Agriculture dominates Louisianas northeast region

Richard Bogren, McClure, Olivia J.  |  9/22/2015 6:21:54 PM

In the small towns of northeast Louisiana, it’s usually not hard to tell whether farmers are having a good year or a bad year. When the harvest is bountiful and commodity prices are good, nearly everyone – farmer or not – seems to have a little more money to spend.

“This is the main game in town, and as agriculture goes, so does our economy,” said Ken Thornhill, a Franklin Parish sweet potato farmer.

In the delta of rich soils between the Ouachita and Mississippi rivers, agriculture’s status as the top economic driver has not changed for centuries. Once dominated by cotton, farms in the area are now planted in almost every Louisiana crop except sugarcane, including about 80 percent of Louisiana corn production.

The 12 parishes in the state's northeast corner annually produce about $1.7 billion in crops, livestock and other commodities, according to the LSU AgCenter’s 2014 Ag Summary. While that’s a substantial contribution toward the $7 billion of commodities produced statewide, it’s even more important locally.

“You can drive up and down I-20, and the towns that you come to probably would not be in existence without agriculture serving as the backbone,” said Tara Smith, director of AgCenter’s Northeast Region and the AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station.

Despite its urban center of Monroe, northeast Louisiana is home to less than one-tenth of the state’s residents. Few sectors of employment don’t somehow connect to the dominant ag industry.

“Here in Tensas Parish, you have a little bit of an oil and gas presence, but it’s really not that great,” said Darrell Vandeven, who farms cotton, corn, soybeans and rice. “There’s no manufacturing. Agriculture is 90 percent of the economy.”

Epicenter of innovation

For a place that has revolved around the same industry for so long, northeast Louisiana has an ironic history of change and innovation. Much of it has been encouraged by AgCenter research and extension efforts and the symbiotic relationship between AgCenter experts and local farmers.

AgCenter personnel help farmers improve management practices and profits. Their recommendations are based on trials conducted at three research stations in the region: the Northeast Research Station in St. Joseph, the Macon Ridge Research Station in Winnsboro and the Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase.

Sometimes, though, researchers export their work to farmers’ fields to get a different perspective.

“We do research in nice little neat blocks, but when we take it to producer farms and do it in large scale areas, they can look at it and see how it performs,” said Donnie Miller, a weed scientist who coordinates research at the Northeast and Macon Ridge stations. “That’s one good reason for us being out here and being close in this community. We can generate data all day long, but we have to extend it.”

The parish-based Cooperative Extension Service is a bridge between that data and the industry.

“Our county agents do a tremendous job of taking the research-based information and relaying it to our producers,” Smith said. “Timely transfer of information to the end user is critical.”

The AgCenter has been a trusted institution in this tight-knit rural area ever since the first branch of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station – also one of the first in the South – opened in 1888. Back then, everything revolved around cotton.

“Cotton was a huge player in this part of the state,” Miller said. “There were literally fields of cotton that had been in no other crop but cotton since the Civil War until the mid-1990s.”

With new federal farm bill policies and a global spike in demand for grain, people saw opportunities to diversify their operations with more corn and soybeans.

As farmers realized the benefits of crop rotation, though, the region faced new challenges and research gaps, Miller said. Its cotton-specific infrastructure – pickers, gins and warehouses – has over time become more accommodating of the new crops with more grain elevators and more irrigation.

Meanwhile, a generational change of farmers was underway as new technologies helped them tackle problems they previously just had to tolerate. In the 1990s, Roundup Ready crops – those with an added gene that allows the herbicide glyphosate to be safely sprayed over them – hit the market. Many farmers today “don’t remember farming without Roundup,” Miller said.

But even the best products don’t stay viable forever, as farmers learned when glyphosate-resistant weeds began emerging. For every new problem in the industry, there also seems to be an unleashing of new pesticides, fertilizers, varieties and hybrids, management strategies or equipment to fix it.

“Agriculture is highly technical nowadays. It’s not a mule and plow anymore,” said Ray Young, a longtime farmer and crop consultant from Wisner. “Farmers need all the expert advice they can get. We need someone to tell us which [technologies] can we afford, which ones can’t we afford, which ones must we have.”

Economic impact

AgCenter scientists test new products as they’re being developed, providing unbiased data collected under local conditions. Field days in summer and producer meetings in winter highlight their results. But farmers are always welcome to visit the stations.

The Northeast and Macon Ridge research stations, for example, house similar research but have two different soil types. That can affect the efficacy of a pesticide or how well a certain crop variety yields – and ultimately, profits.

“It’s a very big impact on our economy with the research station being here,” said David Lee, who farms in Tensas Parish. “That way we’re not scared of the new technology. We’re not as hesitant to use it and get better yields.

“Just reading about it is not good enough,” he said. “We like to see it first-hand.”

For sweet potato growers, the AgCenter is the source of “virtually all of the research that has been done,” said Thornhill, who’s been farming for 43 years a few miles from the sweet potato station.

The station has one of only three sweet potato breeding programs in the U.S., and AgCenter-developed varieties like Beauregard dominate Louisiana acreage.

“Average yields for sweet potatoes have increased over 100 bushels in the last five years,” Smith said. “That’s largely attributed to the variety development program, production research and the foundation seed program. Producers are listening. They’re hearing what they need to do, and we see change happening. We’ve seen it in the numbers.”

Moving forward

There’s more to sustaining that momentum, however, than test plots and field days.

The average age of a Louisiana farmer is now 58.5, and fewer people are pursuing careers in agriculture.

Northeast Louisiana is so saturated with agriculture that it seems common and uninteresting to some young residents who may equate the whole industry to riding a tractor in a field, said Terri Crawford, the AgCenter’s regional coordinator for 4-H and family and consumer sciences. Yet the region is rural, with few ways to make a living completely independent of agriculture.

“We have a higher percentage of kids that may not venture out of the region as far as going to college or furthering their education beyond high school,” Crawford said.

Some children don’t leave their hometowns until they go on a 4-H Club trip, such as to 4-H Day at the Capitol and 4-H University, events held every summer in Baton Rouge. These events “open their eyes that there is more out there,” Crawford said.

She sometimes brings a candy bar to youth events and tells about the 40 different careers involved in its making. Many require a college education or technical training.

“Agriculture is a big part of our life here,” Crawford said. “But there’s a lot more to it than just farming.”

Research and education are proven keys to keeping northeast Louisiana a vibrant agricultural hub. Locals point to the AgCenter as a critical resource, providing information that helps people navigate a constantly changing industry that nevertheless unites the region.

“We are out here in the community,” Miller said. “That’s one of the big plusses so people get direct interaction with us. They can come in these stations right here, have access to scientists and agents, and sit and visit with us. They know they can come to us.”

Olivia McClure

The LSU AgCenter provides educational services in every parish and conducts research and extension programs that contribute to the economic development of the state. Headquartered in Baton Rouge, the AgCenter is one of Louisiana State University's institutions of higher education. The LSU AgCenter plays an integral role in supporting agricultural industries, enhancing the environment, and improving the quality of life through nutrition education and 4-H youth, family and community development programs.

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