Eating Greener: Future Harvest CASA Aims for Healthier Farms, People and Animals

Dena Leibman, Executive Director, Future Harvest CASA. Photo by Linda Wang.

Dena Leibman, Executive Director, Future Harvest CASA. Photo by Linda Wang.

By Lani Furbank | Photography by Linda Wang

Early in Dena Leibman’s career she believed that farming and environmentalism didn’t mix. “I had this naïve ‘farmers are the enemy’ kind of approach. To me, wilderness was sacred,” she recalls.

Her career had been built on work with the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Protection Agency and was all rooted in protecting nature. It wasn’t until she took a job with the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program that she began to understand how farmers could make land and water stewardship a priority.

“That job just changed my life. I learned about sustainable agriculture and it introduced me to the realities of farming. My black-and-white views became a whole lot grayer,” she says.

Dena now has her own farm—primarily a retreat center for nonprofits—which led her to Future Harvest CASA (Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture).

“When we bought the farm, I went to every single Future Harvest CASA field education event I could go to,” she says. “And I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do.” Eventually she became the nonprofit’s executive director, a role she’s held for the past five years.

Future Harvest CASA’s mission is to advance agriculture that is profitable, protects land and water and strengthens communities.

“That’s our core mission,” she says. “It’s not that easy, but it’s doable, and farmers prove it all the time.”

This year, the organization is celebrating its 20th anniversary and launching a major education campaign. We sat down with Dena to discuss her life as a farmer, her work at Future Harvest and the Go Grass-fed Campaign.

Dena in her kitchen at her farm. Photo by Linda Wang.

Dena in her kitchen at her farm. Photo by Linda Wang.

Once you had your own land, did your understanding and appreciation of farming change?

Oh my god, yes! If they haven’t been raised on a farm, people go into farming with this bright-eyed look, no matter how much you take them by the collar to shake them and say, “It’s really hard, do your homework, look at the markets.” They just want to go do it. I was just like them, even though I knew better.

We built the hoop house and it was in perfect order. I planted a lot of kale, and I grew it and I harvested it. I get to the Takoma Park Co-Op and their buyer gives me $45 for something I had spent hours and hours and hours on. I realized there’s certainly no profit in the way I was doing that. I talk to farmers day in and day out. You have to just love it, you have to be a great marketer and you have to have help if you’re going to make your living off of farming. I have little patience for people who think it’s easy.

How does Future Harvest support farmers?

We do education, community building and advocacy on behalf of sustainable agriculture in the Chesapeake region. Our field school runs field education events—either expert-led or farmer-to-farmer—teaching innovations in marketing as well as sustainable production. The beginner farmer training program is 10 years old, and it started with just a couple farmers in Baltimore County saying “We’re running out of farmers.” Now, I would say we’ve graduated about 300 graduates. A lot of them start farming and then give it up, but what’s happening is that the people who really are meant to be farmers, they persevere and they figure it out. We also give startup grants to low-income farmers, and I would say about 20% of this year’s and last year’s class are farmers of color. Our annual January conference launches our programming every year and about 650 people come, from farmers from all over the region to food advocates. It has production workshops, social justice workshops, regenerative agriculture workshops, marketing workshops. There’s something for everyone.

What is the Go Grass-fed Campaign?

The goal of the Go Grass-fed Campaign is to step up both supply and demand for grass-fed meat and dairy, which to be successful will take consumers being complete partners with farmers. Consumers can’t demand anything from farmers for which they’re not willing to help maintain a robust market. We are “farmer first,” so in this campaign we’ll educate consumers with the farmer in mind.

Several years ago, we published the Amazing Grazing Directory, listing all the producers of grass-fed meat and dairy products in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. In the last edition, the number of producers tripled and we realized that there was increasing competition for those farmers. We knew that we could help step up demand for grass-fed products, so we wrote a grant proposal to the USDA, and we got it.

For the producer-facing part of it, we partnered with the Mountains-to-Bay Grazing Alliance. They, along with Future Harvest, are doing production workshops. Then there’s the consumer-facing part. The Maryland Farmers Market Association and Central Farm Markets will be doing meat tastings in the fall. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is putting on this big Burgers and Brews event and it’s going to be featuring grass-fed beef. A filmmaker is producing a film that will explain all the virtues of going grass-fed. Plus the new Amazing Grazing Directory, which we’re putting together. We’re going on all cylinders here.

Why should consumers care if their meat is grass-fed?

We’re distilling it down into three things: It’s good for you, it’s good for the planet and it’s good for farmers and animals. For you, there’s less fat, fewer calories, more omega-3 fatty acids, more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), more protein. They say it’s linked to decreased risk of cancer, diabetes, some types of immune system disorders and cardiovascular diseases. For the planet, it increases the health of the soil and improves water quality. The stable soil system maintains more water, and thus prevents polluted runoff. It can store carbon from the atmosphere. This is the kind of farming that mimics nature and works with nature, and it’s just a beautiful way to farm. It’s better for farmers because they don’t get locked into importing a lot of grain or growing a lot of grain. They can have self-sustaining pastures. As for animal welfare, they’re out on pasture, they’re grazing on delicious forage, very nutritious for animals. The meat is more flavorful; everything’s more flavorful in this kind of system.

What is the best way to support the grass-fed industry?

It’s saying “I pledge to spend a minimum of 80% of my meat budget on locally produced grass-fed meat and dairy.” It sounds doable, doesn’t it? I would hope that people eat less meat and the meat they eat is raised on pasture. Can we feed everybody through pasture-raised meat if they eat less? Yes.

