“Think globally, act locally.” It’s hard to improve on that environmental dictum of uncertain origin. Have broad vision and context, but start solving problems where you live. Don’t wait on the world.
Russ Brinsfield personified this, and his passing this winter at 76 took one of the Chesapeake Bay’s best. This Eastern Shore farm boy spent his life in rural Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; his remarkably impactful career showed how humans can better live sustainably with the rest of nature. Few issues across this planet are more profound.
He worked at the scale of the Chesapeake; of his native Maryland; of Vienna, the local Nanticoke River village where he was mayor; and of the family’s 150-acre farm just north of town, where he was still growing grain when he died from complications of surgery.
Russ was a University of Maryland-trained scientist, an agricultural researcher who joined with Bay ecologists before such blending of “siloed” disciplines became more common. He had the courage of his groundbreaking research, and he would often need it.
Forty years ago, Russ was finishing his ag PhD, borrowing an office at the university’s Horn Point research lab on the Eastern Shore. A generation of bright young ecologists there were pursuing a great mystery: what was killing the Bay’s underwater grasses? He was not part of that project, but when the Bay gurus needed to create a sizeable pond for their experiments, they found farmer Russ was handy with bulldozers.
Agriculture back then feared that environmentalists would lay the blame for chemical water pollution solely at the feet of farmers. The rise of weed-killing chemicals on Bay farms had coincided with the demise of aquatic “weeds” — the Chesapeake’s vital seagrass habitats — which received runoff from millions of acres of farms.
Dr. Brinsfield was soon doing runoff studies at the fledgling University of Maryland Wye Research Institute, which he would direct for 34 years. He and colleague Ken Staver helped to largely exonerate farming’s herbicide use. But acting out of curiosity, without funding, they came to findings even more unsettling to Bay-region agriculture and ultimately worldwide.
Modern farming, they proved, was unexpectedly “leaky” of its fertilizers, nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients (also coming from sewage and dirty air) were washing off fields and killing Bay grasses, as well as creating “dead zones” devoid of oxygen in in the Bay's deeps.
“It was a tense time … the battle lines were drawn,” Staver recalled. “We were telling agriculture what it didn’t want to hear, but the numbers didn’t lie.”
I remember standing near Russ as a Baltimore Sun reporter in 1997. He was about to testify at a charged hearing that would show publicly how Maryland agriculture had failed to control polluting runoff. A superior was warning him: Don’t say anything “embarrassing to agriculture.”
Russ, as always, said what had to be said. But he and Staver were doing more than casting blame. They would develop a pioneering system of sowing winter “cover crops” on farms and ways to incorporate ubiquitous poultry manure into the soil, both measures that can dramatically cut nutrient pollution to the Bay.
And Russ, who was particularly adept at moving science through the political process, would go further still, helping to get millions of dollars annually to help farmers plant cover crops.
For many years I did a favorite field trip with Russ, who lived close enough that I could ferry my Salisbury University students there and back in one class period. We’d start in his barn and talk cover crops and pollution control, and about protecting farmland from development, a subject Russ knew intimately. He inspired a critical study that showed rezoning farmland for less development did not depress property values.
Then we’d swing by his modest home, overlooking the Nanticoke River in little Vienna, where he’d do a second stellar presentation on “smart growth” — revitalizing towns and cities to keep development from sprawling across farms and other open spaces.
As mayor of Vienna, Russ was among the few leaders of small Eastern Shore towns to seize on the state’s smart growth money to redo sewage treatment systems, storm drains, sidewalks, lighting and shorelines. Vienna remains a work in progress, but Russ put his hometown in great physical shape for the 21st century.
He worked quietly, with no need for the limelight, befriending governors from Harry Hughes through Martin O’Malley, delivering tasty desserts to charm former Gov. William Donald Schaefer when he was state comptroller and sat on the powerful Maryland Board of Public Works.
And at the other end of the scale he remained rooted in the soil and culture of the place where he spent his life. Listen to Rob Etgen, who has built the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy into one of the Chesapeake region’s champions of open space protection: “Russ co-founded [the conservancy] and spent countless hours riding with me to evening Farm Bureau meetings … using his personal credibility to get me audiences with leaders of a skeptical farmer crowd.”
Russ was also one of the founders of the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, designed to bridge the gap between agriculture and environment. He served as its director for 16 years.
Struggling in recent years with Parkinson’s disease, Russ would still meet with my Chesapeake Bay students, only asking of me “help me out now if I miss a beat.”
He exemplified the very best of science, thinking globally, acting locally, with the skill and courage to translate research into action.
I guess I can still run that field trip, but it won’t be the same.
Tom Horton has written about the Chesapeake Bay for almost 50 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.