By Jeremy Peters, NFU director of climate and energy
The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and Delta Farmers Advocating Resource Management (Delta F.A.R.M.) held the annual Conservation in Action Tour May 30-31, in the Mississippi Delta region of northwest Mississippi. NFU sponsored the tour and NFU Climate and Energy Director Jeremy Peters participated in the event.
The tour was organized to explore current conservation issues and nutrient management practices throughout the Mississippi River watershed. The tour also focused on wildlife habitat management and herbicide resistance issues.
The tour began with a morning visit to Stovall Farms, a family farm in operation since 1848 and childhood home to blues musician Muddy Waters. At Stovall Farms, tour participants learned about the principal resource concerns in the delta: water quality associated with sediment and nutrients, water quantity management and aquifer overdraft, and wildlife habitat restoration. Among the strategies in addressing these resource concerns in the delta are a suite of practices under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) involving on-farm water storage, tailwater recovery and vegetative drainage ditches. Pete Hunter, who operates Stovall Farms, spoke on a personal level about stewardship, the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia zone, and his passions of farming and saltwater fly fishing in the gulf.
These practices involve management of irrigation water to improve water use efficiency as well as to mitigate the impacts of runoff. By constructing a tailwater recovery reservoir, irrigation water and stormwater are captured and stored. The reservoir functions as a detention basin to mitigate stormwater runoff, reduce peak runoff, control sedimentation and allowing the processing of nutrients. During the irrigation season, the retained water is also available to be pumped back onto fields for future irrigation. Two-stage vegetative ditches enhance further impede the effects of runoff by slowing water flow, allowing nutrients and sediment to settle and process. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service indicates that by using these practices, pollution from irrigation and stormwater runoff can be reduced by 50 percent, groundwater use can be reduced by 75 percent, and irrigation efficiency can be improved to 95-100 percent.
The tour then visited Mill Creek Gin in Clarksdale, Miss., one of the most technologically advanced cotton gins in the U.S. NRCS Chief Dave White addressed the group. Chief White spoke about the challenges of producing ever increasing amounts of food, fuel and fiber while protecting the natural environment. He also discussed NRCS initiatives aimed at providing farmers and ranchers regulatory certainty for voluntary conservation under the Endangered Species Act, and efforts to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River watersheds. Chief White emphasized that while conservation programs are changing under the pending Farm Bill, NRCS will continue work efficiently to maximize delivery of conservation programs at the local level.
The afternoon tour visited Williams Farm, a corn, soybean and cotton farm that also emphasizes wildlife habitat for white-tail deer, bobwhite quail and waterfowl. While 40 percent of the farm supports crop production, the remainder is devoted to hardwood reforestation and early successional habitat through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Tour participants learned how production and wildlife management goals can be achieved simultaneously on a farm. As local farmer Scott Flowers noted, previously absent native populations of bobwhite quail now call his farm home because of the newly established habitat.
Speakers at Williams Farm also discussed current issues with herbicide resistance in the delta region and across the country, notably pigweed resistance to glyphosate-based products such as Round-up. Weed resistance is presenting a major hurdle to farmers using no-till practices to conserve soil and sequester carbon dioxide. While research is ongoing for alternative herbicidal products, current control methods for herbicide resistant weeds necessitates soil tillage which increases likelihood of nutrient loss, sedimentation and release of soil carbon. Some farmers have also utilized workers to manually remove weeds, an option that has cost tens of millions of dollars in Mississippi and Arkansas.
The tour wrapped up with a catfish fry at Williams Farm and keynote speaker Trudy Fisher, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. Ms. Fisher emphasized the importance of agricultural conservation efforts in proactively addressing environmental concerns and the significance of the Mississippi river basin in the nation’s food production. She also discussed the need to maintain an appropriate balance between production and the environment so that both prosper without sacrificing the other.
The tour attracted a diverse group of over 260 participants from across the U.S. and internationally, local from farmers and rural stakeholders to government officials, NGOs and academia.