By Stephen Smoot
Sam Urban, from the West Virginia Conservation Agency, has a dirty job.
And he travels around the state spreading a little of that everywhere he goes, often to the delight of kids, parents, teachers, and others. Last Saturday, he brought the WVCA’s soil tunnel education trailer to the Farmer’s Market in Franklin to help educate on the importance of soil health.
Although one of the jobs of the WVCA lies in “managing and maintaining flood control dams across the state,” the core of its mission lies in teaching the concept that soil is a precious resource that can be lost through lack of care.
When the back of the trailer opens, it reveals a mock up of what lies beneath the feet of farmers and their families. Urban explains that the point lies in showing “what it looks like to go underground.”
The soil tunnel trailer emerged from the research and work of Aimee Figgatt with the WVCA. She spent years painstakingly carving models of plant and animal life that rely on the soil for sustenance and, sometimes, also helps to return nutrients to the ground.
Carvings reflect both the sight and texture of what a person could expect to experience if they walked into this underground world. Figgatt also placed explanations of each item to explain not only what they are, but also their role in preserving the soil.
While the display covers mostly “soil health,” it also educates on pollutants, water quality, and the soil ecosystem as a whole, especially the interconnected nature of the activities of plants, animals, and human beings.
The soil tunnel trailer frequents the Potomac Highlands region, stopping recently at the Mineral County STEM festival and the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind in Romney.
Urban shared that different students experience the trailer in different ways. Middle school students get excited about the visuals of creepy crawly worms, the feeling of “roots” that hang from the ceiling and brush the heads of taller individuals. He explained that the students at the Schools for the Deaf and Blind, which also include children with profound learning and physical disabilities, enjoy the tactile sensations from the precisely carved exhibits.
The main purpose behind the trailer lies in playing a part in keeping West Virginia’s agriculture economy robust through protecting the two resources that farmers cannot do without, fertile soil and clean water. Urban said that it helps to “keep it sustainable, keep the water clean, and keep the soil clean.”
Another aspect of the trailer’s mission east of “the mountain” lies in promoting stream health in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Unlike every other state in the federally defined Chesapeake Bay Region, West Virginia focused on incentives and education to sell farmers on adopting best practices, rather than the punitive laws promoted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and adopted by other region states.
Now, through programs like the soil tunnel and help from non-profits like Trout Unlimited, West Virginia year after year meets or exceeds Chesapeake Bay mandates and guidelines for stream health and pollution reduction.
“It’s a win – win when we implement these programs,” Urban said.