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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Students in Fleming County, Kentucky help to operate a farm themselves where they learn about agriculture and try to develop cost-effective ways to protect farm run-off water quality. John Gregory has our report.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
If you travel to Fleming County in the northeast corner of Kentucky, you'll find a rural area where the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains begin to blend into the flatlands of the Bluegrass region. You'll also find dairy cows, lots of dairy cows. Though small in size, Fleming County produces much of Kentucky's fresh milk. Unfortunately, waste from many of the herds has ended up fouling the county's creeks and streams. A few years ago, some students and their teachers noted the high level of pollution in county waterways. But instead of leaving it up to the farmers to solve the problem on their own, the students decided to pitch in and help. Today, not only is the water in Fleming County cleaner, the students now help to operate a farm where they learn about agriculture and try to develop cost-effective ways to protect water quality. John Gregory has our report.

(Footfalls, voices)

GREGORY: On a blustery spring day, 3 teenagers climb a grassy hillside in Fleming County, Kentucky, to survey the student farm. They see a mixture of flat bottom land surrounded by rolling hills of open pasture and trees. Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Woods stops and ponders what could be grown on one long stretch of hilltop.

WOODS: We can always put in hay and you can, I guess you can really grow tobacco up here. It might erode a little bit, it wouldn't be really that bad. The soil isn't exactly perfect for tobacco, but it would still grow there.

GREGORY: What crops to plant, which pesticides to use, and how to provide water for the dairy cows, are just some of the decisions facing the 10 students working on the Fleming County Farm Project. The trick is that their actions must not pollute the slow-moving waters of Fleming Creek and a smaller tributary called Crane Town Branch, which border the 80-acre student farm on 3 sides. To prevent the fertile topsoil from washing into the river, the students decided to play corn in the bottom, using a no-till method, which means sowing seed into unplowed ground. Because the cows were spending so much time in the creek, drinking and fouling the water, the students chose to install a water trough for the cattle away from the creek.

VICE: It cost $3,000 just to set up a $500 water fountain over there.

GREGORY: Fleming County farmer Tribby Vice laughs as he recalls how difficult it was to install the fountain, but says it was a good decision because his cows prefer the supply of fresh, clean water. Mr. Vice conceived the Farm Project, and he provides the land to the students, offers advice, and takes some of theirs. Tribby Vice owns about 400 acres of land in Fleming County and runs the family's dairy operation with his brother and father. They milk about 90 cows in a barn that sits on a hill overlooking the river.

VICE: And this was typical of the waste (laughs) control systems that you found along Fleming Creek here in Fleming County, was you got your barn close to the creek and your waste ran over the hill into the creek and the creek got rid of it for you.

GREGORY: About 10 years ago, when Tribby Vice was building a pit to contain his dairy waste, a massive amount of manure spilled into the creek, causing a fish kill along a half-mile stretch of the river. State environmental officials fined Mr. Vice more than $5,000. The incident inspired him to learn more about water issues. He found that Fleming Creek was one of the most polluted waterways in Kentucky. In addition to improving his own operation, Tribby Vice decided to develop a program to teach kids about the connection between water quality and farming.

(Milling voices)

MAN: It's handy to start with dissolved oxygen because that's the first thing on the sheet, but you don't have to. And then somebody else can be doing nitrates, because that takes the longest.

GREGORY: Tribby Vice's idea became the Fleming Creek Water Quality Project. Every month for the past 3 years, junior and senior high school students like Amy Coleman have waded through weeds and mud to collect samples of river water at 4 locations.

COLEMAN: We test for dissolved oxygen, pH, nitrogen, phosphorus, hardness, iron, chlorine...

GREGORY: With the support of the local school board and the Community Farm Alliance, a Kentucky-based family farm organization, the students have compiled a database of water quality information on Fleming Creek. They've presented their findings to local civic and agricultural groups and in newspaper articles, each time emphasizing what individuals can do to protect the river. They've encouraged farmers to reduce the amount of animal and chemical wastes reaching the water. And they've told homeowners about the importance of proper septic systems. Sophomore Amber Dillon and her sister Dinetta say people in the community have been receptive to their message.

A. DILLON: People want to know. They want to know what's happening. So we present them with the data, the information, and they --

D. DILLON: And we try to give them solutions for the problem. (Laughs)

GREGORY: Charlie Masters is a science teacher in the Fleming County Schools, and coordinator of the water quality project. He says the increased public awareness has had a positive impact on the creek.

MASTERS: We have seen water quality improve in this creek in the past 3 years. Maybe not as much as a lot of people would like, but it's trending int he right direction. And I caution people, too. If it took people 50 years to have a negative impact on the watershed, then 5 years is not going to clean it up.

GREGORY: The students have been recognized for their work in Fleming County and at farm and conservation conferences across the country. But even with the success of the river monitoring program, farmer Tribby Vice felt there was still something missing.

VICE: They need to learn what it's like to make a decision. Making a decision on the way you're going to handle a water quality problem.

GREGORY: So Mr. Vice created the Farm Project, by loaning 80 acres of his land to the students. The ground rules were simple: maintain the quality of Fleming Creek and make at least enough profit to cover the loan payments on the land. Fifteen-year-old Cameron Wallingford says the students now had to practice what they had been preaching.

WALLINGFORD: I didn't really know how much planning and thought it took to really kind of sit down and think about what you'd want to put on a certain field. It's kind of showed us what you've been doing wrong, and how you can fix it.

GREGORY: Tribby Vice says most of the student recommendations have been good, although an attempt to try a more environmentally friendly mix of herbicides ended up costing more money and didn't kill weeds any better than did the standard application. The farm is breaking even, but junior Whitney Barker says even when they want to institute a best management practice to prevent some kind of pollution, they always have to look at the bottom line.

BARKER: If it's going to cost the farmer a major amount of money and that he's just going to have to keep pouring money in it, and it's going to be a burden, so to speak, then it's not a best management practice. Because all it is is just something he's pouring money into, to conserve something. And so, really, cost is a major consideration.

GREGORY: To help pay for some of their ideas, the students got state financial aid available to farmers for conservation projects. Even with the time they've invested, the economics of agriculture have led many of the students to consider other occupations. Freshman Cameron Wallingford says he's thinking about a career in engineering or medicine.

WALLINGFORD: Everybody's going to have to find something else to do sooner or later, because there's big farms that's putting little farms out of business.

GREGORY: But even if they don't go into agriculture, project organizer Tribby Vice hopes this experience will make the students strong advocates for family farms. In the meantime, Mr. Vice says he's preparing to implement another of the students' suggestions: installing a fence to keep his dairy cows out of the creek.

VICE: The day the fence goes in, you won't be able to measure the dollars and cents that it saves us all by not having 8 or 10 cows standing in there defecating. There won't be a dollar figure, never will be a dollar figure on that. But we'll be able to say that was that much of a contribution we made to the environment. And that may be worth a few thousand dollars, you know? And it seems it's worth it to the kids, so, you know, I'll go along with them. (Laughs)

GREGORY: Tribby Vice says the Farm Project is still in its infancy. He hopes it can grow into an established program where students own their own land, and young people from across Kentucky can come work on the farm. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in Fleming County, Kentucky.



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