Much credit is due U.S. land grant universities for their willingness to fund decades of agricultural research through partnerships between Extension personnel and farmers in their respective states. Today, those relationships continue to deliver products and processes that not only benefit the nation’s farmers, but also the farm operators of tomorrow, who will one day take over the reins of the family farm.
“It most cases, there is a rich history, a legacy of intergenerational farming,” says Tim Price, executive vice president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association. “A perfect example is the partnership we honored this year between Louisiana State University and the family farm of Hardwick Planting Company in Tensas Parish at Newellton, La., where Jay Hardwick and his two sons, Mead and Marshall, are continuing the farming operation that was purchased by Jay’s wife’s family in the 1940s.”
LAND GRANT PARTNERSHIP
Somerset Plantation has a farming history that pre-dates the Civil War. There are 2,000 acres of black water bayous, riverbanks, riparian tree lines, and Conservation Reserve Program land that meander across much of the 20,000 acres. Additionally, there is 6,000 acres of managed timber that provides sustenance and cover for a wide variety of wildlife that has experienced a consistent resurgence through the years, thanks to the Hardwicks’ commitment to environmental preservation.
Those long-term efforts were recognized by the Environmental Law Institute in 2015, when Jay, his wife Mary, and their sons were presented the National Wetlands Award for Landowner Stewardship.
Jay didn’t grow up on a farm, but being otherwise well-educated (he holds a Ph.D.), he knew a wealth of resources existed at LSU to help him establish a foundation on which to build his knowledge of agriculture. He has often reached out to LSU to take advantage of those resources and access to the university’s research scientists.
“Somerset Plantation has 12,000 acres of certified farmland, on which a great deal of on-farm research has been conducted through the years with the staff at the LSU AgCenter,” says Marshall. “We have an excellent relationship with them, and that relationship continues to benefit both parties, as well as the Louisiana farming industry in general.”
In 2016, Tulane University asked the LSU AgCenter for help in identifying a Louisiana farming operation to host a competition in which participants would be challenged to reduce nitrogen use in corn while maintaining or increasing yields.
“It was a fascinating project, with 75 different teams around the county vying to be a part,” says Mead. “Five groups were selected to compete. One team was led by a Midwest farmer, the second by a crop consultant, and a third by a Cornell University professor.” A California company, Pivot Bio, whose specialty is utilizing enzymes to affix atmospheric nitrogen to corn, was also selected to take part in the $1 million competition.
The teams and their leaders were given five research plots on Somerset Plantation on which to work their plan. The winning team created a software program that required inputting relevant soil type, organic matter, soil nutrient levels, and rainfall data. The software then analyzed all the data and generated optimum nitrogen input recommendations.
That work is just one example of the relationships taking place between farm operations and partnering universities across the country. The committee judging the competition included the Hardwick brothers, representatives from LSU, Tulane, and other academic organizations. The $1 million prize was offered through the Phyllis M. Taylor Foundation. The Engineering School at LSU is named after Mrs. Taylor’s husband, Patrick F. Taylor.
TECHNOLOGY AND STEWARDSHIP
Jay was an early adopter of cutting edge farming technologies like auto-steer and other precision farming systems. He saw their value and benefits, and as Mead and Marshall assumed on-farm responsibilities, they pushed for adoption of even more technology. Both share their father’s passion for land conservation and practices that minimize farming’s environmental footprint on Somerset Plantation.
They utilize minimum tillage, and always try to keep big cutting disks out of their fields unless ruts become a problem. “We use a vertical tillage disk that breaks up only the top layer of soil,” says Marshall. “We then go back in and row up beds.”
The brothers worked diligently to set up Real Time Kinematic (RTK) technology across the farm. Today, it provides consistent control paths year after year for all equipment. They recently purchased a 16-row precision planter that allowed them to plant their 2017 corn crop at almost 9 miles per hour.
“We had great seeding rates, which led to excellent stands,” says Marshall. “We also increased plant populations on fields with better soils, or on ground that would be irrigated.”
ENHANCING NATURAL RESOURCES
Jay has a long history of involvement with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. The resources, advice, and incentives available through the program often go unnoticed by many farmers. “Dad has done so much to preserve and enhance the natural resources on Somerset Planation,” says Mead. “He had been doing most of the on-farm program qualifications mandated by NRCS for many years, so it was just a matter of documenting them.”
The Hardwicks participate in a Conservation Stewardship Program, which involves a five-year contract, and each year they must abide by specific NRCS regulations to remain qualified. The brothers are in the third year of the program. “Marshall and I are also currently enrolled in the Louisiana Master Farmer program,” says Mead. “We have completed stages one and two, and hope to complete the final stage this year.”
The brothers are already seeing environmental benefits from their work through the CSP, they say. In winter, they use water control structures to block off culverts and catch rains to flood fields for migrating waterfowl. They also leave a 30-foot band of crop rows in the field next to tree lines and ditches. This combination of practices provides water and food for indigenous animals.
“We definitely see more indigenous wildlife around the plantation, and we know our labor and participation in the CSP is bearing fruit,” says Mead.
NO DRASTIC CHANGES
Life on Somerset Plantation is not static, thanks to the Hardwicks’ commitment to preservation and sustainability. Jay stopped bush-hogging grassy areas years ago in order to provide natural habitat and cover for rabbits and quail — their numbers continue to increase.
Their decades-long effort to increase the area’s black bear population is today providing an ancillary benefit — keeping wild hogs away. “We rarely see hogs on our land,” says Mead, “and only recently caught a photo of one on a trail camera. Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries officials tell us black bears and hogs really don’t like to interact, and we hope that continues to be the case.”
The Hardwicks don’t foresee any large scale or drastic changes to their farm or ongoing environmental conservation plans. They have some land with which they struggle because of its erosion potential, and that land may end up in the CRP, they say. “We’ve land-formed a good number of acres, which will help us move water off fields into water retention areas that are used for wildlife habitat and tailwater storage for supplemental irrigation,” says Mead. “That’s very important when you get 60 inches of rainfall annually. We have collaborated closely over the years with our local NRCS officials, and we have a great relationship with them.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The biggest change the brothers see in the not too distant future is their assuming more on-farm responsibilities as their parents work toward retirement. “My generation will step up and take the reins as the shift in farm leadership occurs,” says Mead.
With a rich history of farming and industry leadership experience, Jay Hardwick will continue to be on the farm and offer guidance wherever it may be needed. His sons have already established a relationship with the LSU AgCenter, a partnership that will accrue benefits for both entities in the years ahead.
“We worked with LSU last year on a drone project, and that’s just one of many projects with which I’m sure we’ll be involved in the future,” says Mead.
One thing is certain: As crop seasons pass and the next generation of Hardwicks settle into their management roles, not only will the work that Jay has done be carried on, so will the invaluable and mutually-beneficial relationship between their family and their long-term land grant partner, Louisiana State University.