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From the Adirondacks to the Amazon and Al Gore's farm

October 14, 2019
by Angela Valden

It was the morning of July 25 and the headline in USA Today read “Earth’s hottest month on record? July 2019 is being called a climate change beacon.”

On Caney Fork Farms in Carthage, Tennessee, Skidmore students Zoe Pagliaro ’20 and Shay Kolodney ’21 were in the home stretch of their two-week residency as the first two college students ever to conduct scientific research on the family farm of former Vice President Al Gore.

The pioneering environmental sciences majors were invited to analyze soil carbon on the farm, which is dedicated to sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, soil recarbonization, research and conservation. Their task was to collect and document soil samples at 360 points, a painstaking job with the goal of making environmentally friendly agricultural practices the new normal.

In October, the project took Pagliaro and Kristofer Covey, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies and sciences at Skidmore, back to the farm for an exclusive climate summit hosted by Gore and attended by leading scientists, agriculture experts, business leaders, philanthropists and chefs. Covey presented as part of a panel on the potentially groundbreaking soil research, and Pagliaro enjoyed the opportunity to interact with big influencers in the field.

As an undergraduate, I had no idea that I’d ever be working on something like this. It’s a really big deal.”
Zoe Pagliaro '20

Pagliaro and Kolodney began their summer research on Dome Island, a protected sanctuary in the middle of Lake George, then moved to two farms not far from Skidmore’s campus — Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle and Pitney Meadows Community Farm in Saratoga Springs — before taking them to Caney Fork Farms in Middle Tennessee.

Caney Fork Farms research

Zoe Pagliaro ’20, right, bags a soil sample as Shay Kolodney ’21 drills at one of the 360 points they tested at Caney Fork Farms. The data they collected will assist with the development of a quick carbon app and lay the groundwork for other research aimed at revolutionizing environmentally responsible agricultural practices.

Working with Covey, the students collected the data for development of a quick carbon app at Yale University. The goal is to incentivize sustainable farming practices by making it easier to calculate the carbon sequestered in soil.

According to a United Nations climate report released in early August, human-caused climate change is dramatically degrading the Earth’s land, and the way people use the land is making global warming worse, creating a vicious cycle that is already making food more expensive, scarcer and less nutritious.

Experimenting with regenerative farming techniques that take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the soil where it belongs is “a gateway towards a more vibrant and healthy food system and really rebuilding the soils in this country,” said Caney Fork Farms Manager Zach Wolf.

Pagliaro and Kolodney know the stakes are high, but believe the interdisciplinary nature of the Environmental Studies and Sciences Program at Skidmore may offer solutions for the future. The two frequently engage in thoughtful discussions about personal choices, policy, philosophy and the psychology involved in affecting change.

“Until everyone has equity, we can't really solve anything, because it's a very systematic issue,” said Kolodney, who is studying abroad in Bhutan this semester. “All environmental issues are also human issues.”

“We always talk about our individual action, which I think is very important, but we still have to think about policy and the bigger picture,” added Pagliaro, who also traveled to the Amazon rainforest with Covey in July as part of a National Geographic project.

“It’s one thing to have ideas in the classroom, but it’s another to have contact with professionals who are out there working to solve the problems that you want to have an impact on,” said Covey. “Watching the students interact together, grow into this together and to take on independence and the research has been really exciting.”

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