SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Sustainable agriculture was first addressed in the U.S. Farm Bill in what year?
What caused the 1930s Dust Bowl?
Since 1970, how many acres of productive farmland have been lost to development?
These are just some of the many agriculture-related questions students from four upstate New York schools answered during Envirothon held May 6 and hosted by Saratoga County Soil and Water Conservation District in Saratoga Springs.
The winning team from Ballston Spa High School advanced to the state-level contest May 21-22 in Morrisville.
Envirothon, founded in 1979, is a science-oriented extracurricular activity for students in the U.S. and Canada. Teams meet after school and spend all year preparing for competition. Students are tested in soils, wildlife, forestry and aquatics, and must also make an oral presentation about a compelling current issue.
This year’s topic is sustainable local agriculture and locally grown food. Students had to demonstrate with research, data and visual elements how they would convert an old camp property into a sustainable farm operation.
“You’re doing real-life applications,” said George Stack, a Ballston Spa junior. “It broadens your spectrum about agriculture by learning things like soil types and invasive species, all the other factors that play into having a good farm.”
“This is so different from what we do in school,” said teammate Ellie Rutkey. “It’s a different, unique experience. It’s not like solving problems in a textbook. It’s a great opportunity.”
Ballston Spa’s other winning team members are senior Shannon Mullin and juniors Marley Jaeger and Jenica Acheta. The club is coached by retired teacher Georgiann Henderson and current science teacher Linda Rose.
“They’re very passionate about what they teach,” Rutkey said. “That’s what makes it fun.”
Last year, teams had to make a presentation about the benefits of rotational grazing on a beef farm, and how to set up and implement this kind of system.
Envirothon is especially valuable for kids from nonfarming backgrounds by giving them a greater appreciation for everything farmers deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Amelia Bielefelde of Saratoga Central Catholic High School, said she’s amazed at how much farmers have to know and contend with.
“There’s lots of things that go into it that I didn’t know about before,” she said. “You have to have supplies, which takes money, plus, water, irrigation, energy, fertilizers.”
Muhammad Talha Nasir of Saratoga Central Catholic, is headed to SUNY Cobleskill next year to study medicine. After taking part in Envirothon, he might take a couple of elective courses in agriculture to broaden his knowledge about the field.
“Farming is a way of life,” he said. “You have to plan ahead and be prepared.”
Presentations are judged by professionals in fields ranging from municipal planning to forestry and maple production.
“It gives kids a chance to interact and ask questions about possible careers,” said Dustin Lewis, Saratoga County Soil and Water Conservation District manager. “I never got to do this kind of thing when I was in school.”
Soil and water districts organize Envirothon at the local and state levels. Normally, state winners advance to nationals. However, North American Envirothon recently ceased operations and the program has been taken over by the National Conservation Foundation. There will be no national competition this year, but plans call for resuming it in 2015.
Lewis said he’s concerned about a noticeable decline in the number of schools taking part in Envirothon, primarily the result of school budget restrictions.
“We used to have 20 teams here,” he said. “Some schools would send two or three teams. Now, they can’t justify spending the money to send a bus.”
But students and teachers alike say the program is invaluable.
“They really have to collaborate and work together,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of give and take. It’s a very good life lesson in a lot of ways.”
“They’re learning what it takes to produce enough food for the world,” Henderson added. “They’re becoming very knowledgeable so when issues come up in Congress or in the state Legislature, they can make informed decisions about them. They’re becoming better citizens.”