Today's Youth

Girl With an App

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Using a test tube of water, high school senior Hannah Thomas checks the family cattle farm's water quality by color and tracks results with a tablet. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

Hannah Thomas is proof that a middle school field trip can change a life. When she was in seventh grade (now she is a high school senior), her Alexandria, Virginia, class visited nearby Chesapeake Bay. Hannah fell in love with its beauty and its role in the ecosystem.

About this same time, she saw her father, Joe, working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on water-quality projects on the family's cattle farm, just north of Washington, D.C. She realized her love of the Chesapeake and that of the farm were intertwined.

Says her father: "There are many environmental challenges in the area we operate. The one that overshadows all of them is the responsibility to keep the Chesapeake Bay clean."

To that end, Joe has constructed grass waterways and water-retention ponds, installed wells for cattle waterers and built fences to keep cows out of streams. Some of these projects benefitted from cost-share agreements with the NRCS.

Hannah saw all this with a teenager's penchant for asking questions. She wanted to know if all her father's efforts were having an effect. "I kept asking my dad, 'How do we know that our conservation projects are working if we are not measuring and tracking specific data for the quality of the water on our farm?' I was curious. I wanted to see what the results [of the projects] would be."

That curiosity -- and her digital savvy -- led Hannah to write a mobile app that can help the family keep track of its water-quality progress. With luck, that app one day will help other families do the same, Hannah says: "We have realized how effective the cost-share program can be for our farm. I wanted to create a system that would allow other people to more easily test the effectiveness of water-quality projects, too, and see the results in a way they could understand."

HISTORY

The Thomas family has farmed the same land in Loudoun County, Virginia, for more than 230 years. Its 800 acres hug the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains and are watered by springs and streams that eventually flow into the Chesapeake. In all those years, the Thomases have cared for the land as something precious.

As evidence of that, the current generation of owners -- including Joe, his brother Owen and their father, Owen -- has placed a conservation easement on 400 acres of Glenowen Farm to ensure it will never be developed for other uses. They also were 2012 regional Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP) winners.

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Glenowen's registered Angus herd dates to 1947 and is designated as a Historic Angus Herd by the American Angus Association. The farm's 150 registered and commercial cows, and 10 registered Angus bulls produce offspring for sale as herd starters, bred heifers and bulls.

The cattle are raised on 500 acres of pasture ground where the herd grazes orchardgrass, clover and fescue. Glenowen utilizes a rotational-grazing program made possible by the recent fencing and water-conservations projects.

Some animals go as weaned calves to feeder-calf markets. Glenowen recently started raising steers for freezer beef with an "All Natural, Local Angus Beef" label. The steers are finished on corn and barley grown on about 75 acres. To reduce runoff, Glenowen uses nutrient-management and crop-rotation plans on the cropland.

As part of the next generation of Thomases to own the land (he has two younger brothers, Will and Sam), Hannah has a stake in its future. "I feel good because I'm a part of something that is much bigger than myself. Glenowen Farm has been a central aspect of my family for over two centuries. I am excited to build on that legacy and hope that I leave the farm better than I found it," she says.

THE APP

Hannah is one of those supersmart kids who possesses poise beyond her years. How many high school seniors do you know whose daily conversation contains phrases like, "most notably" or who always uses "Natural Resources Conservation Service" rather than "NRCS?"

In 2015, Hannah attended a Samsung Academy app workshop at the University of Maryland. She quickly learned enough about writing code to create an app to measure the effectiveness of water-quality projects.

She started with a $30 water field test kit available online or at farm supply stores. It's pretty simple: Fill a vial with water to be tested, add a chemical reagent and watch for changes in color. Compare those colors to colors on a card that indicate contaminant levels. The kit is not as accurate as laboratory equipment, but, "It was really easy, and I was able to do it myself in a short amount of time," Hannah says.

With the kit, she can check turbidity, dissolved oxygen levels, nitrates, phosphates, pH, bacteria and temperature. The resulting numbers by themselves don't mean much. "Water quality is such a complex concept," Hannah says. "I wanted to combine all the parts into one score that is easy to track."

CREDIT SCORE

That's why her app creates a composite number that gives the user a rough idea of the water quality in each sample. Think of it as a kind of credit score that works on a 100-point scale. "Anyone can understand the difference between, say, 70 and 90," Hannah says.

Over time, a user can track progress based on the scores the app generates and can index the relative scores for each water-quality attribute inside the app. Included with the app are instructional videos on sampling procedures.

To test her idea, Hannah sampled water in four places on the farm. She started with a well and a spring high up the slopes, where woods and pasture meet. That served as kind of purity benchmark. She then checked a pond lower on the hills and a stream as it leaves the property. Finally, she sampled water in a pond in the bottoms that wasn't connected to the stream or the springs.

Hannah plugged the results into her app and, now, can periodically check readings to study the progress of the farm's water-quality projects. The app is a tool that could have widespread application, she says: "Mobile technology can change communities."

By communities, she means people involved in agriculture: "Farmers have the most to gain or lose from environment quality, since every day we drink the water on the farm and feed our family crops and livestock grown on the land."

Hannah is exploring the idea of commercializing the app and, this summer, presented the project to some interested parties in both the livestock industry and the EPA.

Whether use of her app eventually spreads, Hannah is proud of her effort. "This is the kind of project I have been thinking of since then [the seventh grade field trip to the Chesapeake]."

(VM/AG)

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Jim Patrico