At the wheel of his dusty farm truck, Jefferson Davis Parish farmer Dwayne Compton crossed a blacktop highway that bisects his farm.
He watched on one side as workers in crawfish boats collected traps in a flooded crawfish pond, then pointed to the other side, where a fallow rice field had recently been leveled and prepared for spring planting.
That laser-leveled rice field will lead to less soil loss over the course of planting, growing and farming. It is one of many measures Compton has adopted that are considered best management practices — practices that help improve water quality in streams and groundwater.
“It has changed the way we do nearly everything,” he said.
Best management practices are voluntary measures that agricultural producers may take to lessen or eliminate the flow of fertilizers, pesticides and other farming byproducts into streams and groundwater, according to LSU AgCenter economist Michael Deliberto. These practices help improve water quality while also maintaining high levels of agricultural production.
For decades the LSU AgCenter has helped establish best practices for agriculture, and researchers and extension agents have spread the knowledge to producers throughout the state. A key component of educating producers on best management practices is the Master Farmer Program. In 2001 the LSU AgCenter established the program in conjunction with Louisiana Farm Bureau, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The program teaches conservation practices and environmental stewardship, and participants must attend classes and field days and develop plans for conservation practices. Producers who complete the educational program are compliant with state soil and water quality standards, said Donna Gentry, coordinator of the program.
“That is something to be proud of,” she said. “Not everybody can say that.”
Soil and water conservation have long been important to Compton. He served on the Soil and Water Conservation Board for Jefferson Davis Parish, and he completed the Master Farmer course and was named the Outstanding Master Farmer in 2021.
Compton has taken part in government programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides financial assistance for implementing a conservation plan.
“It’s made my farm more profitable,” Compton said.
A fourth-generation producer, he has farmed full time for 28 years. Out of 2,700 acres, he plants 1,058. Some plots of land are kept in ground cover to help control erosion, another best practice.
“I bet my grandfather would roll over in his grave if he could see what we’re doing now,” he said, noting that the size of the machinery and the number of acres farmed are the biggest changes.
Compton also uses a new way of soil sampling, called grid sampling, that has helped save on fertilizer costs by pinpointing the spots where different amounts of nutrients are needed. Once the locations are identified, tractors equipped with mapping software can apply the needed amounts of fertilizers to the right spots. Primarily, this prevents unused fertilizer from running off into ditches and streams.
“It just makes sense,” Compton said. “All the way around. It makes you more profit, and you save money. Sometimes it costs you money, but down the road you are seeing the benefits.”
Following best management practices also helps agricultural producers set a good example, said Gregory Kincaid, a Franklin Parish producer who completed the Master Farmer Program in 2012 and was recertified in 2018. On his northeast Louisiana farm, Kincaid produces corn, soybeans and hay and raises cattle on land that has been in his family for more than 100 years. He won the Outstanding Master Farmer Award in 2020.
Kincaid takes pride in running a family farm in sustainable ways, but he laughs at the idea he is a “master” of his profession.
“I don’t consider myself a master farmer,” he said. “I don’t always make the top yields, and I’m not in the competition on that.”
A sixth-generation farmer, Kincaid is about to plant his 42nd crop. Some of the 900 acres he works has been in his family since the 1850s.
“I just want to try to take care of our natural resources and try to at least have it in as good of shape when I pass it on to somebody else as it was when I found it,” he said.
Kincaid maintains a fascination with old farming equipment, collecting implements and machinery into a small museum. He has not invested in new technology as quickly as other farmers. However, that has not hampered his ability to follow the procedures that conserve soil and water. By keeping his fields small, for example, he can take soil tests regularly and ensure he uses the right amount of fertilizer without using advanced software to map his acres.
“Fertilizer is one of the main expenses in any operation, and you don’t want to spend any more money or put any more out than is necessary,” Kincaid said. “The soil sampling is very important to ensure that you’re not wasting money, that you’re not putting out nutrients that are not needed. There’s no doubt that’s a big opportunity for savings just by doing that.”
Following best management practices for his farm does not feel like a burden, Kincaid said. Many of these practices — leaving grass on the turnrows in his field to prevent erosion and properly disposing of chemical jugs — are just part of taking care of the land and being a good neighbor, he said.
"It just makes me feel good to know that I’m doing the right thing,” he said.
Kyle Peveto is the editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
This article appears in the winter 2023 edition of Louisiana Agriculture.
Dwayne Compton, who farms rice and crawfish near Roanoke in southwestern Louisiana, follows several best management practices. These practices help conserve water and soil resources, but they also save money, he said. Photo by Kyle Peveto
A worker collects crawfish from ponds at Dwayne Compton’s farm in Jefferson Davis Parish. Compton’s fields rotate between crawfish and rice. Photo by Kyle Peveto
Franklin Parish farmer Gregory Kincaid, center, was presented the Outstanding Master Farmer Award on Jan. 9, 2020. Pictured from left are Michael Salassi, director of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station; Steve Austin, CEO of the Louisiana Land Bank; Kincaid; Dr. Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry; and Chad Kacir, Louisiana state conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. AgCenter file photo