, biophilic soils! I think if we continue to try to educate the consumer about the health benefits of sourcing food from farms that have active healthy soils, that some consumers would start to change their buying habits. However, we still need to strive to make wholesome foods more convenient for consumers to purchase. If we can increase the demand for food grown this way, then farmers will natural follow suit. There has been a movement toward local, slow food for the last two decades, but I think it is still too hard to access.

Q: What is happening with the mentoring work you are leading with the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council? Why was the program started and how is it going?

A: The VFGC has launched a farmer to farmer mentor program that will take place over the course of the next three years. This Farmer Mentor Program was started to help new livestock grazers get paired up with experienced grazers so that the beginner farmer would have someone there to help guide and support them through some of the challenges of venturing into the wide world of prescribed grazing practices.

VFGC estimates this program will improve adoption success leading to long-term commitment to these best management grazing practices on 1000+ acres of pastureland here in the Chesapeake Bay Water Shed. The program is in its first year and is in full swing. We have mentors paired up with mentees who are visiting each others farms, establishing farm grazing goals and connecting with local conservationists to help with infrastructure needs. I can’t wait to see how this program continues to unfold and what these mentees learn and gain from this experience.

Check out Mountain Glen Farm on Youtube:

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