It’s difficult to imagine today, but Jay Hardwick says the rows of the soybean fields used to run right up to the banks of some of the bayous on Somerset Plantation near Newellton in Tensas Parish, La.
That was back when farmers were being encouraged to plant fence-row to fence-row or in the case of Somerset ditch bank to ditch bank with little regard for the consequences of soil erosion or the loss of then-cheap fertilizer.
Fortunately, that’s no longer the case here. Jay, his wife, Mary, the managing partner at Hardwick Planting Co., and their sons, Marshall and Mead, have been implementing a number of conservation practices and systems designed to protect the soil and water on their operation.
For their efforts, they were recently presented the 2015 National Wetlands Award for Landowner Stewardship by the Environmental Law Institute. The Hardwicks and five other award recipients were honored at a ceremony at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.
“We were stunned,” says Jay, who has served as chairman of the National Cotton Council and Cotton Incorporated in addition to farming fulltime. “Being nominated was a great honor in itself. We had no idea it would go that far. We were really touched by it.”
You almost have to be on the ground at Somerset to understand the full impact of what the Hardwicks have accomplished in restoring 450 acres of wetlands and preserving about 3,000 acres of wetlands on their operation.
Wetlands help reduce wash outs
Jay can remember times when the water in Bayou DeRossitt would inundate the farm road that crosses it and wash away crops and soil from its banks. Sometimes it would also take out the wooden bridge that once spanned the bayou.
“When we get the kinds of rains we can receive in this area, we can get a tremendous amount of water flowing in these bayous,” says Jay. “Planting those wetlands areas back in trees and shrubs helps slow the flow of the water and filter out some of the soil particles and plant nutrients.”
Among the reasons for their success have been efforts to persuade government agencies to allow them to place land in conservation programs for shorter periods of time than the original programs allowed.
“When you can put land in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program for 15 years with continuous renewal, it keeps the land ownership more flexible,” says Jay. They also have made extensive use of grass waterways, grade stabilization procedures and irrigation water savings technologies through USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP.
Another key: They have planned and documented their efforts to harmonize productive agricultural operations with maximum natural resource protection and a comprehensive conservation plan for the whole farm. That includes implementing conservation practices and systems that have included extensive crop rotation, minimum tillage, field borders, filter strips and wetland restoration.
“Our shared family farm vision is to maintain and grow the diversity of the agricultural, forested, and native habitat of our property while ensuring its productivity so that future family members will have a fully functional and sustainable farmstead to meet their needs,” says Mary.
Black bear habitat preserved
Besides restoring more than 450 acres of wetlands and preserving 3,000 acres of wetlands on the farm, they also maintain 6,000 acres of bottomland hardwood timber, which provides crucial habitat for the endangered Louisiana Black Bear.
In addition to incorporating conservation practices on their own farm, Jay is actively involved in public outreach. He completed the three-year Louisiana Master Farmers Program and has remained active by hosting over 17 workshops and numerous farm tours to demonstrate and discuss water and soil quality issues and conservation practices.
“A lot of things we get involved in get picked up by other farmers, but it’s not just about lecturing,” said Jay. “I’ve learned a lot from everyone else who gets involved.”
He also sits on the board of the Tensas Concordia Soil Conservation District, taking on a leadership role in getting conservation practices on the ground and leading public meetings. His outreach efforts also resulted in the enrollment of over 71,000 acres of cropland in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which improved water quality and wetland habitats.
Through his work with the Cotton Council, Jay is also involved in the Cotton LEADS, a national program committed to responsibly produced cotton. Not only does he conduct outreach to farmers, but also presents information to manufacturers to encourage sourcing cotton from responsible producers.
The Hardwick’s sons, Marshall and his wife, Kendall, and Mead and his wife, Felicia, both now also work on the farm and are continuing the tradition of connecting conservation and agriculture. They are working to ensure the understanding of how to sustain long-term agricultural production along with a diverse and vibrant habitat that continues to the next generation of farmers.
“They’ve accepted the responsibility of the next generation,” said Jay.
To learn more about the National Wetlands Awards, visit http://elinwa.org/2015-national-wetlands-awards-winners.