Tasting Laurel series presents update on Beltsville Agricultural Research Center

The Laurel Historical Society continued its Tasting Laurel series on Oct. 11 with a presentation on the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and the history of agriculture in Laurel and the surrounding Prince George's County.

The discussion was presented by environmental issues consultant John Peter Thompson, who guided attendees through a history of the National Agricultural Farm, which has many roots in Prince George's County, to the current state of BARC, which is located a little south of Laurel.


The presentation at the Laurel Library touched on important American figures who were actively involved in establishing historic agricultural sites in Prince George's County and building the beginnings of what is now the Department of Agriculture.

President Abraham Lincoln, for example, helped establish the National Agricultural Library, which is considered one of the largest agricultural research libraries in the world, in Beltsville, according to Thompson.


Thompson, whose philosophy is influenced President James Madison, grew up growing all sorts of plants and focuses his research on advocating for environmental sustainability.

"(It's) the ability, as Madison said, to take as much from the land by giving back the same amount," Thompson said. "(So), I instinctively look for local and homegrown as my default."

According to Thompson, there are many areas in Maryland that are used for organic farming. In Prince George's County, there are some farms near Greenbelt, he said.

Thompson and his wife frequently use local organic and free-range food products in their own home, and sometimes go beyond the traditional perception of what it means to support these products. He said that a lot of products that are generally believed to be natural, such as corn,are actually hybrids of native plant species.

"I wouldn't call myself a radical organic person," said Thompson. "But I recognize that in some conditions, in some places, in some times — with a lot of control — that perhaps there are sustainable alternatives that do not fit the technical definition of organic."

Thompson, who considers himself a natural philosopher, also discussed how BARC facilities have been losing their backing on the local, state and federal level.

Over the last 25 to 30 years, Thompson said that the research facilities have lost 250 world-class scientists to other states' research centers and that 40 percent of the buildings are now vacant.

"It's forgotten. It has been for probably 25 years because the city (Beltsville) doesn't know what it has," he said. "It doesn't put political pressure on its local politicians, its state politicians or its federal politicians, and so there is nobody actively saying we should support it."


The Beltsville Agriculture Researching Center is the world's largest diversified agricultural research complex, according to its website. Its work includes studying animal and natural resources, human nutritionand plant sciences.

"Wherever I go in the world, if the farmers do not know where Maryland is ... they all know where Beltsville is, because Beltsville feeds the world," Thompson said.

Tasting Laurel

This was the second event in the Tasting Laurel series, sponsored in part by the Maryland Humanities Council, Main Street Pharmacy and the Laurel Historical Society. Tasting Laurel is celebrating its fifth year and its first year as an expanded series with multiple events, according to Laurel Historical Society Executive Director Lindsey Baker.

Earlier events included a tour of Gorman Farm in North Laurel, which is Laurel's only Community Supported Agriculture group.

The theme of the series this year was food and how it affects the community and our lives, Baker said, adding that since many Laurel residents work at BARC, they thought Thompson's presentation would tie in nicely.


The Tasting Laurel series will conclude with the fifth annual Taste of Laurel Nov. 4 and a potluck Nov. 8, where community members can continue the conversation about how food affects their lives.

"We hope that we will allow community members to come together over something we all have in common," Baker said. "A love for food."

For more information on the Taste of Laurel series, go to

Sydney Paul is a University of Maryland graduate student.