When the owners of Ashland Plantation decided to discontinue the catfish farming part of their operation, the question became how best to utilize land that, for the most part, wasn’t suited to crops.

“We had something over 400 acres in ponds that had been in place for 20 years or more,” says Pierce Brown, who with his cousin, Richard Brown, is the fourth generation to farm at Schlater, Miss.

“Catfish had been a good enterprise for many years, but when profitability declined we decided to shut it down,” he says. “We landformed some of the ponds and put them back into crops, but most were in areas that were subject to flooding, or the soils were too heavy, and they just weren’t economically suited to farming — the risk would be too great.”

About 300 acres will be put into trees, primarily hardwoods, under the Conservation Reserve Program.

“We like trees,” Pierce says. “We’re all avid hunters, so we like the wildlife habitat aspects of the program, but we also appreciate the long term conservation and ecological benefits.”

As the pond conversion process continued, Richard says, “We saw an article in Delta Farm Press in which Dean Pennington, executive director of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Water Management District, outlined some of the water problems confronting the Delta and we decided to see what type of water conservation programs might be available for some of our land in ponds.”

That led them to the Natural Resources Conservation Service office at Greenwood, Miss., where they learned about the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), under which they’ve now converted 30 acres of ponds into two water storage facilities, from which they will irrigate row crops in nearby fields.

AWEP is a voluntary conservation initiative that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers for conserving surface and ground water and improving water quality. Part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), AWEP operates through program contracts with producers to plan and implement conservation practices in project areas established through partnership agreements.

“If you look at a map of the aquifer under the Mississippi Delta, there’s a big red dot over this county, indicating the area of greatest depletion,” Pierce says.

“We could’ve just drilled more wells — even though the heavy catfish farming in the area has had an impact on the aquifer, we still can drill wells economically and get adequate water for irrigation. But, if we can meet some of our crop needs by utilizing these water storage structures and at the same time help preserve aquifer resources for future generations, we see it as a win-win situation.”

A lot of the dirt was already in place for the projects, says Richard, so the earthmoving and construction work and costs were less than starting with a blank slate.