Published on 06/07/12

4-H20: Saving water for the future

By Donn H Cooper

Camilla, Ga. — Dozens of 4-H students playing under a center pivot irrigation system may look like a fun way to cool off in the south Georgia heat. But it’s also a careful lesson in water conservation.

4-H agents used the irrigation system to teach children in grades 5 to 8 about the importance of water and water conservation.

On June 6, 4-H students from Mitchell, Baker, Colquitt, Decatur, Seminole and Randoph counties descended upon the University of Georgia’s Stripling Irrigation Research Park to take part in the fifth annual 4-H20 camp.

Following a day at the Flint RiverQuarium in Albany, 4-H students came to Stripling, just outside of Camilla, Ga., to learn about the sources of water and its agricultural use in southwest Georgia.

4-H leaders — as well as representatives from Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, the Southern Georgia Regional Commission and WALB television — presented sessions on topics ranging from run-off pollution to the region’s complex soil and aquifer system.

Melanie Biersmith, the Georgia 4-H Environmental Education coordinator, said the camp painted a holistic picture of people’s relationship to water.

“I find that youth sometimes only have one connection to water,” Biersmith said. “When we can show them all the ways that water touches our lives, they really start to appreciate it, and then we can get a conservation message in, too.”

Five years ago, Mitchell County 4-H started the camp out of a concern for water conservation during an acute regional drought.

At the time, “water was just the buzzword,” said Jennifer Grogan, a 4-H agent with Mitchell County Cooperative Extension.

Much of the educational focus in the local schools was on water conservation. After delivering educational information about water to students during the school year, Mitchell County 4-H wanted to create a summer event that would expand upon that knowledge.

Grogan said the need to create an educational program centered on water use in agriculture was obvious.

It allowed for all UGA Cooperative Extension program areas — agriculture and natural resources, 4-H youth development, and family and consumer sciences — to collaborate.

Agricultural water use was a clear issue in Mitchell County, which ranks sixth in the state of Georgia in overall farm gate value and second in total row crop and forage value, according to the 2010 Farm Gate Value Report.

“We have all the irrigation here in the county, and we wanted people to understand that farmers were not abusing the water,” Grogan said.

Mitchell County children needed a fuller understanding of water’s importance to agriculture and the ways agriculture was working to conserve the precious resource, Grogan said.

Stripling Irrigation Research Park was the natural location.

On more than 130 acres donated by C.M. Stripling, UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences researchers develop and test cutting-edge technology in agricultural water conservation at the park. At Stripling students saw firsthand crops growing in the field, as well as different types of irrigation in action.

After the success of 4-H20’s first year, 4-H programs from surrounding counties wanted to participate. Other members of the 4-H Southwest District were able to take part thanks to generous donations by the Stripling family.

As the number of children involved increases, space is also becoming increasingly limited. Once again the Striplings have reached out to make sure the program continues to grow.

The Stripling family has “always been so supportive of 4-H and anything to do with agriculture,” said Grogan.

One would think that hosting so many kids where complex research trials are occurring would be something of a nightmare. But Stripling Superintendent Calvin Perry says he never has any concerns when 4-H is involved.

“4-H knows how to do anything,” Perry said. “The whole program is top-notch. You can count on the kids to be well-behaved because the parents, volunteers and leaders involved are so great.”

After visiting Stripling, the 4-H20 camp concluded with a stop on the Chattahoochee River and Water World water park in Dothan, Ala.

Donn Cooper is a former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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