When Delta farmers first began talking about a new program aimed at helping them become better environmental stewards, Billy Percy thought they might be able to attract 100,000 to 200,000 acres at most to the effort.

But when organizers of Delta F.A.R.M. (Farmers Advocating Resource Management) signed up 160,000 acres for the new program in the first two months, Percy, the Greenville, Miss., farmer who served as its first chairman, knew they were on to something.

That was in October 1998. On Nov. 6, 10 years later, Percy, current Delta F.A.R.M. Chairman Mike Sturdivant Jr., and a large gathering of public officials and representatives of corporate sponsors gathered at Vanlandingham Farms north of Leland, Miss., to mark the enrollment of the program’s 1 millionth acre.

“With this milestone, 40 percent of the land in the Delta has now been enrolled in the program voluntarily,” said Sturdivant, a farmer from Glendora, Miss. “Delta F.A.R.M. is an effort fueled by farmers’ willingness to do the right thing.”

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who grew up not far from Leland, said the distinctive white, blue and green signs that denote farms that have gone through Delta F.A.R.M.’s vetting process have become a symbol of environmental stewardship.

“The organization has raised the bar in terms of setting goals for economic and environmental sustainability in Delta farming,” said Bryant. He praised the visionary approach of Delta F.A.R.M.’s leadership in beginning the program 10 years ago before green was in vogue.

The program also drew praise from Jimmy Palmer, administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 4, which is based in Atlanta. Palmer was director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality when the program began.

“This is a very special homecoming event for me because I’ve been here from the start,” said Palmer. “I can remember receiving a phone call from someone who told me they wanted to start a voluntary environmental stewardship in the Delta. From that, Delta F.A.R.M. emerged.”

The Delta F.A.R.M. program is one of only two such efforts in Region 4, Palmer said. The other, the Sewannee River Partnership in Florida, is much more limited in scope.

“When we first started talking about 160,000 acres in this program, some people were aghast,” he said. “But the farmers proved them wrong. Delta F.A.R.M. has rapidly grown to become the pre-eminent, farmer-led, agricultural conservation organization in Mississippi and quite possibly one of the strongest in the country.”

By enrolling in Delta F.A.R.M., producers agree to take specific steps to improve the environmental footprint of their operations, says Homer Wilkes, state conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Jackson, Miss.

“Delta F.A.R.M. helps farmers assess their current stewardship level and teaches them how to improve by adding and expanding conservation practices on the farm,” says Wilkes. “The voluntary efforts of Delta F.A.R.M.’s membership and improvements made by these farmers are a testament to the ability of Mississippi farmers to meet environmental and natural resource challenges.”

Besides advising producers on sound and economically feasible conservation practices, Delta F.A.R.M. has also begun to implement projects in several watersheds in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta region.

“Delta F.A.R.M.’s efforts in the Bee Lake, Steele Bayou, and Wolf Lake watersheds have proven that the farmers of the Delta are very capable of addressing water quality concerns through voluntary approaches,” said Trudy Fisher, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

Palmer noted that Delta F.A.R.M. has also been working side-by-side with MDEQ to help develop a nutrient reduction strategy for the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta.

George Vanlandingham, who operates Vanlandingham Farms along with his wife, Marcia, and son, Brian, said he didn’t realize the significance of enrolling his farm until after the process had been completed. He said he was pleased to be a part of the ground-breaking event.

“It makes perfect sense for me and my son to participate in a program that helps landowners be better stewards of their property and the natural resources that we all depend on.” Vanlandingham noted. “We are pleased to be the farm to put Delta F.A.R.M. over the 1 million-acre mark.”

Sturdivant and Percy also recognized the four companies that have supported Delta F.A.R.M. since the inception of the program: Syngenta, Monsanto’s Delta and Pine Land Business, FMC and Farmers Grain Terminal of Greenville, Miss.

Following the speeches, Syngenta’s Rex Martin presented a commissioned painting by artist Matthew Hasty to Delta F.A.R.M. officials.

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