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UVM Student Reflects on VT Earth Team Experience

Why I Joined NRCS’ Earth Team and What I Learned

By Jesse Baum, University of Vermont, Burlington

Last year I took a class titled “Climate Change: Science and Perception.”  I enrolled chiefly because it would count towards my major (ecology) without including a weekly five-hour field lab. During my college career, I had taken both fantastic classes (“Environmental Journalism” and “The Literary Vampire” were among the highlights) and some truly dull classes (“Social Policy and the Environment” was a surprising dud). So, I kept my expectations neutral.

But, that proved unnecessary.

The class took an incredibly detailed look at the physics behind climate change and the public perception and media coverage of climate change—two things I had never examined in-depth. While the science was challenging, yet fascinating, the “perception” half of the class was borderline disturbing. Our professor showed us, in clip after clip, climate scientists (usually soft-spoken, rumpled-looking and wary of using the word ‘significant’) eviscerated in debates against professional speakers who always knew to speak into their Earth Team Volunteer in Vermontmics.  It was a complete mess of a public relations battle.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I was very happy to accept a position as communication intern through the Earth Team Program at the USDA-NRCS in Vermont. I wanted to be the “cheerleader” (as my supervisor, NRCS Public Information Coordinator Amy Overstreet, described it) for progressive environmental action. I wanted to be able to write and work on design that might help protect and improve Vermont’s landscape. If part of the problem was the feeling that environmentalism has to be negative, that working towards sustainability is too arduous or simply unattainable, I wanted to help change that.

Upon my first meeting with Amy, I was given a folder stuffed with about fifty different flyers, pamphlets, a calendar, a packet of seeds and a “Sammy Soil” coloring book, just to “get an idea of what the organization does”, which was far more expansive than I had realized. NRCS supports a myriad of sustainable farming initiatives, partners with a seemingly endless list of non-profits, universities, government agencies and other organizations, and is constantly adding new innovative programs and initiatives. Even my supervisor covered a bewildering amount of ground—staffing a table about conservation tillage at an organic farming conference, making videos to help refugee farming communities, and even working with the UN on soil policies during last year’s International Year of Soil.

During my role as an Earth Team Volunteer this semester, I designed a template for the NRCS annual report, tweeted @VermontNRCS (you know that Vermont makes over 40% of American maple syrup? #MapleSyrup #Vermont” #conservation), wrote a press release to promote a video about NRCS’ wetland restoration work, looked up conservation current events for Amy to include in the weekly internal newsletter, and designed a flyer to encourage more UVM students to volunteer with the NRCS.  It has been really fun and challenging. I asked myself--in a student union, festooned with flyers, how can you make an Earth Team flyer stand out? How can you make wetland restoration sexy? (It already is, but more people need to know about it). These sorts of challenges push me to think about what facets of conservation connect with people. My Earth Team experience has not only given me an amazing opportunity to promote conservation, but it has really improved my “visual communication” skills as well.

The more I learned about NRCS, the more I grew to admire their mission. The organization is non-regulatory, which allows them to build relationships with landowners in a very positive way. They integrate diverse ecological practices into their outreach work, yet are also very committed to the communities that they work with. The way that the organization connects with people allows their work to be truly effective, and I only want more people to hear about NRCS and what they are accomplishing.

No doubt that means that I have more work to do. Thanks to the Earth Team for giving me the opportunity to let people know that conservation on private lands is making a difference.