A Perfect Day Farm: Raising Grass-Fed Beef in Service of an Even Better Tomorrow

By Whitney Pipkin, photography by Kate Warren

At A Perfect Dat Farm, grass-fed beef is a means to an ecologically sustainable end.

At A Perfect Dat Farm, grass-fed beef is a means to an ecologically sustainable end.

The doe-eyed Jerseys and shaggy-faced Red Devon-Angus cattle chewing their way through a field at A Perfect Day Farm are a postcard for grass-fed beef. But for Matt Rales, 34, they’re the centerpiece of a much grander project taking place on the 800-acre farm in Virginia’s bucolic Fauquier County.

“I would say we are first and foremost in the ecosystem services business,” he begins, “and the production of grass-fed beef is a byproduct of ecological restoration.”

It’s an opening salvo in a complex tale about how the careful grazing of cattle can benefit biodiversity, chipping away at climate change as the cows create a landscape that can more efficiently sequester carbon and filter water.

“But I can get into the weeds,” Rales says, self-consciously, halfway through a description of the diverse mammal species that once roamed North America, an ancient system he’s trying to mimic here.

His fiancée, Abigail “Abby” Fuller, 32, laughs.

“I try to translate,” she says.

If Rales wants to relay the story that has just begun at this farm, purchased in 2016, he couldn’t have found a more fitting partner. A documentary filmmaker, Fuller is the youngest and only female director of Netflix’s Emmy-nominated series “Chef’s Table,” having produced episodes on chefs Ana Roš and Tim Raue, with more in upcoming seasons.

“People always ask me if I’m actually farming,” says Fuller, who moved to Virginia from Los Angeles a little over a year ago but still spends almost a third of her time traveling for work. She’s wearing a comfy black jumpsuit, transformed by a pair of galoshes into farm wear for the day. For now, she says, “I move the cows with him and help out, but I’m more focused on growing the farm’s communications and outreach.”

The couple met through mutual friends and talked on the phone for four months before meeting in person. They are planning a January wedding.

“It started with a similar passion for food,” Fuller says, “since I make films about food and he, you know, produces food.”

Matt Rales and Abigail Fuller, the duo behind A Perfect Day Farm.

Matt Rales and Abigail Fuller, the duo behind A Perfect Day Farm.

For Rales, who earned a degree in environmental science at Middlebury College in Vermont, the farm is the culmination of years of studying how to manage animals in harmony with the environment. Rales spent three years working for Virginia’s sustainable agriculture savant Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms and has also worked at farms in Zimbabwe, Botswana and California.

“More than anything I spent a lot of time reading,” says Rales, whose background includes running a “suburban farm” in Potomac, MD, that served DC restaurants such as Komi and Marcel’s.

Rales’ brand of farming is as thoughtful as it is labor intensive, leaving him moving cows through the pastures with the help of electric fencing as often as four times a day at the peak of grass-growing season. At any given moment, up to 99% of the farm’s acres, including another 750 acres being leased nearby, are resting. The cattle munch, fertilize and trample a tiny fraction of the total, leaving behind a matted carpet of plant matter and nutrients that improves soil health over time.

The scientists who study this type of farming in the Chesapeake Bay call it management-intensive grazing, but farmers often refer to it as mob grazing, holistic grazing or rotational grazing. The practices have slowly added followers in the region, with nearly 200 farms included in a 2016 directory of grass-fed-meat producers in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and West Virginia—a number that’s tripled since the first directory was published in 2005.

For Rales, grazing cattle is a mental exercise that evolves as he learns—both from the latest research and from his own daily experiments—about the impact their presence can have on the land he’s stewarding. He began work at this farm, which had been growing hay and grass without animals for years, with a comprehensive baseline assessment of its soils. Surveys and 88 core samples measured everything from calcium to organic carbon and gives the farm a starting point to compare with future changes.

“It’s way too complex to begin to understand, and we’re learning new things all the time,” he says. “We’re always trying to make adjustments and observe the response of the vegetation, the soil, the land as a whole to the management.”

This scientist-farmer approach doesn’t rely solely on beef sales to support it, at least not yet. The land is also bolstered by conservation easements that prevent development on some of its wooded acres while allowing farming to continue. Rales is also looking to monetize the work the farm is doing for the environment and dreams of them being paid for the “ecosystem services” they provide. On the West Coast, he’s seen conservation groups recognize the role of animals in reviving environments so they can support endangered species or eat away the dry vegetation that might fuel wildfires.

“So far, there hasn’t been a market for it in the East, but we’re certainly interested in creating that or participating in it,” he says.

A sampling of A Perfect Day Farm’s grass-fed beef.

A sampling of A Perfect Day Farm’s grass-fed beef.

Moving here from California, Fuller says she’s found plenty of interest in and around DC in the work they’re doing. Through the group Pineapple DC, Fuller met Kelsey Weisgerber, who manages the school lunch program at Mundo Verde Public Charter School. The two worked together to turn A Perfect Day Farm’s beef into burgers for a school lunch in May.

The majority of the farm’s meat is sold through Hardwick Beef, an aggregator that sells to restaurants and shops around New York City and online ( The farm has started hosting pop-up sales inside the District to meet local demand, along with the occasional farm tour open to the public.

During a late-summer visit, following heavy rains, the fields were Technicolor green, dotted with black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace. I asked Fuller how well she was resisting the urge to use this as the setting for a film on the promise of regenerative agriculture, and she grinned.

“It’s something I’ve definitely been simmering on,” she admits. “I’m so used to diving into a situation as an objective third party, but to look at something that you’re living in? That takes time.”


To find out about a dinner featuring the farm's products in September and a pop-up sale in October, sign up for its  newsletter at or follow the farm on Instagram @apdfarm.