Jonathan and Bob Driver are starting to get the feeling they’re no longer welcome on federal land their family has farmed for four generations. But the Drivers, who farm near Turrell, Ark., are not going away easy.
The Driver family has farmed inside the Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge for over a half a century under cooperative farming agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its predecessors. In recent years, however, FWS has progressively reduced the Drivers’ refuge acreage. In addition, the Drivers, along with many others who farm federal lands to benefit wildlife, have had to deal with increasing restrictions on federally-owned land leased to them for farming, including not allowing the planting of genetically-engineered crops.
The relationship soured further last fall, when the FWS presented the Drivers with a proposal to reduce land they farmed on the refuge from 500 acres to 55 acres over a two-year period. The Drivers once farmed 1,200 acres in the refuge.
When the Drivers asked why, Wapanocca refuge manager Bill Peterson told them that Canada geese were no longer a priority for the refuge and the Drivers’ contributions to wildlife would be scaled back.
The Nov. 25, 2013 USFWS announcement read, “The Service believes Wapanocca NWR would more effectively benefit migratory birds by restoring bottomland hardwood forest and grassland in the current non-impoundment farming area.”
Stay current on what’s happening in Mid-South agriculture: Subscribe to Delta Farm Press Daily.
After a required public hearing and comment period, which the Drivers say heavily favored them continuing to farm their current acreage, the refuge acquiesced and developed another proposal which would allow the Drivers to farm 500 acres in the refuge in 2014-16, but would reduce farmed area in the refuge to 300 acres in 2017.
Peterson said the most recent alternative “would give the farmers time to start looking for additional farmland to rent.”
Long history of farming on the refuge
The Drivers have a long history of farming the refuge. Jonathan’s grandfather, Joe Felts, purchased cropland here in 1949, and farmed it until his death in 2003. At the property’s center is duck-filled, scenic Wapanocca Lake, which at one time was owned by the Wapanocca Outing Club, which was formed in 1886.
In the early 1960s, the club donated the lake to the federal government, which then promptly took the surrounding land, which included land farmed by Joe Felts, by eminent domain. The government said the land would be used to support and feed Canada geese which frequently rested on the lake. Felts fought the government every step of the way and gave them a stern warning, according to the Drivers. “He said, ‘I’ll see you in hell and dead before you get it.’ He’s dead, and they got it,” Bob said.
The land became part of the Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge, one of a complex of refuges in Arkansas, including those at Cache River, Big Lake and Bald Knob.
After taking the land, the refuge tore down the Drivers’ family home, and built a shop and several other buildings. The Driver family was allowed to continue to farm about 1,200 acres of the 6,200-acre refuge for most of the next half-century, operating under land-share agreements with a succession of refuge managers, who chose which crops were to be planted and where. The agreements allow the Drivers to harvest 75 percent of what they planted, typically corn and soybeans, while leaving 25 percent, which could be a commodity crop or millet, for geese and other waterfowl.
But there has been an acrimonious shift in the refuge’s attitude toward the Drivers in recent years, the farmers say. Over the years, five-year rental agreements became one-year contracts. Land farmed by the Drivers in the refuge has dwindled from 1,200 acres to 500 acres. And the latest proposal would cut the Drivers’ acreage another 40 percent.
A few years ago, the Drivers and others who farm federal lands were told they could no longer plant genetically-engineered crops in the refuge. The Drivers say the FWS caved in to pressure from environmental activists.
Stay current on what’s happening in Mid-South agriculture: Subscribe to Delta Farm Press Daily.
“We can’t plant Roundup Ready crops, LibertyLink or YieldGard, even though USDA says they’re safe,” Bob said. “Some tree-hugging group has filed suit against the Department of the Interior. (The government) should have said to them, ‘Prove it’s harming something, and we’ll go along.’”
When the Drivers tried to have the herbicide atrazine approved for their conventional corn, the refuge refused, but told the Drivers they could use Roundup or Liberty instead, which was a real head scratcher for the Drivers since both are herbicides typically associated with genetically-engineered crops.
The Drivers changed their business plan to accommodate the new requirement. They built new bins and started selling non-GMO soybeans at a premium. “If somebody throws a lemon at you, you better learn how to make lemonade,” Bob said. “That’s what we did.”
