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On the Chesapeake, Lessons Flow Both Ways

Va. Farm Students, Md. Watermen Share Trips, Knowledge

By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page B01

Chad Funkhouser, 18, did not awaken over the weekend to farm chores in Rockingham County, Va., up at the headwaters of the Shenandoah River. Instead, he and about two-dozen other members of Turner Ashby High School's Future Farmers of America opened their eyes to a morning far downstream -- a pink and lavender dawn on small Smith Island, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay.

They were out on a boat early Saturday and worked hard all morning. They tested the bay's sparkling but pollution-threatened waters. They combed the eelgrass meadows for signs of rebounding life. And they hauled crab pots and sorted crabs with a veteran Smith Island waterman. All the while, they were making important connections between life upstream and down, and farmers and waterfolk's shared cultivation of nature.

Jessie Reese, left, Kelsey Brunton, second from right, and Chrissy Rhodes, right, measure blue crabs, with the bay foundation's Kristen Manzo, center. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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In a way it is all farming, concluded Curt Newsome, 17. "It's completely different in some ways. In other ways, it's completely alike," he said.

The students are part of an innovative cooperative relationship that has grown between farmers of Rockingham County, a major agricultural powerhouse and poultry producer; the watermen and women of Smith Island; and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The friendly exchange slowly is replacing the tension that existed a decade ago between farmers and bay people. The contention centered on agricultural pollution, which has received a good share of blame for contributing to the nitrogen overload responsible for destroying the historic breeding grounds of the bay's fish, crabs and oysters -- and the livelihoods of those who work the Chesapeake.

Meanwhile, the farmers also said they were struggling. They weren't the only ones at fault, they said, pointing to the big cities closer to the bay and their overflowing sewage plants and coal-fired power plants, and their burgeoning suburbs.

"Down here, they blame the farmers for the pollution," Newsome said. "Where we are, they blame the people down here."

He has learned that lesson thanks to longtime Turner Ashby agriculture teacher and FFA adviser Eric Fitzgerald, who helped start the annual exchange more than a decade ago. At first, he arranged meetings between farmers and watermen, then he began leading annual school trips.

"There was kind of an adversarial relationship between the bay and agriculture," he said. "Some said, 'You don't want to go down there with those doggone tree-huggers.' But it's been one of the best things. The kids learn so much being around these guys."

The project also has expanded the islanders' world, said Wes Bradshaw, a retired waterman who works for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. On Saturday, he helped give the students a hands-on crabbing lesson.

He hopes lessons about ecology -- and working together to save the bay -- take root. "It's going to take more than one group or another," Bradshaw said. "We've all got to pull together to make it work."

Some have said that the farmers and watermen are in a better place to understand the work ahead than the 100,000 new residents who move annually into the watershed.

Despite years of work, as much as 40 percent of the bay's deep waters still lacks enough oxygen for crabs and fish on some summer days. But if people understand the bay, they will want to save it, Chesapeake Bay Foundation spokesman John Surrick said. And the best way to understand the bay, he added, "is to touch it. To feel it."

Like the students, who spent their weekend exploring life on the water and in the grass beds -- studying the crabs, the slender pipefish that look like tiny straight seahorses, the oysters, the isopods, the bay anchovies.

"The reason Smith Island has the best crabs in the world are these grass beds," said Allyson Ladley, a Bay Foundation educator, as the students crowded around her on the boat, bobbing in the bay. "Hopefully, it will be a decent year for grasses."

Remember, she said: "Low nitrogen. Higher grass beds."

Students such as Funkhouser already have grasped the lesson. "All farmers need to take precautions. And they have environmental practices that 20 years ago, nobody would have thought of," he said. "In our area, I hear it's better than it used to be."

He and his classmates know the importance of fencing off streams to prevent animals from polluting the water. They monitor the water quality of a stream.

They have won a grant and are planting a buffer of grasses, shrubs and trees to filter the runoff from a large poultry plant.

From that poultry plant, the students brought big ice-chests full of chicken with them to Smith Island's town of Tylerton. They mixed up big buckets of their special Rockingham County barbecue sauce. They stoked a huge fire pit outside the firehouse. And in what has become an annual tradition, they cooked up enough chicken for everyone in town. Some students gathered daffodils and set the tables. The island women brought salads and their famous multilayered Smith Island cakes.

Together, under the trees on windswept Smith Island, they feasted and told stories. A pastor blessed the fleet of workboats. They prayed for a waterman from a nearby island who was lost in a storm two weeks ago. And they prayed for better days on the bay.

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