On a cold spring day in 2013, I walked into one of the hayfields on our farm in Vermont and began to panic. For three generations, my wife's family had tended 50 acres of luxurious, green hayfields. But now, one season after my wife and I took over, all I saw was gravel, moss, slime, and washouts.
Seventy-seven years earlier, my wife's great-grandparents, Thomas and Candace Stevenson, bought the hilltop farm in Shaftsbury in the wake of the Great Depression. For 40 years, my wife's aunt, Edie—the Stevensons' granddaughter—had tended to the land. She managed the hay-production operation using tillage and chemicals to clear the fields of weeds so they could produce the clean, uniform grass bales that packed the barn every summer.
In 2011, Edie was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. The next year, at 56, she passed away. My wife, Cally, and I suddenly inherited a farm, but there was one problem: We weren't farmers. I was a semi-ecoliterate web developer. Cally had spent summers on the farm growing up but had never given much thought to soil or agriculture.
The first decision we made—suspicious of the toxic chemicals used on the land—was to stop spraying pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. We did this naively assuming that once we stopped spraying, nature would flourish and the lush, green fields would remain lush and green.