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Alumnus to Address Academic Conference

 Alumnus to Address Academic Conference

04/25/2014 

Long before University at Albany Professor Gary S. Kleppel ’73 became an expert in sustainable agriculture and began running a small, organic farm in Upstate New York, he was a kid from Monsey, Rockland County majoring in biology at SUNY Cortland.

There weren’t many farms where he came from.

“I remember driving up to Cortland and seeing the cows on the hillsides and that whole landscape looked just so comfortable and peaceful,” said Kleppel, a professor of biological sciences and the director of the biodiversity, conservation and policy program at the University at Albany. “I was drawn to that, but I didn’t do anything about it for years and years.”

Kleppel will serve as the keynote speaker at “Transformations,” SUNY Cortland’s annual celebration of student research and creative work, on Friday, April 25. His talk, which takes place at 12:30 p.m. in Sperry Center, Room 105, will use personal lessons from his sustainable farm to discuss the importance of a taking multidisciplinary approach to answering 21st century environmental challenges.

Kleppel knows a thing or two about pulling expertise from different specialties. Before he was a farmer with a Ph.D. in marine biology, Kleppel was a respected oceanographer who had risen to national prominence studying suburban sprawl. In 1994, for instance, he was tabbed to lead a land-use study for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which sought to understand how suburban development in the Southeast would affect the region’s coastal ecosystems.

Kleppel
Gary S. Kleppel ’73 and his wife Pam ’74
manage Longfield Farm, located near
Albany, N.Y. (Photo credit: Mark Schmidt,
UAlbany Media and Marketing. Top left
photo credit: Kelsey Keane)

It gave Kleppel an opportunity to pair his training in marine science with an interest in land use. That fascination with land use stayed with him when he moved back to the Northeast in the 1990s.

“I realized that when I moved up here, there was no coast but I was still interested in the process and the academic side of urban and suburban sprawl — understanding it from an academic perspective,” Kleppel said.

Sprawl takes place on rural landscapes too, he soon realized.

“And rural landscapes are the places where farmers do their business,” he said. “I saw that if I was going to (conduct research), I was going to need to know something about farming.”

He had approximately 15 acres and a dream, so he approached his wife Pam, a 1974 SUNY Cortland graduate, with an idea.

“I said to my wife, ‘Why don’t we just buy some sheep and see if we can keep them alive for a winter?’” Kleppel said.

He studied the trade and pursued internships, quizzing other local farmers with every opportunity. For more than a decade, the Kleppels have successfully operated Longfield Farm in the town of Knox, near Altamont, N.Y. Their small family farm produces grass-fed lamb, artisan breads, wool and free-range poultry and eggs.

Throughout the entire farming adventure, Kleppel has continued his day job as a scientist and college professor. But don’t mistake the farm for a hobby. It’s a major time commitment — some days he wakes up around 2 a.m. — that follows a strict business model. Perhaps more importantly, the farm is a teaching tool with lessons for both the professor and his students.

“As I became more involved in agriculture, I started seeing my science in a different way,” Kleppel said. “When you’re an ecologist and you look at the landscape, you see it as an objective observer; a farmer is anything but an objective observer.”

The farmer instead is a stakeholder. In a previous life, the pure scientist in Kleppel might have seen an invasive species as a beautiful predator. Kleppel, the farmer, now sees the same predator eating his profits.

Kleppel
Kleppel works on the farm with University
at Albany student Erin LaBarge (Photo
credit: Mark Schmidt, UAlbany Media and
Marketing)

Since he’s worked on the farm, Kleppel said his perspective on science has changed. And the major point that he often makes to his own students is the one that he’ll bring to his “Transformations” talk.

“To solve 21st century problems, we’ll be a lot better off if we learn to work across disciplines, which is very difficult,” Kleppel said. “It’s necessary for the next generation of scientists not only to understand science but also to cross over into other disciplines and be able to interact.”

He offered the many examples that have come out of sustainability discussions, such as climate change. To truly understand climate change, a scholar needs to grasp subjects such as climate science, oceanography, political science and sociology, Kleppel suggested.

“Basically, the message is that problems today — crucial issues today — are problems that can’t be solved by the work within a single discipline,” he said. “They’re going to take multiple disciplines.”

In scanning the abstracts of the student research projects that will be presented at “Transformations,” Kleppel said he was impressed with the breadth of disciplines represented.

“When I was a student at SUNY Cortland, I never really thought about interdisciplinary science,” he said. “But I often wonder to what extent I was being trained to think across disciplines even then.”

Around the same time he would take in the views of the countryside on drives from Long Island to Cortland, he worked in an animal learning lab with Professor Emeritus David Berger.

Although Kleppel’s major was biology, he eagerly worked for four years in the psychology-focused lab.

“Even back then, I guess the seeds of interdisciplinary science were being sown in my way of thinking about research,” he said. “I think that’s always stuck and that it’s going to be increasingly crucial.”