Tag Archives: water

Cooperative Extension associate ignites high school students’ interest in science, protecting water supplies

Carroll County students in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering water quality lab

Carroll County students in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering water quality lab. As the United States continues to be surpassed by other industrialized nations in STEM education – Canada and Singapore among them – innovative STEM educational initiatives have become ever more critical. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in the math and science fields will grow exponentially faster than average.

In his book, “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell coined the term “connector,” referring to “a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [… for] making friends and acquaintances.” Connectors are, according to Gladwell, able to galvanize others and possess “… a special gift for bringing the world together.”

Erin Ling is just such a person.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension associate and coordinator of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program in the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Systems has a unique ability to draw connections between ideas, concepts, and people who, by coming together in partnership, spark new possibilities. This is just what she did when she met Rachelle Rasco ’92, the STEM agriculture lab manager for Carroll County High School, during a teachers program nearly four years ago.

“We met and hit it off, and pretty quickly we started working together to figure out how to adapt the Virginia Household Water Quality Program well-testing program to make it possible for high school students to participate,” said Ling ’00, with her characteristic enthusiasm. “We knew that we could tie the material to what they were already learning in their science classes, but show them why it matters in a very real, tangible way – through their families’ drinking water.”

Isabelle “Izzy” Largen ’22 (center) with Erin Ling '00 (left) and Rachelle Rasco '92 (right)

Isabelle “Izzy” Largen ’22 (center) with Erin Ling ’00 (left) and Rachelle Rasco ’92 (right). Largen entered Ling’s program as a 10th grade student at Carroll County High School. The experience informed her desire to attend Virginia Tech and her choice of majors.

The Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) is an Extension project that provides affordable water testing and education to residents of the commonwealth. Since Ling and Rasco, with the assistance of Hannah Scherer, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and a specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, and Randy Webb ’07, ’18, an agricultural instructor and FFA advisor for Carroll County High School, teamed up in 2015, the program has increased student awareness of water quality issues and stimulated interest in science, technology, engineering, and math educational programs.

“The students come to Virginia Tech to see how testing is done and how it is applied,” said Rasco. “They learn about pH, bacteria, and water chemistry. When they go into other classes, they are more competent. This learning about water permeates everything, but it starts at a personal level because it’s their drinking water.”

After collecting water from their wells or springs, students bring their water samples to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Biological Systems Engineering water quality lab in the state-of-the-art Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1. There, they spend the day conducting hands-on lab activities and listening to presentations from water quality and food safety researchers and well drilling contractors.

While the students are on campus, lab staff begin analyzing their household water samples for total coliform bacteria, E. coli, pH, nitrate, total dissolved solids, and fluoride. Portions of samples are prepared and delivered to the environmental and water resources engineering lab for additional analysis for lead, arsenic, copper, iron, manganese, hardness, sulfate, and sodium.

Working with experts like Marc Edwards, University Distinguished Professor with the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and other researchers who helped to uncover metals contamination in household water in places like Flint, Michigan, has been invaluable to VAHWQP. The testing for high schoolers and their families is provided free of charge thanks to donations from the Virginia Lakes and Watersheds Association and the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project.

“One in five Virginians rely on wells or springs,” said Ling. “About 80 percent of these folks have never tested or have tested only once. We know that testing and understanding their results leads many people to take action to improve their water system or install treatment devices, so this is another way to reach more families with our program. Working with the high school students allows them build on what they are learning and also helps their families test their water.”

Since 1989, VAHWQP researchers have analyzed approximately 29,000 samples. The results have been sobering, with total coliform bacteria present in 40 percent of samples; E. coli bacteria in 9 percent, indicating the presence of human or animal waste; and perhaps most alarmingly, lead in 16 percent of the water samples.

Since 2015, approximately 280 students from Carroll, Washington, and Grayson County high schools have participated in the program.

Since 2015, approximately 280 students from Carroll, Washington, and Grayson County high schools have participated in the program.

“Flint, Michigan, inspired us to care,” said Webb, who earned his Ph.D. this year from Virginia Tech in agricultural leadership and community education. “Now, the kids see what’s important about this because this is their water and their lives. We make it personal for them. And when you make it personal, they remember it better.”

Ling, Rasco, and Webb see water testing as both a personal and a pertinent conduit to the world of science – one with direct health implications for the students and their families. But the trio is also guided by a shared, long-term mission to foster students’ understanding of and passion for STEM subjects while encouraging them to pursue a college education.

“We are dedicated to experiential learning. This is why our kids do well in post-secondary education,” said Webb. “They get to see, touch, feel, and experience what we are teaching them in the classroom through experiences like this. And, when you collaborate with a university like Virginia Tech, you bring the most innovative research and minds into your school.”

