AGNR Celebrates Women's History Month: Trish Steinhilber

25 Years of Water Quality and Soil Fertility Leadership Driven by Scientific Rigor

March 25, 2021 Graham Binder

The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) is steeped in rich history, dating back to 1856 when the University of Maryland (UMD) was founded as the Maryland Agricultural College. Pursuits associated with farming and agriculture are often perceived as male dominant, but over 150 years since its inception, the college proudly maintains a decidedly different balance in its workforce and student body. Women comprise 75% of the population within AGNR including students, faculty, and staff.

This month, the college pays tribute to the historical contributions of four of our retired women faculty and staff who have helped make our college what it is today. Some are still contributing at a very high level, even well into their retirement. Each leader has left behind a significant legacy, helping to embed foundational programs and ideas into the fabric of AGNR. They also served as outstanding mentors and ambassadors for the college, with a commitment to enhance the lives and livelihoods of those around them.

Trish Steinhilber 

Retired Coordinator of UME’s Agricultural Nutrient Management Program

25 Years of Water Quality and Soil Fertility Leadership Driven by Scientific Rigor

Patricia M. Steinhilber, better known to her friends and colleagues as “Trish”, recently retired as coordinator of UMD Extension’s (UME) Agricultural Nutrient Management Program (ANMP), a somewhat under-the-radar but tremendously influential operation that arguably experienced one of the most dynamic transitions in AGNR history. Beginning her tenure in 1993 and strapping in for a whirlwind 25 years before retirement in 2018, Steinhilber looks back on her professional journey as one occasionally wrought with conflict and periods of intense change, but also with immense pride in her accomplishments and hope for the future. 

To best understand Steinhilber’s role as ANMP coordinator, picture an operational network that stretches across the entire state of Maryland, broken into two distinct arms with a singular focus on reducing pollution of the Chesapeake Bay caused by nutrients from cropland. These nutrients most often come in the form of either a chemical fertilizer or animal manure, both of which if not properly controlled can damage soil health and water quality. One arm assists farmers, helping them develop county-specific management plans to strike the right balance of nutrients for the soil and the Bay, and the other provides training, continuing education, and technical support for Extension and private-sector nutrient management planners. When Steinhilber started in 1993, the operational structure was wildly different from where things ended in 2018. She offers a fascinating glimpse into the past.

“The entire workforce underwent massive changes in communications and information transmission during the time I worked at UMD,” shares Steinhilber. “There was no email on campus in 1993, and websites were several years off. All training was face-to-face, and communication was via telephone and fax. Slides for presentations were shot on a dedicated computer in the old dark room on the third floor of the HJ Patterson building on campus. By the time I retired, email had surpassed phones in importance, much of the training was via webinars and distance education technology, and our website became an important form of outreach.”

As technology and operations changed, so did statewide regulations that moved nutrient management from a voluntary program into a regulatory program for farmers. This officially came about with the passage of the Water Quality Improvement Act in 1998 following the Pfiesteria crisis in the summer of 1997, which Steinhilber calls “a cataclysmic change”. Farmers were suddenly required to implement nutrient management plans by a required date. Where Steinhilber had previously seen some upticks in plan adoption from the farming community, with the stroke of the governor’s pen, she actually saw the number of farmers who wanted plans the year after the law passed decline. 

“Following the passage of the Water Quality Improvement Act, there was uproar and resistance in the farming community that only settled down after several years. Some farmers who had been willing to get a nutrient management plan voluntarily refused to get one once it was mandatory,” says Steinhilber. “Extension nutrient management advisors told me of incidences when they were subjected to diatribes by their farmer clients, as if the regulations were somehow their fault. I had been accustomed to being invited to several winter agronomy meetings to update farmers on various aspects of soil fertility. These experiences changed from pleasant interactions to accusatory sessions about regulations.”

As time passed, and the nutrient management planning requirements saw broader acceptance, Steinhilber’s program coordinator position morphed into a combination of project manager, technical expert, and workforce educator. She had observed individuals working in private industry as well as in government that were poorly trained for their job, with little being done to change the situation for the better. She didn’t want to be another cautionary tale, and set out to avoid that in ANMP.   

“I wanted all ANMP staffers to understand their job and perform it competently and in a timely manner. Soil fertility and water quality are fields of intense scientific investigation, and I wanted all certified nutrient management consultants to be up-to-date on the latest science,” says Steinhilber. “We developed and delivered intense initial training of Extension staff and maintained a rigorous continuing education program for both Extension and the private sector. And, as all who have worked with me can attest, we were constantly assessing efficacy and making improvements.”

Additionally, she stresses the importance of the land-grant university’s advisory role to state and federal government agencies, allowing decision makers to draw on scientifically sound principles during periods of regulation and policy development. She believes it’s critical for subject matter specialists at land grants to serve on committees and answer queries to provide the best transfer of information.

Steinhilber believes that we are in another period of rapid evolution in the workplace, and that ANMP will continue to evolve. She is confident that she has left the program in a strong place to continue this evolution, and foresees a bright future for AGNR and ANMP both in professional pursuit and equal representation.

“It’s very heartening to see the shift in the faces of faculty, students, and clients of AGNR. We need a world where all are free to pursue careers in areas in which they are interested. A society loses its potential to fully actualize when any group or person is categorically excluded from professions because of their gender or ethnicity,” says Steinhilber. “Women are now hired for assistantships, academic positions, and industry jobs based on their qualifications. AGNR has a diverse workforce, and its students and clients can observe individuals with whom they identify among them. However, that does not relieve any of us from the obligation of being a resource or sounding board for any student or client that comes to our door, or who calls or emails us.”