A class act in agriculture

Education: Students examine the balance of farming and the environment in a popular course at Washington College.

April 21, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN -- Wayne Bell figures it's about time his students stepped off Washington College's grassy intellectual island and got a good whiff of the Eastern Shore farmland that surrounds them.

Instead of turning out a band of "tree-huggers" here at the 2-year-old Center for the Environment and Society, Bell is set on training a cadre of leaders in everything from environmental science to environmental law -- future decision-makers who will know their way around modern agriculture.

"Agriculture, Environment and Society" is proving to be a popular course at the 220-year-old liberal arts college, despite his indelicate promise to help students "go out and get some [manure] between their toes," said Bell, former director of the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory.

Industry leaders who have shared their expertise with students are praising the multidiscipline approach, which they hope will ease knee-jerk suspicions among farmers and environmentalists as the two camps clash over policy and regulation at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay.

"I view this college as one that graduates leaders -- I've met lots of them in all kinds of careers all over the state," said Bell, a Harvard University-educated marine biologist who spent 17 years at the prestigious Horn Point lab in Cambridge. "It's not just about environmental regulation; it's about how farmers make a living and stay on the land, it's about land use."

Students in the once-a-year course, a twin of the "Environment, Policy and People" class Bell taught last spring, have heard from national and regional farm policy leaders, land-use and farmland preservation experts, farmers, researchers and other lecturers -- all keying on the debate about nutrient runoff from Maryland farms and its effect on the bay.

They have toured large-scale contract poultry operations and the grain farms that provide the bulk of the feed for the Eastern Shore's $1.4 billion chicken industry, organic farms and traditional dairies, agricultural research projects and an aquaculture laboratory.

Perhaps more important, said Bill Satterfield, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, a powerful trade and lobbying group, is that they have been able to see another side of the farm-vs.-environment debate that is often a focal point for bay cleanup efforts.

"It's not often that [an environmental science class] is going to hear firsthand from people in the trenches," said Satterfield. "If we can get people who don't know much about agriculture or poultry to hear the facts, that's all we can ask."

Delmarva benefit

John Hall, Kent County's agricultural extension agent and one of a half-dozen experts who have helped Bell teach the class, said the in-depth look at how farmers interact with their land is bound to be a plus on Delmarva, which federal researchers say is more dependent on agriculture than any other region in the country.

"I think most environmentalists agree that agriculture is still the best use of the land, as opposed to development sprawl," Hall said. "But without a doubt there is a huge disconnect between agriculture and the rest of society. This is kind of a holistic approach to farming and the environment."

Like anything else, farming is being transformed by technology, said Bill Cooper, a third-generation farm implement dealer and 1977 Washington College graduate. He demonstrated high-tech global positioning satellite equipment that's becoming standard issue on new rigs such as the $156,000 tractor he parked on campus last week.

With a satellite receiver flashing infrared layouts of fields, the computer applies exactly the necessary amount of fertilizer or chemicals while hands-free steering software keeps the tractor plowing straight lines that are accurate to within 2.5 inches.

"Right now, only about 10 percent of farmers on Delmarva are using these systems," said Cooper. "I believe that as the prices come down, it'll help a lot of farmers stay in business by working more efficiently. It's a plus for the environment, too, because they'll be more specific about what they're applying to the land."

Bell acknowledges he's not keen on tests, but students, most of them undergraduate environmental science majors, were required to complete research papers and will deliver oral presentations on them as the semester winds down over the next couple weeks.

Earlier, they had been given an open-book essay to complete, a project that Bell said appeared deceptively simple.

Stewards of land

"They were asked to reconcile agriculture's love of the land, the notion of farmers as stewards of the land, with the slew of environmental regulations that have come down in the last few years," Bell said. "That's really what this class is about. I think all of us were a little naive at the beginning."

Noah Gerstnyer, a 20-year-old sophomore from Baltimore County, said the class has provided an unexpected boost for his hopes for a career in agriculture -- a choice that often made little sense to his high school classmates at Boys Latin, an elite North Baltimore prep school.

"One thing we've seen is that on the Shore there are a lot of tension and politics about farming," Gerstnyer said. "I think this kind of class has opened a lot of people's eyes, whether they're coming at it from the environmental side or from agriculture."

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