Cattle farm introduces students to ag
ACCOKEEK, Md. — A fifth-grader in Meuricio Salinas’ class at Capitol Heights Elementary School was a growing problem last year. He fought other students, rose frequently from his seat without permission, paid little attention to teachers and was sent to the principal’s office on a near-daily basis.
Then he came to Hard Bargain Farm on a field trip in the spring.
He milked the farm’s lone dairy cow, played with goats and witnessed the farm’s small herd of black Angus cattle.
“When he came to the farm, we had zero behavior problems,” said Salinas, a Spanish immersion coordinator at the Prince George’s County school. “It was a transformation.”
Stunned by the shift, Salinas took a photo of the child and sent it to the principal, saying, “Look at him now.” He was featured in a school newsletter.
“In the area where I am, a lot of kids don’t leave their environment,” he said. “When they milk a cow, it’s an experience they will never forget.”
That fifth-grader was one of several thousand students who come each year to Hard Bargain Farm, tucked on a hill on a southern bank of the Potomac River in Prince George’s County. The 330-acre farm is part of sizable historic estate, now owned and operated by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1954 to promote environmental sustainability within the Potomac River watershed.
Though the farm is a key feature of the foundation and used to educate visitors, it’s also a functioning cattle operation. It supports 30 grass-fed black Angus cattle, rotationally grazed on a blend of fescue, Bermuda grass, orchard grass, clover and various legumes. It’s a small operation, slaughtering just three to five animals a year for sale to a small group of customers in vacuum-packed quarters.
The farm is run by two people: Farm Manager Justin Beavan, a St. Mary’s County native who graduated from the University of Maryland’s agricultural college in 2015, and Eileen Watts, a 79-year-old assistant manager, who began working at the farm in 1973 after raising four children and a brief career as a microbiologist with the federal government.
It’s a growing operation, Beavan said. When he arrived three years ago, the herd was only 15 head, and he was asked to boost revenue. The herd’s expansion also coincides with an effort by the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission to boost beef and meat production across the region.
“It’s perfect crop for us because if you’re growing corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, you have to have all that equipment,” Watts said.
The farm does not have much in the way of equipment, borrowing whatever it needs to grow hay on remaining farm acreage.
It’s become a demonstration of classic American agriculture for visitors that increasingly have no first-hand experience with it. Through partnerships with local school systems in Washington and Prince George’s County, the National Park Service and other institutions, elementary and middle school students constantly stream through the facility, often in multi-day, overnight or weekend trips, to learn about environmental stewardship and agricultural sustainability.
“Our beef is a very niche product,” said Lori Arguelles, president and CEO of the foundation. “Our biggest product is education.”
For many students, they’re seeing farmland and agriculture for the first time. Salinas said most of his children believe their food comes only from the grocery store.
On tours of the farm, students sitting on a hay wagon are often delighted by watching cows amble over to eat, Watts said. Or urinate. The farm also has a single dairy cow that students can milk.
“I just like them to appreciate the animal. Don’t fear it,” she said. “We get kids that are super shy or super quiet. Or bold ones who think they — the boys mostly. They find their place. With a big animal, they can respect it. They can touch it. I see them imitating the cow, chewing the cud with the crooked chew she does. I just think it’s good to understand.”
The farm is also in a unique position to teach students about environmental sustainability. It’s situated directly across the river from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and it’s just south of Washington itself. At times, it’s a drawback because the farm’s shoreline often catches refuse floating down from the city, Beavan said. Increasingly, it’s plastic items.
“Barrels, cups, bottles,” he said. “You’ll see it when you go down there. It’s terrible. We have multiple cleanups throughout the year.”
In the foundation’s three-day program, where students stay overnight in lodges on the property, they’re taught by foundation educators on issues ranging from the region’s natural water cycle to organism adaptation and survival. They explore local wetlands and a nearby creek. There are wagon rides. There’s a role-playing exercise called, “Who Polluted the Potomac?”
But there’s also a focus on the importance of agriculture and its place in the natural world, Arguelles said.
“The cows are a perfect example,” she said. “There’s a lot of talk these days about how cows are bad for the planet, but that’s overlooking their (contributions). When properly mob grazed, they’re able to contribute to the nutrient cycle in a productive way. But too much over the wrong period of time is a problem. … We forget that we’re carbon-based beings on a carbon-based planet. We tend to focus on excesses of carbon, as we should. But nature has a balance.”
The foundation is named for Alice and Henry Ferguson, who purchased the farm in the early 1920s as a recreational alternative to their home in Washington. Alice, a trained painter and artist born in 1880, developed the farm with her husband, a well-known federal geologist who established the foundation in 1954.
Hard Bargain Farm includes a farmhouse, barnyard and other farm structures. In the 1960s, the lower half of the farm was deeded to the National Park Service to form the central part of Piscataway National Park, which preserves and protects the view from Mount Vernon across the river in Virginia, the foundation said.
Salinas was at the farm last week training with other teachers from across the region on the foundation’s environmental curricula. He’s taken students from his school to the farm for several years and plans to continue doing so.
“I just wish that every kid could have this type of experience, because I think it’s important for them to experience a different kind of environment and learn to interact with nature,” he said. “This opportunity here might change their life. I really mean that.”
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