Farm Age: Since 2014
Farm Size: Over 200 acres, about 40 in pasture
Product/Output: Pastured poultry and sheep
Region: Poolesville, Montgomery County, Maryland
Favorite Piece of Farm Equipment: Arlo, her border collie sheep dog
Amanda Cather never planned to be a farmer. She thought she wanted to work inside, as a doctor, in an office environment. All that changed during college – especially once she learned about food insecurity.
“I was blown away that there were folks in Boston, where I lived, who didn’t have access to healthy food,” she says.
After graduation, she started working with community gardens, then at a homeless shelter that had an urban agriculture component. Then, during an internship at a livestock and vegetable farm outside of Boston, everything clicked.
“I was just in love,” Amanda says. “I loved driving the tractor, I loved working the animals, and I especially fell in love with the sheep at that farm.”
In the following years, Amanda pursued her passion and managed farms in Colorado and Massachusetts. These farms focused on diversified vegetable production for CSA and food access, but she always kept in mind how much she enjoyed working with sheep.
When her family moved to Maryland and established Plow and Stars Farm in 2014, she immediately purchased three Katahdin sheep after attending a Future Harvest workshop on pastured livestock. “I thought, I can do this,” she laughs. “Little did I know.”
Today, the flock numbers about 100.
“It’s been one of my greatest joys in farming,” she says. “I love that sheep recognize their shepherd. I love raising lambs on pasture, and I love that they convert sunlight and plant energy into amazing protein.”
This plant energy is crucial for raising healthy sheep. The grazing pastures include a variety of cover crops, including bluegrass, white clover, plantains, and buckwheat. Amanda has noticed that as the soil in the pastures develops, the plant and insect ecosystems become healthier, and the sheep eating those plants become healthier and have stronger immune systems.
When she started Plow and Stars, Amanda participated in the Cornell Soil Health Assessment. The test informed her about the current state of the farm’s soil and what needed improvement. To keep building her soil, she uses rotational grazing – a technique in which livestock are moved to different portions of the pasture to allow the other sections to rest and regrow. She hopes in the future to create pastures with annual crops targeted to specific seasons that the animals can feed on when the perennial pastures need to rest.
Soil health has fascinated Amanda since she started working in agriculture. So, getting involved with the Million Acre Challenge was a natural fit. As the program’s project director, she says the Million Acre Challenge appeals to her because it frames “agriculture as part of the solution.”
“This is a way for farming to help our economies, our communities, and our climate,” she says.
“It brings me a lot of hope that farmers are excited about the potential of healthy soils to make their farms more productive and to make their farms more resilient in the face of economic stresses and in the face of extreme weather events,” she says. “They recognize how critical their farms are to the economy of Maryland and to the community of Maryland and are ready to take the next step to make their farms secure.”
Even non-farmers can play a role in building a more resilient local food system by purchasing goods from farms that focus on soil health.
“You’re contributing to your local economy, to the ecosystem, that farm’s resilience and productivity,” she says. “You buy from someone you know, you buy from a local farm, you support healthy soil practices, it’s a positive all the way around.”