Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency met for a two-day (April 30-May 1) whirlwind tour of Louisiana agriculture with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry and the LSU AgCenter to give the EPA an understanding of the state’s unique challenges.

The visitors were Sarah Bittleman, the new EPA agricultural counselor; Ron Curry, EPA regional administrator for Region 6 that includes Louisiana; and David Gray, EPA external affairs director in Region 6.

The schedule included a tour of the AgCenter Biofuels Research Center at St. Gabriel and meetings with LDAF Commissioner Mike Strain, the Louisiana Agricultural and Forestry Nutrient Management Task Force, a farm chemical supplier, and farmers and researchers at the AgCenter Rice Research Station.

The officials also took a boat ride through the marsh to see coastal erosion problems, rode in a crawfish boat during a harvest, and met with shrimpers and representatives of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. In addition, they visited rice, cattle and sugarcane farms.

A graduate of Tulane Law School, Bittleman already had some familiarity with Louisiana. She was senior advisor to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, specializing in energy and environmental issues.

Bittleman said she visited Louisiana as a part of her effort to familiarize herself with agriculture across the country. “Because I’m new at EPA, I’m implementing a strategy to renew relationships with agriculture. I want to get to as many agricultural regions in as many states as possible.”

Bittleman wants to develop relationships before issues arise. “This is why you introduce yourself to your neighbors when you move in, not when the tornado is coming.”

Bittleman attended a hypoxia task force meeting in Kentucky recently, and after seeing Louisiana marsh loss issues, she has a better understanding of the complete picture. “It’s just been a very lucky situation to see how the Mississippi River valley is connected and just how important nutrient management is.”

Bittleman, who grew up on a tree farm in New York, was touched by sugarcane farmer Ronald Hebert’s concerns that he may not be able to pass on his operation to a son. “That just breaks my heart,” she said.

Curry came away with an appreciation of Louisiana’s diverse agricultural industry. “I’m impressed with the effort made by Commissioner Strain to help the EPA have a better understanding of the agricultural community in Louisiana.”

Curry also got a better understanding of issues such as herbicide drift that he will relay to his staff. “I want our folks to understand the technologies that are being used on the farms.”

“I feel that they got a real good taste of Louisiana agriculture,” said Carrie Castille, LDAF associate commissioner. “Our goal for this visit is for EPA to see our producers as valuable resources on environmental issues affecting agriculture and forestry."

Strain said the visit helped show the EPA that Louisiana’s environmental conditions are unique, especially in the area of water quality, where standards used in other parts of the country are difficult to achieve in Louisiana’s slow-moving, meandering bayous.

“Our producers are working hard at conservation,” Strain said. “It was important for the EPA to see the differences in how our crops are grown. If there are problems that arise, we can address them.”

At the meeting at the Rice Research Station, Bittleman said rice is grown in an area where climate change and salinity problems are confronted. “Where you guys live is pretty much Ground Zero.”

Rice farmers Kevin Berken and Jackie Loewer said they were encouraged by the visit. “It’s a breath of fresh air to see you,” Berken said.

Steve Linscombe, director of the Rice Research Station, told Bittleman about problems rice farmers are having, including bird predation of rice seed and the efforts rice farmers are making toward sustainability.

Linscombe – who has worked with the EPA on issues such as pesticide registrations -- was encouraged by the meeting. “Many decision makers have no idea how crops are grown. A lot of times we’re talking with people who don’t know rice is grown in a flood.”