Journey to Soil Health… with Judy Gifford, St. Brigid’s Farm

Journey to Soil Health… with Judy Gifford, St. Brigid’s Farm

Farm Age: Since 1996

Farm Size: 62 acres

Product/Output: Dairy, beef, and veal

Region: North Kent County, Maryland

Favorite Piece of Farm Equipment: Her “robot” — an automatic milking system

After 20 years of the “typical” Washingtonian life, Judy Gifford decided it was time to go back to her roots. She had grown up on a small dairy farm in Connecticut, but, after college, Judy pursued a career in government. She worked on the Hill and for different agencies over two decades, until she realized she belonged back on the farm. 


“I was meant to be working my own hours, outside, and I love cows. So farming was just my dream job that I never actually thought was possible,” Judy recalls. “I love problem solving, making my own decisions, and working with animals.” 


In 1996, she and her husband Bob bought 62 acres and 69 Jersey heifers to start their own farm. They named it St. Brigid’s Farm after the patron saint of dairymaids and scholars. Bob was no stranger to farming either — he too had grown up on a dairy farm, and had since become a veterinarian, working mostly with farm animals. 


Judy describes their secret to success over the years as “following basic principles and paying attention to science and simple philosophies.” Since the founding of their farm, these principles have brought them to utilize several practices for healthy soils and animals.


Their land is in permanent pasture, which reduces erosion and soil loss for periods of heavy rain and flooding and improves soil health. St. Brigid’s also utilizes management intensive grazing, in which they only allow their cows to graze only a small portion of the pasture, while the remaining fields are allowed to rest and recover.

They also farm in compliance with their nutrient management plan, properly store manure in several structures, and utilize a traveling gun irrigation system to pinpoint watering. Lastly, they fenced out waterways to protect water health and planted trees to help manage run-off through the Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. All of these practices are extremely beneficial for the soil and water health around St. Brigid’s, and keep the cows healthy and happy. 


“We let nature do its thing,” explains Judy. 


Her interest in soil health led her to join the Million Acre Challenge. Judy has been an active participant in MAC; she is a participant in the Soil Health Benchmark Study and is a member of the Board of Soil Stewards (BOSS). The Million Acre Challenge’s BOSS will ultimately be composed of 15 soil stewards from throughout the state of Maryland and will ensure that farmers’ voices are an integral part of how this project moves forward. 


When she reflects on farming in Maryland, she notes the need for resilience. Judy looks to those sustainability and financial resilience indicators so her farm can weather any storm, both literally and figuratively. 


“Farmers need to be incentivized for good practices,” Judy says. “No one group are the ‘best’ farmers, but everyone should be trying to do the best for their soils and be provided with more support and tools to do so.”