CLAY, Pa. — An ocean explorer on a dairy farm in northern Lancaster County might seem like a fish out of water, but to Philippe Cousteau it makes perfect sense.
The grandson of famed French oceanographer and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the younger Cousteau spent the afternoon of Sept. 7 at Robert and Ruth Fox’s farm filming part of his own documentary series about the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“It’s no secret,” Cousteau said, “that farming gets blamed for a lot of the problems” causing dead zones, swaths of the bay ruinously overloaded with nutrients from fertilizer, animal waste and other pollutants.
But Cousteau said he had come to highlight solutions, not to cast blame.
“We were really impressed by some of the things this farm was doing” to reduce water pollution, he said.
Fox is a no-till farmer who has put in grass contour strips that channel water through vegetation, tree plantings as riparian buffers along streams, stream-bank reinforcements, a manure digester and other conservation works on his 120-acre preserved farm.
The Lancaster County Conservation District, which recommended Fox to Cousteau’s crew, gave the farmer an Outstanding Cooperator Award in 2012.
The Lancaster County Youth Conservation School, a program of the conservation district and Federated Sportsmen of Lancaster County, also comes for a day each summer to build a device that will help clean the streams on Fox’s property.
A film crew taped the students building a sediment trap in July, and a few of the students were invited back to meet Cousteau and be interviewed for the film.
The documentary project, called “EarthEcho Expedition: Into the Dead Zone,” will be released as a series of six free 10-minute videos. One clip will be released on the organization’s website each week starting Oct. 10.
The films are designed as curriculum enhancements for teachers and are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.
The gradual release is designed to give teachers time to review the videos before using them with their students. The program comes with ready-made lesson plans and worksheets.
“We’re not giving them more work to do,” Cousteau said, noting that the production crew has worked extensively with teachers to make “Into the Dead Zone” fit their needs.
“In the classroom, they don’t want anything longer than 10 minutes,” he said.
Cousteau said the films will be “very adventure-based,” featuring fly-fishing, scuba diving at the edge of the dead zone and even skydiving.
While the Pennsylvania segment focuses on agriculture, clips shot in other states in the watershed will touch on other water-quality issues.
From Sept. 3-13, Cousteau and his team shot spotlights on children cleaning up the tributaries of Virginia’s Rappahannock River, helping with stormwater projects in the District of Columbia and working on wastewater solutions in West Virginia.
Several of the other segments will relate at least tangentially to agriculture, such as one involving a visit to a chicken farm.
Another one will showcase a new wastewater treatment plant in Moorefield, W.Va. The plant should ease residents’ concerns about the safety of their drinking water, which is so bad that fishermen are advised to not even touch their catches.
Cousteau credits his grandfather with the idea of catering to young people and showing them that they can help out, “not just when they grow up, but now.”
The younger Cousteau said that while advertisers have long aimed their appeals at young people, environmentalists have not always done enough to engage students.
“We hate to do the same things others are doing,” so the online video series will “fill some gaps,” he said.
“We don’t tell them to do this or this or this,” he said. Instead, he encourages youth to work on something they care about that affects their area.
Jacques Cousteau died in 1997, so his life did not coincide with the lives of current high school freshmen.
But Philippe Cousteau said many youths recognize the family name despite the intervening years. And for students who are not familiar with the name, “we’re bringing it back,” he said.
Grace Nelson, a Lititz resident who attended the Youth Conservation School this summer, said she had heard of the elder Cousteau before EarthEcho announced its visit.
The school may seem small, but the film series is allowing the Lancaster youths to set an example for children around the country and potentially around the world, Sallie Gregory, education coordinator at the conservation district, said.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to work with (EarthEcho) with an international focus,” she said.
Caleb Enck, a Manheim resident and 2013 conservation school attendee, said Cousteau, who ate lunch with the students and regaled them with fly-fishing stories, was engaging and smart.
“It sounds like an interesting career,” he said.
Enck plans to go into ag science, ag engineering or wildlife management.
Patrick Greene, the film director for “Into the Dead Zone,” said he was enjoying his first trip to Lancaster County. The well-traveled leader of D.C.-based Symbio Studios specializes in nature and science filming.
The project has given him “insights into the bay I didn’t even know existed,” he said.
Greene was also impressed by how much farmers are doing to ensure the sustainability of agriculture. “It’s quite inspiring, really,” he said.
Cousteau said that water quality is “fundamental to the future of humanity.”
All human activities consume resources and create pollution, he said, and agriculture has a great responsibility because the industry is one of the world’s main water consumers.
“It’s never a one-size-fits-all solution,” he said, but many of the improvements, such as fencing cattle out of streams, are easy.
“We’re not necessarily talking about massively high-tech solutions,” he said. “We can all be part of that.”
“The good news (about water quality) is we believe it’s been more of an issue” in agriculture, Cousteau said. “These types of best practices are more modeled, more available.”
“Farmers do a very important job, and that’s why we’re here” filming at the farm, he said.
Fox, the dairy farmer, said he never expected someone from a famously nautical family would want to make a movie about his land-management strategies.
“It kind of takes a while for the magnitude of it to sink in,” he said.