On farmland outside Tunica, Miss., Buddy Allen has been taking conservation seriously and Washington, D.C., has been paying attention. Recently named “Champion of Change in Sustainable Agriculture” at a ceremony at the White House, Allen is an obvious advocate for adopting practices that will benefit farmland in the long-term.
“I grew up in Belzoni, Miss.,” says Allen, in his nicely renovated downtown Tunica headquarters. “My father was involved in the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry. He was with the Catfish Institute and did marketing and promotions for the industry. So, I always had a keen interest in that industry and was close to it.”
Before moving to Tunica, Allen was steeped in farm policy work and worked for Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran during college. He also did a stint with Covenant Bank when it was a start-up. “Of course, any Delta bank has deep roots in ag lending, and I was exposed to the financial side of agri-business.”
How did he begin work in production agriculture?
“I moved to Tunica and got involved in my wife Allison’s family farm. Her family is multi-generational farmers, and I’m now a partner with my brother-in-law, Michael Johnson. He’s instrumental in everything we’re doing.
“Early on in my career — now going on 16 years — we were heavy in cotton. At the time, from a farm policy perspective, the Commodity Title programs — how best to position yourself to utilize them and increase your base — was the name of the game.”
Allen soon began to develop an acute interest in conservation. “Not only did I believe there were sound reasons to participate in those programs, but I also saw that stewardship could yield increased productivity.
“Often, we were able to take on farms that weren’t particularly profitable, productive or economically viable — say it any way you want — and install suites of conservation practices. That meant we were being much more responsible stewards of our natural resources, and we were also making the farms productive.”
What about switching crops?
“Part of our evolution was due to the bull grain market that came through six to eight years ago. Cotton acreage diminished with prices eroding. There was a demand for renewable fuels, which pushed the grain market and turned cotton country into corn country almost overnight.
“Of course, we’ve since seen the grain market soften. It’s now important to be as efficient as possible. The production farming proposition is as tight as I’ve seen in my career.”
There are major resource concerns that must be addressed in Mississippi, says Allen, who sits on the board of the local soil and water conservation district. “The primary issues are the declining nature of our groundwater in the Mississippi alluvial aquifer and the impact of nutrients we release downstream causing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.
“While it’s critical we proactively address these issues and mitigate these negative trends, the practices we engage in must be relevant and must yield productivity. Otherwise, farmers won’t engage. That’s a requirement due to today’s economic climate in agriculture. It’s imperative to do everything we can to be productive.”
Having testified on Capitol Hill, how does Allen find his conservation message is received by lawmakers?
“Our message is consistent and simple: addressing these issues voluntarily by utilizing BMPs supported by financial and technical assistance from the USDA/NRCS is the best way to solve problems. These are voluntary ways to incentivize landowners and producers to engage in sound stewardship practices, allowing local guidance to best shape programs to address priority concerns.
“That was the message I delivered and tried to convey in my testimony. The conservation title of the farm bill continues to deliver new opportunities due to broad, bipartisan agreement on stewardship and protecting our natural resources. They are affording us the liberty — in most, not all, cases — to address these issues at the ground level through state and regional organizations best informed and equipped to lead those efforts.”
A rice-producer, “Allen has installed a tailwater recovery system to recycle irrigation water; instituted laser land-leveling to further reduce water use and soil runoff; experimented with using a large number of irrigation practices based on geographic conditions, and installed moisture sensors to help with irrigation efficiency,” according to the USA Rice Federation.
The job, he says, is hardly complete. “There’s evolution on conservation installations on any farm. When you think you’ve got it right, you’ll discover a better way to do it. So, I don’t think we’ll ever be completely finished.
“A high percentage of our farmland does have appropriate BMPs installed. It’s very much an ongoing effort — the practices and production systems that fit the resource concern that’s most pertinent or the crop rotation that’s most opportune changes periodically.”
As for the White House award, Allen insists the recognition is largely due to a willingness to become involved. “The only things I’ve really done are engage and participate in the opportunities developed in the Mississippi Delta by a really strong partnership of organizations. The award I received is indicative of the broader effort by groups like Delta FARM, Delta Council, YMD, Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Farm Bureau. Had it not been for the work done and leadership in those groups, the opportunities I’ve described wouldn’t exist.”
And Allen wears two hats. Alongside farming, he’s a part of D.C.-based Macon Edwards, a lobbying firm. “The Macon Edwards Company provides consulting services to a broad, largely agriculture-based sector. Macon, who is also my uncle, brought me in to work with his firm on ag- and conservation-related issues. Having an actively engaged producer on his team has brought diversity to his firm’s offerings. I enjoy working on these issues from a different perspective with groups providing services and products in this sector.”