ME alumna uses regenerative farm to educate about physical and environmental health

11/13/2021

Taylor Tucker

Sarah and Ashley Armstrong
Sarah and Ashley Armstrong

MechSE alumna Ashley Armstrong (PhD ME ’20) and her younger sister Sarah have turned their ongoing health journeys into a sustainable, shareable lifestyle. The sisters recently cofounded Angel Acres, a 22-acre farm in Marcellus, Michigan, that will use agrotourism to educate visitors and the general public about regenerative agriculture.

“Nature thrives on biodiversity,” Armstrong said. “The idea behind regenerative agriculture is to create a more resilient planet and healthier humans by promoting soil health.”

Commonly used industrial agricultural practices, such as tilling and chemically treating the soil, are considered degenerative because of their impact on the health of naturally occurring microorganisms. While these practices can produce food commodities on a large scale, they oppose the seemingly wild, geometrically complex patterns in which native plants grow and interact. Regenerative agriculture seeks to promote soil health by employing practices, such as biodiverse planting and rotational grazing, that mimic or support natural biological processes.

“Industrial agriculture practices like tilling and heavy chemical use have become more and more widespread [in the US] since the Green Revolution of the 1950s and ’60s , and we are losing topsoil at unsustainable rates,” Armstrong said (ref: Natural Resources Conservation Service). “I don’t think there’s any coincidence that the United States is the only developed nation with a declining healthy life expectancy in the last two measurement periods, 2015 and 2019” (ref: The Journal of the American Medical Association).

Armstrong’s argument for the efficacy of regenerative agriculture is supported by longer-term studies out of the Rodale Institute, which have demonstrated that the levels of food production between conventional and organic systems are similar. “The healthier our soil is, the more microorganisms are present to support the production of nutrient-rich foods and the less toxic chemicals we have to use,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong’s own health journey has evolved significantly over the past several years. After being diagnosed with autoimmune conditions, she and her sister began seeking sustainable lifestyle practices that promoted their health and wellness, including experimenting with a carnivore (i.e., all meat) diet. They now take a nose-to-tail approach in consuming animal products, supplementing with easily digested carbohydrates such as potatoes and fruits.

“One of the reasons I went to grad school is because I love educating others,” said Armstrong, who, with Sarah, has actively documented her health journey across multiple social media platforms. “If we didn’t go down this health journey, I wouldn’t have learned about regenerative agriculture and the power of ruminant animals, or how, when managed properly, they can help us with our current climate crisis.”

As a graduate student under advisors Andrew Alleyne and Amy Wagoner Johnson, Armstrong began making connections between regenerative bone growth and regenerative agriculture. As she worked to design and 3D-print bone scaffolds, which provide a medium upon which bone matter can grow, she also came to understand how regenerating microorganisms in soil leads to healthier plants. These connections ultimately led her and Sarah to adopt regenerative agriculture in their daily lives, with both sisters now working full-time at Angel Acres.

Ashley Armstrong with her diploma

“Our goal is to be part production, part education,” Armstrong said of the farm’s directive. “By documenting on social media and then also having an agrotourism hub here, we hope to achieve a wide reach.”

The sisters plan to continue documenting their work and eventually host overnight visitors on the farm for an immersive regenerative farming experience. Their farm will primarily consist of chickens, sheep, and goats in addition to garden produce.

“The most important thing for anyone on a health journey is finding what’s most sustainable for your lifestyle, and that’s going to look different for everyone,” Armstrong said. “I honestly feel great now and I’m really happy that we took this food-first approach and figured out what worked for us.”

Although farming may seem like a far cry from studying controls engineering, Armstrong recognizes the utility of her studies in the constant problem-solving opportunities she encounters.

“Grad school at UIUC taught me to always keep that learning mindset and never think that everything is known,” Armstrong reflected. “The mental preparation of not just knowing what the final solution will be helped prepare me for the day-to-day challenges we face at the farm.”

To learn more about regenerative agriculture, Armstrong recommends reading the works of Dr. W. Richard Teague (Texas A&M University), checking out resources presented by Joel Williams (https://www.integratedsoils.com/) and the Savory Institute (https://savory.global/), and watching the documentary Kiss the Ground (available on Netflix).

Follow them on Instagram:  @strong.sistas and @angel_acres