Steve Stevens was skeptical when specialists from the University of Arkansas asked him to participate in a nutrient runoff monitoring program as one of nine “Discovery Farms” in the state during the winter of 2012-2103

Stevens, a cotton, corn, rice and soybean grower who has a reputation for being a highly innovative producer, had read a lot of media coverage about how farmers in the Mississippi Valley were to blame for the “dead” zone or hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

But once Stevens saw the numbers on the amount of water and nitrogen leaving his farm, he warmed to the subject, says Mike Daniels, professor, Extension water quality for the Agriculture Division at the University of Arkansas. Daniels was a speaker at the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force spring meeting in Little Rock, Ark.

"Steve was reluctant at first, but some folks like Debbie Morledge (executive director of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts) told him 'We really need for you to do this,'" said Daniels. "Once he began to see the kind of numbers we were generating, he became very interested in what was happening on his farm.

“His numbers were actually quite good, but he saw something at the end of the season that led him to want to do more to reduce the amount of nitrogen leaving his farm.”

Daniels and his team of researchers did more than stick a test tube in the water running off Stevens farm. He and the University's partners in the nutrient runoff reduction project made an extensive investment in equipment and manpower to provide an almost continuous readout of the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the runoff water leaving specific fields on the farm.

Stevens’ operation near Tillar is one of nine Discovery Farms in Arkansas. Members of the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force toured the Terry Dabbs Farm, a Discovery Farm near Stuttgart, prior to their spring meeting in Little Rock.

“It’s empowering for the producer to see what’s coming off the land,” Daniels said in Little Rock, noting that once Stevens saw specific numbers about what was happening on his farm he became much more involved in the process.

“The first year’s data is showing that he’s doing pretty good, and I think he wants to refine it,” Daniels said. Once farmers “see the data, they’re willing to make changes. Steve knows that if he is losing nitrogen, he’s losing money. That nitrogen is expensive.”

Besides measuring runoff from the Discovery Farms, the University of Arkansas also provides an extensive soil testing laboratory service. When Daniels first came aboard at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, the soils lab was taking in 70,000 samples a year.

“In 2012, we pulled 178,000 soil test samples,” he said. “Some of those were mandatory for nutrient management plans, but the vast majority is voluntary.”

The eagerness to use soil testing demonstrates that “our farmers are very good at monitoring their land and implementing solutions,” Daniels said. “We often don’t give them credit for that.”

Daniels said that while it is difficult to make a direct connection between what’s found through edge-of-field monitoring to what might be flowing into the Mississippi River, the monitoring information “gives farmers the confidence to make changes.”

Still, Daniels said farmers need better tools to help guide their work, and there’s a big opportunity for land grant universities and other agencies to work together to develop those tools.

The Discovery Farm program is operated with many partners: University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, Arkansas Farm Bureau, Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board, Arkansas Rice Check-off, Arkansas Corn & Grain Sorghum Board, Arkansas Association of Conservations Districts, Cotton Inc., The Walton Family Foundation, the State of Arkansas, Arkansas Natural Resources Commission and Monsanto.

For more information on water quality, contact your county extension office, or visit www.uaex.edu.