Farmers in classroom: Program helps master conservation

Louisiana farmers are back in the classroom learning the latest on conservation. And when they finish a newly developed three-year program of study, they will be certified as “Master Farmers.”

The Louisiana Master Farmer program, co-sponsored by the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, officially started in January with the first class in Vermilion Parish.

So far, nearly 300 farmers in southwest Louisiana are registered, representing more than 300,000 acres of cropland, according to William B. Richardson, LSU AgCenter chancellor.

“No other state that we know of has an environmental education program statewide and as comprehensive as this one,” Richardson said at a press conference as part of a Farm Bureau conference in New Orleans. “Louisiana is No. 1 with our Master Farmer program.”

The program will move around the state, reaching farmers in all 12 watersheds, or drainage basins, over the next five years.

The push behind the program is the need to reduce runoff into Louisiana's waterways and bring the water quality up to standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If improvement can be documented over the next few years, then regulation may be avoided.

“If farmers can do this on their own, they can prevent federal regulators stepping in and forcing them to implement measures that may be inefficient and costly,” said Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor.

Although the incentive is water quality, the program gives the LSU AgCenter the opportunity to teach the latest in production, management and marketing to the farmers.

“Farming is big business. And with any good business, you have to have a continuing education program,” said Ernest Girouard, a rice farmer in Vermilion Parish and one of the first to sign up. “This program will help bring us up to speed.”

The first step to becoming a Master Farmer is to attend eight hours of instruction on environmental stewardship.

“We usually break this up into two four-hour sessions,” said Fred Sanders, an LSU AgCenter specialist who coordinates the program.

Then over the next couple of years, the farmer has to accumulate 28 hours of “credit” at approved events, such as field days, specialized classes and conferences.

The primary emphasis during the three years is for the farmer to master “best management practices,” also known as BMPs. These include a wide variety of conservation measures, such as precision-leveling fields to conserve water, planting a crop into existing vegetation to reduce soil disturbance, and sampling soil to apply the appropriate amount of fertilizer.

Sanders said the timing of the Master Farmer program and the new farm bill, with its emphasis on conservation, is perfect.

“Because of this program, our farmers are ahead of many others and prepared to take advantage of the generous conservation incentives in the new farm bill,” Sanders said.

Sanders will be setting up “model farms,” and farmers will be expected to visit these as part of their certification. The farms actually will be those of participants who have implemented BMPs.

“The model farms also will serve as monitoring points to help us keep track of the differences these measures are making in our environmental quality,” Sanders said.

Other agencies involved with the Master Farmer program include the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Louisiana Association of Conservation Districts and the state departments of Environmental Quality, Agriculture and Forestry, and Natural Resources.

A new partner is the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association, Coreil said.

“We are working with the association now to establish our first spinoff called Master Cattleman,” Coreil said. “This is certainly a testimony to the support and promise of the Master Farmer program.”

As farmers complete phases of the program, they will receive certificates. Full recognition as a Master Farmer will occur as part of the Farm Bureau conventions each summer, Sanders said.

Linda Foster Benedict writes for the LSU AgCenter.

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