Miguel Sacedo of Trappe, Md., harvests squash on Cottingham Farm in Easton, Md., at sunrise on July 29, 2015. The philosophical driving force behind Cottingham is to produce food that is sustainably grown, locally distributed and certified organic.

As the sun breaches the horizon in Easton, Maryland, the blanket of fog begins to dissipate, revealing the still waters of an 18-acre wetland and rows of organic vegetables. This is Cottingham Farm, the work of an environmental-lawyer-turned-farmer named Cleo Braver and a host of helping hands.

This 156-acre farm has undergone a variety of changes before arriving at its current state. The land was once used to grow wheat to feed Washington’s army. It then hosted peach orchards in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After the end of World War II, substantial changes in agriculture swept the nation—industrial monocrops, pesticides and fertilizers—and eventually made their way to what is now the Cottingham property. When Braver purchased the land in 1998, it was primarily used to grow corn.

Cleo Braver poses for a portrait on Cottingham Farm in Easton, Md. In 2003, five years after she had purchased the property, the former environmental lawyer began envisioning a way to produce healthy food while also minimizing the farm's negative environmental impact on surrounding waterways.

Though Braver’s professional background is in the environmental field, she was unaware of the impact certain agricultural techniques—both on her own property and other area properties—were having on regional waterways. But after spending many evenings peering out at Goldsborough Neck Creek, which winds behind her house before meeting the Miles River and emptying into the Chesapeake Bay, she began noticing how the fish behaved strangely at the surface of the water. After some research, she learned about the creek’s poor water quality and how the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers was partially responsible.

Brentt Swann from Federalsburg, Md., mows down a cover crop of oat grass at Cottingham Farm. Cottingham plants cover crops to protect against erosion and soil compaction, introduce organic material into the fields, suppress weeds and provide seasonal habitat for local wildlife.

A two-year-old Tamworth pig forages on Cottingham Farm. Cottingham's pigs eat unsold vegetables, oat sprouts and supplemental cracked corn in winter, and all of the grass, clover and other material they want while roaming through rotating temporary pastures.

Braver’s interest in producing healthy food while minimizing her impact prompted her to make a change. By chance, she met Ned Gerber of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, who assisted with transforming the property by installing buffer strips to reduce sediment and nutrient runoff, replacing corn with organic vegetables and building a wetland housing 30 species of plants.

The 18-acre wetland on Cottingham farm, was once a cornfield, but around 2003 farm owner Cleo Braver employed the expertise of Ned Gerber of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, a nonprofit, to design, build and manage a wetland habitat to replace it. Along with shorebirds, the wetland attracts green wing teals, wood ducks, black ducks, widgeons, gadwalls, herons and egrets.

A praying mantis blends into his surroundings in a buffer strip on Cottingham Farm. The buffer strips provide habitat for wildlife and are used to reduce the amount of nutrients and sediment that run from the farm to local waterways.

Gerber helped Braver utilize the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a federal USDA Farm Bill program that supports the implementation of habitat on private lands. CREP covered 90 percent of the construction costs for the wetland, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources picked up the remaining sum. Gerber and Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage continue to manage and maintain the wetland today.

But what Braver is perhaps most proud of on Cottingham is the evolution of the food production there and how it gives people greater access to healthy produce and meat. With the help of farm manager Jenn Djambazov and several employees, Braver now grows at least 50 different organic vegetables and raises pastured pigs. Organic matter in the property’s soil is slowly rebounding, and, to top it off, business is good. Cottingham sells produce through its CSA, as well as in local stores and restaurants.

Heirloom yellow and pink Brandywine tomatoes and red Carmen and orange Glow sweet peppers sit in a bowl on Cleo Braver's table on Cottingham Farm. No synthetic products are used on any of Cottingham's crops. The farm uses crop rotation, weeding and selective mechanical and hand-cultivation to reduce plant stress caused by weeds and insects before using any of the accepted, organic sprays for pest control.

Visitors from the Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center eat a lunch of organic fruits and vegetables at Cleo Braver's home on Cottingham Farm. The group took a day-trip to Cottingham to learn about healthy eating and how organic produce is grown.

Braver acknowledges the process has been a lot of work and has required time, expertise and funding from a range of parties. But she maintains that the transition to organic farming is more accessible than many people think, and she advocates for giving it a chance. “I’m not saying convert all of your feed corn to organic vegetables. I’m not saying that all,” she clarifies. With a slight smile at the corners of her mouth, she continues, “But try a piece of it. Take five acres out…”

It could make all the difference.

Cleo Braver walks along a buffer strip on Cottingham Farm. The buffer strip primarily contains big bluestem, indiangrass, little blustem and broomsedge, along with black-eyed susan, partridge pea and coreopsis.

Goldsborough Creek, which connects to the Miles River before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay, is seen from Cleo Braver's backyard on the edge of her Cottingham Farm.

Images and text by Keith Rutowski

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