For AFF, Water Quality is About Finding the Canaries in the Coal Mine

Our 2021 Ecoprint calendar, Protecting the Natural Beauty of the Chesapeake Bay, has given us the opportunity to work with 13 different organizations, all dedicated to helping solve the environmental challenges in this important ecological hub. July features the Alice Ferguson Foundation (AFF), an organization that brings agriculture, science and environmental sciences to life for students, teachers, communities and government agencies.

Over the past 65 years, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has connected more than half a million students to the natural world and trained over 1,000 teachers in environmental curricula, all with the aim of promoting environmental sustainability along the Potomac River watershed. Their education programs include virtual options to supplement in-classroom learning, outreach programs with the National Park Service, overnight field studies, interactive workshops, week-long environmental camps, and much more.   

One of the Foundation’s programs focuses on biological monitoring to determine the health of the waterways around Hard Bargain Farm.

Teaching Students to Collect Benthic Macroinvertebrates for Research

Macroinvertebrates are living organisms that do not possess a vertebral column (backbone). They include small aquatic animals and the aquatic larval stages of insects, like dragonfly and stonefly larvae, snails, worms, and beetles. Unlike many other invertebrates, you can see them without using a microscope.

Through AFF’s Bridging the Watershed program, students collect and identify macroinvertebrates from the local waterways and use them for research purposes. Because macroinvertebrates have different levels of pollution tolerance, they are helpful water quality indicators. Based on the types of macroinvertebrates they collect, the students can determine the quality of the water. If the water quality decreases, the types of organisms will change, so macroinvertebrates serve as an early warning sign of pollution. Once the study is complete, students present their research and develop a plan to protect the environment.

Freshwater macroinvertebrates form the primary lifeline of any aqua food chain. Despite the role these organisms play in stabilizing the food chain, they often receive little to no attention. As a result of the research done through the Alice Ferguson Foundation, there’s a renewed focus on conservation efforts that protect all organisms along the watershed. One such program is AFF’s Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, which focuses on preventing litter and cleaning up trash in our waterways, keeping them safe for macroinvertebrates and other aquatic animals. As one of the largest regional cleanup events on the east coast, AFF’s Trash Free program picks up more than 300,000 pounds of trash throughout the DC area each year.

The Alice Ferguson Foundation works to preserve the woodlands, wetlands and waterways of the Potomac River watershed through education, stewardship and advocacy. Their efforts have opened the minds and possibilities for thousands of students, many from underserved schools and communities. By cultivating an awareness of and appreciation for natural resources and the environment, the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s efforts will live far beyond the length of a single program.


Bobby Firestein

Alice Ferguson Foundation


Alice Ferguson Foundation’s story traces back to 1922 when Henry Ferguson and his wife Alice bought a 330-acre plot of land along the banks of the Potomac River known as Hard Bargain Farm.

During her time in the country, Alice, a trained artist, produced several impressive works of art. Mrs. Ferguson also designed and built the farmhouse that still stands today, oversaw the farm operations, created a formal garden, and studied archaeology so she could explore the Native American dig sites on the property.

After Alice passed away in 1951, her husband wanted to do something to commemorate his wife’s contributions to Hard Bargain Farm. He chartered the non-profit Alice Ferguson Foundation in 1954 in her memory.


The Alice Ferguson Foundation’s mission is to connect people to the natural world, sustainable agricultural practices, and the cultural heritage of their local watershed through education, stewardship, and advocacy.