Carrie Mendoza, Coreil, Paul D., Benedict, Linda F. | 7/11/2006 7:08:24 PM
Thirteen of Louisiana’s finest farmers have completed the rigorous requirements to become a Master Farmer – a title that means they have not only learned the latest in scientifically based conservation techniques but they are voluntarily implementing them on their farms.
They received their certificates on Friday, July 7, at the Farm Bureau convention in New Orleans.
"They are an elite group," said Carrie Castille Mendoza, who directs the Master Farmer program for the LSU AgCenter. "These farmers had to successfully complete the three phases of the program. And some of these conservation practices, such as precision land-leveling, can cost thousands of dollars."
Two of the 13 have been in the program for nearly five years, having enrolled in the first Master Farmer class offered back in 2001 in Vermilion Parish – Ernest Girouard and Craig Adam, both of Kaplan.
"Farming is big business. And with any good business, you have to have continuing education," Girouard said.
The other 11 are Thomas M. Batchelor of Ringgold, Johnny Boudreaux of Abbeville, Jess E. Crosier of Cade, Harvey Gonsoulin of Loreauville, George Hains of Rayne, Howard Hardie of Jonesville, Kenneth LaHaye of Ville Platte, Hank Schumacher of Husser, Robert Thevis of Simmesport, and Russell (Rusty) and Scott M. Wiggers Jr., who together have the Wiggers Farm Partnership in Winnsboro.
Nearly 2,300 Louisiana farmers have completed Phase 1 of the program, which involves eight hours of classroom instruction. Instructors from the LSU AgCenter, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) teach best management practices related to environmental stewardship and water quality regulations.
Of that number, 575 have gone on to finish the second phase, which means they have participated in a tour of a farm selected because of its exemplary use and demonstration of conservation practices.
The third and final phase is the most difficult, Mendoza said. The farmers have to arrange for a visit from an NRCS agent and devise a conservation plan specific to their farming operation.
Then the farmer has to put this plan into practice, which can involve such things as installing fences to contain cattle or pumps in fields to recycle water. Some of the Master Farmers use GPS equipment to conserve the amounts of fertilizer and pesticides they apply and to improve the drainage on fields through precision land-leveling.
But that’s not all. The NRCS agent has to make a return visit and verify that the conservation prescription is being carried out. Then, and only then, can the farmer apply for certification from LDAF.
"It’s a slow, arduous process. But we expect to have many more certified Master Farmers by this time next year," Mendoza said.
Since the Master Farmer program began, scientists with the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have been testing the quality of the water in areas of the state where there is intensive agricultural production.
"We are beginning to see signs of water quality improvements in some areas of our state where landowners have participated in the programs that encourage the use of best management practices," said Jan Boydston, DEQ environmental scientist.
The Master Farmer program was originally triggered by a federal report pointing out poor quality water in Louisiana.
Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for extension, launched the novel "master farmer" idea with NRCS, LDAF, DEQ and Farm Bureau as partners. The premise is to reward farmers for voluntarily adopting conservation practices.
"If farmers can do this on their own, they can prevent federal regulators from stepping in and forcing them to implement measures that may hurt Louisiana farmers economically," Coreil said. "We know what’s best for Louisiana."
"Farmers are the best environmentalists of anybody in the country," said Commissioner of Agriculture Bob Odom with LDAF. "The Master Farmer program helps them learn skills to be better farmers and stewards of the land."
"The benefits of the program accrue not only to the farmers but to the entire community," said State Conservationist Don Gohmert with NRCS. "The farmers are to be commended for their attention to environmental concerns."
Because of the success of the program, three other states have adopted it, Mendoza said – Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas. In addition, a number of other states have contacted her to help them develop state programs.
"As a result, we’ve developed a multi-state template that any state can tailor to their environmental concerns," Mendoza said.
One commodity group, the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association has worked with the AgCenter to develop a spinoff called the Master Cattle Producer program. In addition to the Master Farmer classes, the cattle producers attend sessions on best management practices specifically to address cattle issues.
"Our curriculum helps farmers become better farmers. Learning conservation practices is not the only benefit," Mendoza said.
Their enrollment in the program also helps the farmers qualify for federal monetary assistance to help implement conservation measures such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Adam benefited in this manner. He was so successful in changing his farming operation from rice-producing to cattle-producing that his farm was selected as one of the models to demonstrate to others how to set up pasture land to improve water quality.
Adam is an example that the Master Farmer program is not just for full-time, large-scale farmers. He’s actually a full-time truck driver who raises approximately 100 head of cattle on 260 acres as a sideline.
"The farmers are part-time, full-time, big farms and small farms," Mendoza said. "They represent all types of commodities. We even have participants working on organic certification."
Mendoza continues to set up Phase 1 classes and Phase 2 field days. Farmers can still enroll to start on the path to Master Farmer certification.
Farmers in the program receive regular updates on best management practices through newsletters, e-mail messages and invitations to attend LSU AgCenter field days.
For more information about the program, people may contact their local LSU AgCenter parish extension office or Mendoza directly at (225) 578-2906 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carrie Castille Mendoza at (225) 578-2906, or email@example.com
Paul Coreil at (225) 578-6083, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Linda Foster Benedict at (225) 578-2937, or email@example.com