Dairy farmers across Louisiana are going back to class to insure that their industry weathers the latest storms.

They, along with farmers from other segments of the agricultural industry, are participating in the LSU AgCenter's Master Farmer Program — which teaches them how to make the most of their resources while also protecting the environment.

Brian LeBlanc, an LSU AgCenter associate professor of watershed management, recently conducted a Master Farmer class for more than 30 dairy producers in southeastern Louisiana to help them to address non-point source pollution issues related to their operations.

“Today, we're talking about environmental policy and introducing best management practices,” LeBlanc said. “We're also trying to make the farmers aware of environmental stewardship as a part of the Master Farmer program.”

The session was part of the educational component in the three-phase Master Farmer educational program.

As part of the LSU AgCenter effort, farmers first spend eight hours in the classroom learning about such concepts as BMPs and environmental stewardship. During the second phase they visit a model farm which has implemented those practices for a specific commodity. And, finally, the participants develop and implement comprehensive management plans for their own operations — in cooperation with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Although participation in the program is voluntary, it is not without its advantages for agricultural producers. Increased efficiency in their operations and protecting the environment are some of those advantages, but a 2003 act of the Louisiana legislature also offered incentives.

“The act says that if these farmers go through the Master Farmer program and get and maintain the certification, they would be presumed in compliance with the environmental laws of Louisiana,” said LeBlanc.

To date, more than 1,300 agricultural producers from across the state — representing crops ranging from cattle to cotton — have enrolled in the program. But LeBlanc said dairy producers in southeast Louisiana have even more reasons for enrolling.

“The Department of Environmental Quality has designated some of the rivers and streams in the area as not meeting the standards for fishing or swimming, and they are considered impaired,” LeBlanc said, explaining that participating in the Master Farmer effort may help them to learn new ways to protect those waterways.

In addition, earlier in the spring, the group of dairy farmers participating in the latest Master Farmer class got together to form a new organization so they will be able to speak with one voice. Ronnie Bardwell, an LSU AgCenter area agent working with dairy producers, said the farmers formed the Association of Louisiana Milk Producers as a way to improve their bargaining position.

“This newly formed group has members from across the state and already has over 200 members,” Bardwell said, adding that he and LSU AgCenter county agent Aubrey Posey of Washington Parish helped facilitate the formation of the group.

“The dairy industry in Louisiana has been on the decline over the past few years, and this group hopefully will be able to help address the serious challenges still facing the dairy industry,” Bardwell said.

He said the association wants to educate consumers about the vital part dairy farmers play in the Louisiana economy.

“Also, we want the association to work closely with Farm Bureau and the Department of Agriculture to address some of the issues of the industry,” Bardwell said, adding, “This is now a $60 million industry that 10 years ago was a $125 million industry — when you look at the money received by producers for milk.”

Mike Miller, president of the Association of Louisiana Milk Producers, said he's optimistic about prices over the next six months, “but since Louisiana producers are now competing in the world market, nobody can be sure.”


Johnny Morgan writes for the LSU AgCenter.