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Campus growing at county Ag Center

January 11, 1998

Campus growing at county Ag Center

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

In the rolling fields between Sharpsburg and Hagerstown, an agricultural village is taking shape.

The Washington County Agricultural Education Center, initially a few buildings and parking lots when it opened in 1995, is starting to deliver on its early promise as a full-fledged, year-round campus buzzing with children and adults learning about the importance of farming and experiencing it first-hand.

The Washington County Rural Heritage Museum and offices for agricultural agencies, including the Cooperative Extension Service, will be built this year, along with more parking and a new picnic pavilion equipped with showers.

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John Staub, president of the ag center board, said the center hopes to attract tourists on their way to Antietam National Battlefield after the museum opens.

"It's something that has been needed in the area ever since the Hagerstown Fairgrounds became unavailable to the agriculture community," said Staub, who's been involved with the project for 15 years.

"Now we have a place where we can show off our efforts," he said.

The new office complex should also save the county money, Staub said. The county now spends about $150,000 a year on rent at the Maryland Avenue extension office, he said.

The county will be able to put that money into the new building and eventually save money.

The 54-acre center is a part of the county parks system. County workers take care of the maintenance.

More than $200,000 has been raised to match a state matching grant of up to $350,000 for the museum.

"Little by little, we'll get there," said Pete Callas, a former state delegate and chairman of the museum committee.

Callas said the complex should also include a distance learning center, enabling agriculture and other classes to be televised via satellite from the University of Maryland, which has a neighboring research farm which used to include the center's property.

Other projects planned include a rifle range, petting zoo, additional barns, a sawmill and a riding trail.

Callas said he's also trying to acquire some bleachers from Baltimore's Memorial Stadium for the center.

"If we don't do something to preserve the rich rural heritage of our county, nobody's going to do it," he said.

Plans are in the works for an agricultural day camp this summer, and other programs are being considered for youth and adults, covering subjects from the environment to nutrition.

County Extension Agent Donald Schwartz said the programs will dovetail with the curriculum that teachers are trying to get across.

"Nothing impacts a kid more when you are talking about biology than going out and getting your hands dirty," he said.

In the longer term, a Heritage Village is being considered. It could include a living history with a working farmstead.

"It means a whole lot more than just reading words in a book," Schwartz said.

Most of the money for the center has come from Program Open Space money, which is paid for by the state real estate transfer tax, and private donations.

Ag Center Coordinator Lori Taylor said the center will rely on donations and POS money for future construction projects.

County Commissioner John S. Shank, a farmer and developer, has been a strong supporter of having a center for more than 20 years.

"It's going to be unbelievable what we can do to promote agriculture and educate the general public," Shank said.

"People don't realize that agriculture is the largest business in the county."

Shank said a lot of farmers have historic farming artifacts that they plan to donate to the museum. "We're planning on having it stocked," he said.

"There's no end to what we can do there," Shank said. "We can go as far as your imagination wants to take you."

Shank stressed the center was available to all, not just people involved in agriculture. Groups as diverse as the Boy Scouts, Many Individuals Helping Individuals (MiHi) and the Future Farmers of America have volunteered their efforts and used the center. The center has also been rented out to companies and groups for picnics and other functions.

Shank said the reason why the project has gained momentum is the support the center has received from state legislators, the County Commissioners, farmers and community leaders who have donated time, supplies and money.

"Everybody is working together, and when that happens, things get done," Shank said.

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