Since 2015, more than 225 students have participated in the educational tours and testing. In 2018, Ling expanded the program to include high schools in Washington and Grayson counties, reaching an additional 55 students and families. The VAHWQP coordinator is also working with the Virginia Tech’s Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences chapter to encourage members to work with the high school students during their visits to campus.

“We have had kids go on to Virginia Tech, UVA, and into science majors. By the time they reach college, these kids have had a breadth of experiences,” said Rasco.

Isabelle “Izzy” Largen ’22, who is pursuing a degree in water: resources, policy, and management, is one of those students. She entered Ling’s program as a 10th grade student at Carroll County High School.

“When we visited Virginia Tech, we saw a model of groundwater and learned how pollution works. We also learned about drills, how wells are made, and regulations,” said Largen, whose family home is more than 100 years old and is fed by a spring. “I learned that water can be contaminated with bacteria from sources such as deer, dogs, and other animals. And, if your pH is really high or really low, it can affect your pipes, causing them to degrade and leach metals into water.”

The experience informed Largen’s desire to attend Virginia Tech and her choice of majors. She is minoring in Arabic and aspires to work with water policy and infrastructure in the Middle East.

“This program helped bring it all together for me, all of my interest in science. We also learned how to present, which helped with public speaking,” said Largen. “If I hadn’t met Ms. Rasco and Erin Ling, I wouldn’t be here now. They helped me dip my toes into different aspects of science, and they are willing to help you in any way they can. They connect you with anyone and anything.”

Webb is particularly proud that many of his graduates are not only well-prepared for college, they are pursuing impressive careers because of the program.

“Several of our students have come to Virginia Tech,” he said. “One is now with USDA, and another is an Extension agent. Several are working for well-known private companies.”

No one is more proud than Ling, whose passion for science and gift for connections are at the nexus of the program.

“Many kids can’t even imagine all the possibilities that are out there,” she said. “I feel it should be part of our mission as a land-grant university to give them the opportunity to see what we have to offer and what they can become.”

— Written by Amy Painter

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Daniel Austin receives conservation award for stewardship and innovation

Left to right: Chris Lawrence, state cropland agronomist for USDA-NRCS; Franklin County farmer Daniel Austin of Green Sprig Ag; and, Dan Luebben, son of Carl.

Left to right: Chris Lawrence, state cropland agronomist for USDA-NRCS; Franklin County farmer Daniel Austin of Green Sprig Ag; and, Dan Luebben, son of Carl.

Franklin County farmer Daniel Austin recently received the fifth annual Carl G. Luebben Soil Health and Water Quality Award for his contributions to conservation in the commonwealth.

Sponsored by Houff Corp., the award is named for Luebben, a former Houff salesman known for his passion for agronomy, sustainable systems, soil health research, and mentorship of conservation professionals.

Daniel Austin is a fifth-generation farmer who was raised on a dairy and began overseeing forage production on two family-run, confined dairy operations by the age of 18. He has farmed more than 500 acres of forages and grain crops annually.

Today, Austin owns and operates Green Sprig Ag, where he specializes in forage and cover-crop seed, as well as custom no-till planting and forage harvesting. The producer doesn’t just custom-blend forage and cover-crop seed mixes, he is a regional guru, advising farmers, industry, and agency experts on what to plant and when.

Austin is a true innovator, always willing to host test plots and try new approaches. He is also a passionate advocate for soil-health-building no-till systems, leading by example with his adoption of continuous no-till and aggressive cover cropping. He founded the Franklin County chapter of the Virginia No-till Alliance and has been a major agent for change in land management practices.

Since the first planter clinic in 2011, Austin has organized, promoted, hosted, sponsored, and spoken at dozens of educational events for growers and conservation partners. In the past decade, his efforts have led to a dramatic reduction in tillage and bare fields across Franklin County.

Austin and his wife are deeply committed to their agricultural heritage with an overriding goal of building an enterprise that will allow their son to carry on the family farming tradition. He also hopes to influence other farmers to adapt to the new realities of agriculture. Committed to finding ways to stay profitable in the face of decreasing milk and commodity crop prices, Austin has shifted his focus to value-added production and marketing. He grows food-grade small grains for specialty markets and runs the Little Red Hen feed mill to process his non-GMO corn, soybeans, and small grains into feed for local small-scale poultry and swine growers.

The producer received his award at the Virginia Farm to Table Conference at Blue Ridge Community College last month. The conference is hosted annually by Virginia Cooperative Extension, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, and community partners.

Carl Luebben’s son Dan was on hand to participate in the presentation. Carl Luebben, who passed away in October 2015, previously served on the Virginia Farm Bureau Board, the Shenandoah Resource Conservation and Development Council, and the Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District.

