The Benefits of Regenerative Farming

How regenerative farming restores life to soil and helps the land heal.
435
Steve McElroy and his daughter Melanie McElroy run a thriving business with healthy soil, healthy animals, and loyal customers. // Photograph courtesy of Melanie McElroy

Karin Timeus had been living in Hillsdale on the farm owned by her then-husband, Steve McElroy, for 11 years when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. The landscape was peaceful, bucolic — and loaded with agricultural chemicals.

Believing there was a correlation between her cancer diagnosis and the agricultural chemicals, McElroy reinvented his farm — which had corn, soybeans, and other crops raised conventionally — ditching pesticides and fertilizers in 2002. By 2007, McElroy Farms was officially an organic operation. But another shift was coming.

“We heard origin stories of regenerative reassessment,” says McElroy and Timeus’ daughter Melanie, who directs the farm’s retail sales from Chicago. “By 2012, we officially let go of all crop farming and transitioned to ranching and grazing. We started with 10 cows. We noticed that farms we modeled our program after had made a switch because of an illness in younger people in their family. Endless numbers of deaths of people in agricultural settings are coming to light.”

Today, Timeus, who since the couple’s divorce no longer lives at the farm, is a cancer survivor.

McElroy Farms is one of many agricultural innovators and early adopters using eco-regenerative approaches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t track their numbers, but other good examples in southeast Michigan include Whitney Farmstead in Whitmore Lake and Boring Farms in Stockbridge.

“While definitions vary, I’d say that regenerative agriculture is a management approach that aims to restore the productive capacity of soil,” says Tim Boring, a sixth-generation farmer appointed director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development earlier this year. “Highly functioning soil is going to have robust biological activity and cycling while having good aggregate stability and water-holding capacity. Those factors are going to reduce the dependency on external fertilizers, promote healthier plants, reduce susceptibility to drought, and likely improve the nutritional quality of food.”

Grazin’ in the Grass

“We let nature do its thing,” says Steve McElroy, who operates the 800-acre farm with part owner and herd manager Stephen VanDeusen. “We allow the cows to breed, birth, and eat naturally. Their bodies know what’s best. We do not plant, fertilize, or till any of our ground.”

The herd of 350 cattle “mob-graze” together on about 600 acres with 30 sheep. Moms and babies stay together.

“We move the herd to a fresh pasture several times each day, so they always have new grass to eat and the ground can regenerate before they come back around to graze,” Steve says.

“The physical act of each animal eating, stomping, and dropping manure on the ground is what sequesters carbon into the soil and heals the pasture. Even in the winter, they still graze,” he adds. “We supplement their diets by rolling out large bales of hay that we harvested in the summer, which keeps them happy and well fed until spring.”

Allowing the soil to rest and heal restores key life above and below the soil.

“Native birds and plants, insects, pollinators, and wildlife are flourishing on previously barren fields,” Melanie says. “When soil is healthy, alive, and porous, it can absorb and retain more rainwater. Our area is less affected by drought. We don’t risk flooding.”

As for the product, regeneratively raised meat offers a different experience from commodity meat that’s grained or only initially grass-fed, then grain-finished.

“Grass-finished animals develop fat a little differently,” Melanie explains. “The fat has a hue. The meat may smell ‘earthy’ or ‘grassy.’” An animal that is “grass-finished” is fed exclusively grass and other forage for the duration of its life.

“The texture isn’t much different,” adds Nicholas Ponte, head butcher at Marrow in Detroit and owner of Salt & Smoke Butchery. “We see differences in fat percentage, flavor, etc., based on the time of year it was harvested.”

Metro Detroiters who don’t want to travel to Hillsdale can order frozen USDA-certified meat online at mcelroyfarms.com for a scheduled delivery to their doorstep for a fee of $10 to $12.

“We’re trying to close the gap between farms and metro areas that don’t always have access to meat not found in a grocery store,” Melanie says. “We service 300 households a year. A lot are repeat customers.”

Livonia resident Dorothy McGuire is one of them.

The retired nurse discovered McElroy Farms when she was looking for healthier meat produced by a farm using ethical practices. Her purchases brought back memories of how meat tasted when she was a child.

“I love that Melanie is trying to educate people,” she says.

Nick Vlahantones of Grosse Pointe has been a McElroy Farms customer for just over a year.

“My expecting wife and I were on a quest for the most nutrient-rich protein with the most bioavailable nutrients,” he recalls. “After a nationwide search for the purest meat source, we discovered McElroy Farms. Their process and ethos stood out from the rest.”

An Eye on the Future

Today, McElroy Farms is a thriving business with healthy soil, healthy animals, and loyal customers.

“McElroy Farms is participating in a multiyear holistic-management study with experts at Michigan State University,” Melanie says. “They are measuring the effect of our grazing practices on the soil and other factors, while also studying the well-being and sustainability of farm businesses. We hope this helps advance regenerative agriculture in our region.”


This story is from the July 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.