Ag LEAP students enjoy overnighter to Chesapeake Bay

University Park, Pa. -- Penn State offers new students nearly limitless options through its Learning Edge Academic Program (LEAP), designed to help freshmen interact with peers, take advantage of university resources and ease the transition to the college life.

The College of Agricultural Sciences this year took the LEAP idea one step further, providing students with an overnight educational trip.

Ag LEAP focuses on agriculture, food and environmental ethics and issues. Students enroll in the campuswide CAS 100A speech class and Ag 160: Introduction into Ethics and Issues in Agriculture. Both courses feature sections comprised exclusively of Ag LEAP participants.

It's no surprise then that Ag LEAP focused on the issues surrounding water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. When the opportunity to take an overnight trip to the Chesapeake Bay arose, Karen Vines, Ag LEAP coordinator, jumped at the chance.

"We've always offered ag industry tours to demonstrate why our classroom discussions are important," said Vines. "Over the years, Ag LEAP has evolved more and more into approaching the issues surrounding agriculture, so that our tours don't simply demonstrate, 'These are happy cows,' but instead, ask, 'How do we keep producing happy cows?'"

The Chesapeake Bay visits were organized by Matt Ehrhart, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The trip was funded through the Growmark Foundation's Glenn Webb Education Fund.

The trip began on a Wednesday with a travel route that followed the Susquehanna River to Havre de Grace, Md., where the Susquehanna empties into the Chesapeake Bay. There, students met with several experts from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and canoed around the bay. Students first performed several water-quality tests for pH, dissolved oxygen content, and nitrate and phosphorus concentrations.

Afterward, they spent time spotting and catching wildlife by tying boats together and wading into chest-high water exploring the grass beds. Nets yielded various examples of aquatic life, but the highlight was a blue crab.

"The experts never remembered catching a blue crab so far inland at this time of year, which is a positive indicator of the health of the bay," said Caleb Wright, an incoming freshman and Ag LEAP student.

"It was a little windy, and the water was somewhat rough, but it was a successful day," said Vines. "Only one canoe capsized!"

After a full day of traveling, canoeing and enjoying the camaraderie, the Ag LEAP crew spent the night in Lancaster. "Day two was on the land, looking at what contributes to the quality -- or degradation -- of the water," said Vines.

Thursday morning they traveled to the National Novelty Brush Company, where they climbed stairs to observe the "green" roof installed on the building. A green roof features plants that absorb rainwater to reduce stormwater runoff, cool the building during the summer, add an extra layer of insulation during the winter, and offer the prospect of growing food.

The group then traveled to Franklin and Marshall College to learn about that college's sustainability projects. Penn Staters were primarily shown the college's porous pavement project, which allows runoff to seep through the pavement into the gravel and soil below, reducing stormwater runoff.

After lunch, the Ag LEAP students toured Brubaker Farms, a dairy farm in Mount Joy, Pa., that works to incorporate modern sustainable technologies in its daily operations. Luke Brubaker, who manages the farm with his sons, was selected as Farmer of the Year for 2005 by Country Folks magazine. He currently serves on the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board and in other leadership positions in the agriculture industry. Brubaker Farms is also a Chesapeake Bay Program Farm.

Brubaker Farms is noted for its innovations, which include solar panels mounted across its heifer barn that supply enough energy for 120 houses. The farm also features a manure digester, which captures the methane created during anaerobic decomposition to power a generator. These two operations enable the farm to sell nutrient and carbon credits as far away as Ohio, allowing for extra income. And all operations must improve cash flow -- no unprofitable enterprise will be added -- so the Brubakers can showcase emerging technologies as a real-world adaptable option for farmers.

"We were in a wagon touring the farm, wondering where the solar panels are, when we finally realized that they're on the roof," said Vines. "They're very unobtrusive -- you really have to look to notice where they are."

Freshman Wright noted that not only do the Brubakers use technology to improve cow comfort, feed efficiency and barn cleanliness, but they use science and research within the confines of practical dairying. "And they're able to be good stewards of the land while still being a successful dairy," he said. "Being able to talk with Mr. Brubaker, a wealth of knowledge who was proud to be a dairy farmer, made the trip even better."

In addition to viewing the energy-generating components of the farm, the students toured the farm's entire dairy operation and its two broiler chicken houses.

The final stop on the trip was the Jim Hess Farm, a grass-fed beef operation that featured both wind turbines and solar panels. The primary interest at the farm is its forest buffer and stream bank reclamation project, which helps protect water quality.

Ag LEAP students said they enjoyed spending two days of hands-on experiential learning out of the classroom. This trip afforded an opportunity to learn about one of the region's largest environmental concerns and offered exposure to several different methods of farming.

"The trip was great fun -- we were not only able to see the bay, but observe some of the practices being implemented to help preserve it," said Wright. "And for those of us who had never seen the Chesapeake Bay, this was a really unique opportunity to see it for the first time."

 

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Last Updated November 18, 2010