— Written by Zeke Barlow

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“Soil Health Champions” receive conservation awards

Extension Specialist Eric Bendfeldt (left) with Kevin Craun and Ryan Blosser

Extension Specialist Eric Bendfeldt (left) with Kevin Craun and Ryan Blosser

Harrisonburg, December 18, 2017 – Bridgewater brothers Kevin and Steve Craun and Augusta County farmer Ryan Blosser recently received the fourth annual Carl G. Luebben Soil Health and Water Quality Awards for their contributions to conservation in the commonwealth.

Sponsored by Houff Corporation, the award is named for Luebben, a former Houff salesman known for his passion for agronomy, sustainable systems, soil health research, 
and mentorship of conservation professionals.

The Craun brothers are fourth-generation dairymen who operate Hillview Farms, Inc., a 435-acre dairy with 150 milking cows, 150 replacement heifers, and 100 head of beef cattle in the southwestern corner of Rockingham County near Bridgewater, Virginia. They are true “soil health champions” who have a well-established cropping system, including alfalfa in the rotation, and take care to closely balance residue management to build organic matter. Other notable Best Management Practices include no-till planting, cover crops, manure storage, and side-dressing nitrogen. Numerous practices have also been installed on pastures to promote herd health, cow comfort, and forage production.

Kevin and Steve sell their beef and milk through local co-ops, which showcase locally grown food from farmers who cherish the land and its sustainability. They have opened their operation to numerous school groups, production tours, and conservation agencies to provide a closer look at these practices. The brothers also serve on various boards; Kevin is a former Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District director and board chairman.

Ryan Blosser is the owner-operator of the Dancing Star Farm, where he grows high-quality, chemical-free vegetables with limited tillage. Blosser plants highly diverse crops in permanent rows that are tilled while the rest of the soil remains untouched. The residue remaining on his fields increases organic matter, and crop rotation breaks up pest cycles without chemicals. His soil-health-building practices offer added benefits of increasing water-holding capacity and reducing runoff, leaching, and erosion. Blosser also uses a swale system to filter water, leaving it cleaner than when it entered the farm.

Blosser runs a very successful Community Supported Agriculture program on just 1.25 cultivated acres and focuses on giving back to the agricultural community. He is an executive director for Project Grows, a nonprofit group that hosts summer camps and field trips to teach children about gardening while providing food for the community. He is also involved with the Shenandoah Permaculture Institute, which teaches citizens about this form of intensively planned, environmentally restorative agriculture.

The Crauns and Blosser received their awards at the Virginia Farm to Table Conference, hosted by Virginia Cooperative Extension and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service at Blue Ridge Community College on Dec. 6, 2018. Carl’s son Dan was on hand to participate in the presentations. Carl Luebben, who died in October 2015, previously served on the Rockingham County Virginia Farm Bureau Board and the Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District.

Contact:
Eric Bendfeldt
ebendfel@vt.edu
540-432-6029, ext. 106

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Freshwater shrimp become a big deal

As the freshwater shrimp in his ponds continued to grow and multiply, Charles Carter knew he had a good product to sell.

Dan Kauffman (left) is helping shrimp producers expand their markets through shrimp boils.

Dan Kauffman (left) is helping shrimp producers expand their markets through shrimp boils.

In his second year of production, Carter wanted to create product buzz in order to sell a portion of his production to local consumers. Carter was already selling his product wholesale as a member of the Virginia Aqua-Farmers Network Cooperative, but he also wanted to market retail.

And he knew just where to look for assistance — Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Enter Dan Kauffman, Extension seafood marketing specialist at the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hampton.

Kauffman had been helping freshwater shrimp producers get their products to market, which also involved another part of his résumé — his fondness for shrimp boils.

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Communities working together

Communities in the Northern Neck knew they had a problem. Young people were leaving because of a lack of jobs, the current workforce needed additional education, and there were few opportunities for those who wanted to stay in the area.

Furniture-maker Andrew Pitts is a member of the Northern Neck Artisan Trail.

Furniture-maker Andrew Pitts is a member of the Northern Neck Artisan Trail.

Four years ago these communities took steps to improve the situation by participating in the Stronger Economies Together program, which has allowed them to build a blueprint for regional economic success.

Today, the Northern Neck is putting its plan into action by engaging partners and leveraging the strengths of this diverse region. Communities have come together to form the Northern Neck Artisan Trail, which highlights the creative talents, foods, and agricultural products of the region, and to participate in the emerging Virginia Oyster Trail. The new trail offers visitors a way to enjoy Virginia’s seven different oyster regions, as well as to experience the unique culture of watermen in the Chesapeake Bay.

The region has received grant support from the USDA and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to create the Northern Neck Loan Fund to help emerging entrepreneurs and small businesses gain access to capital. The USDA recognized the Northern Neck Economic Development Plan for its commitment to strengthening the area’s economies and identified it as a model plan for the program.

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