The refuge and the community
On a recent day, Bob and Jonathan sat on a couch in their shop, a converted gymnasium beside vacant Turrell High School, which closed in 2010 due to declining student enrollment. The school’s mascot, a huge model rocket ship, sits in front of the school at 1 Rocket Dr., rusting away in the elements.
The Drivers’ office walls are lined with memorabilia, including an old Japanese circle-of-the-sun flag, a war-era souvenir brought home by Bob’s father, World War II veteran Paul Driver.
Although he wasn’t around in the 1960s, Jonathan believes there was a strong sense of community between agriculture and the refuge back then. “When they first took the land by eminent domain and made a refuge, they talked about how it was going to help the community,” Jonathan said. “Turrell is not like most Delta towns. It’s dried up. The federal government pays no property tax.”
After the original FWS proposal to reduce the Drivers’ farmed acreage to 55 acres, the Drivers offered a counter proposal to benefit the Drivers, the city of Turrell and the refuge. “We said that if they don’t want food for the geese, that would be okay. The refuge could sell the geese’s part of the crop,” Jonathan said.” Technically, if they have a sale, 25 percent of that sale is supposed to go to the county, and the other 75 percent goes into their funds. Now you’re talking about a self-sustaining organization that generates tax revenue for the country. It was a win-win situation, but it was a proposal they weren’t interested in.”
“I’ve heard rumors that there are people high up in Game and Fish who don’t think there should be any farming on government lands,” Bob said.
One of the litigants in a 2009 suit to stop the planting of genetically-engineered crops on federal lands is a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which includes public servants, some of whom work for organizations like the USFWS.
The PEER Web site describes a PEER member as a government employee “who is working to change his or her agency for the better, to reform it and to make it more accountable to the public. Using PEER as a vehicle, employees can safely and effectively become anonymous activists for environmental protection.”
There is no indication that PEER is involved directly with Wapanocca.
In any event, the latest FWS proposal, “was a little bit better than nothing at all, but I feel like we’re the native Americans, where they just keep stripping stuff from you,” Bob said. “I’m not real happy with it.”
Wildlife dynamics are changing
Peterson said changes in farming practices on the refuge are warranted due to changes in wildlife that visit the region. “In the past, to help provide food for Canada geese, we worked with several local farmers through cooperative agreements and left unharvested crops for the geese to eat during the winter. But in the last 15 years to 20 years, Canada geese have stopped coming down this far south. That’s been a long-term trend.
“At the same time that Canada geese were wintering farther north, snow geese, which were originally wintering along the Gulf of Mexico, Texas and Louisiana moved (here). So the unharvested corn we left for Canada geese is now feeding snow geese almost exclusively.”
Peterson added that the Migratory Bird Joint Venture “has dropped the Canada goose forage objectives for the entire lower Mississippi Valley, realizing that they don’t winter here anymore.”
The refuge also has directives to not benefit snow geese that have moved into the area.
The Drivers, who also have farmland outside the refuge, say they will continue to fight for a larger share of cropland in the refuge, and at the time of this writing were thinking about organizing a town meeting to discuss the issue.
“The comfort of the birds is more important to the federal government than human life,” Bob said. “All the products we buy are local. We deal with our local co-ops, which creates jobs in our community. What they’re proposing doesn’t do anything for our community. They bought a white elephant to start off with. Now they don’t know what to do with it. So planting it in trees is less maintenance. They had six employees to start off with when they opened up the refuge. Now they have one person.
“We’re going to fight. If we lose down to the number of acres they’re talking about, it’s not justifiable to deal with the headache. There’s heartache too. I have a lot of sentimental attachment to the land. That’s where I was born, and it was my family’s farm to start off with before they took it.”
“I would hate to get run out of business because of some birds,” Jonathan said.
Peterson said the Drivers “are excellent farmers and have been excellent partners. They do a great job. For Wapanocca, it’s great that we have that have that working cooperative agreement in place with the Drivers, so we can provide our duck forage objectives.”
For the Drivers, however, a 50-year partnership between wildlife, refuge management and farming appears fleeting.
A final decision on the fate of farming in the refuge won’t be made until after the comment period is closed. The public comment period on the most recent FWS proposal ended May 27.