Planting Seeds for Tomorrow
Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation nurtures appreciation for an industry rich with history
Writer: Megan Johnson | Spring-Summer 2022
Susanne Zilberfarb sits in a Leonardtown coffee shop on a cold evening. Tipping the lid of her drink to release some steam, she shares a little about the time she spent growing up on a St. Mary’s County farm with parents John and Ann Richards.
“Agriculture is problem-solving — it’s planning ahead,” says Susanne, who now operates a cut flower farm with her family. “In the dead of winter, it’s a beautiful thing to plant seeds: checking on them, seeing them finally begin to sprout. It’s no wonder so many people connect with it — working with their hands. Farming is a hopeful thing.”
One that, as executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation, Susanne continues to nurture.
“Maryland farming” once brought to mind images of tobacco barns. Today, state agriculture is exceedingly diverse, featuring not just crops such as soybeans and corn but also dairy and livestock, poultry, honey, horticulture, wineries and vineyards.
It’s the state’s largest commercial industry, employing 6,000 full-time farmers and contributing $8.25 billion annually to the state economy, according to the Maryland State Archives.
MAEF, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989, is focused on increasing agricultural literacy and education. It offers hands-on learning opportunities to Maryland students, professional development courses and grants for educators, and much more. Financial support comes primarily through the “Ag Tag” proceeds from residents who opt for and renew the iconic red-and-orange farmland license plates for their vehicles.
“We want people to be more aware of what agriculture provides in their day-to-day lives,” Susanne shares. “Whether it’s food, animal feed, the fibers that make up your clothes, fuel for your cars … we greatly depend on farming and natural resources.”
Making that connection starts early.
MAEF has four mobile classrooms bringing science directly to students — more than 38,000 children in the 2019-20 fiscal year, for example. Content is tailored by age group, with teachers and volunteers offering lessons on everything from creating soy-based lip balms to extracting DNA from fruit.
“It’s very hands-on, with many cool things that [students] might not normally have the chance to explore,” Susanne says.
MAEF’s mobile labs are just part of the organization’s work.
The nonprofit maintains robust resources for educators, including professional development courses focused on infusing agriculture in the classroom. Before enrolling in an eight-week session, “some teachers have never been on a working farm,” she says. “We want to get them out there to really experience it themselves.”
The program often helps “reignite the spark” for educators.
“It’s an amazing way to bring the real world into the classroom and have concepts click for students,” Susanne says. “We have lesson plans and activities to help support whatever concept you might be wanting to teach.”
The organization’s Amazing! Maryland Agriculture Showcases travel to fairs and festivals, offering an “immersive experience” for attendees. The showcase will be featured locally at the St. Mary’s County Fair, which celebrates its 75th anniversary in September.
“There are so many careers in agriculture — so much opportunity,” says Susanne, speaking of the nonprofit’s partnership with Maryland FFA, the oldest of the five Career and Technology Student Organizations operated within Maryland public schools. “It’s really rewarding to work with students and help them develop soft skills and gain confidence [through FFA].”
With more than 2 million acres dedicated to farms and forests, Marylanders take their roles as stewards of the land seriously. Approximately 96% of farms are family owned, so it’s not just business — it’s home.
“People feel a connection to the earth. No matter who you are, there is pride in being able to see something grow,” Susanne says. “We want people to be able to experience that joy. That joy is for everyone.” •