ALEXANDRIA, La. — A group of central Louisiana farmers voluntarily returned to the classroom to learn to become better stewards of the land — and to do their part in protecting the water quality of Louisiana's streams and rivers.
The farmers, like many across the state, are participating in a relatively new LSU AgCenter educational initiative known as the Master Farmer Program.
"This is a model program," LSU AgCenter Chancellor Bill Richardson said. "And environmental officials from other states are using this program to develop programs in their states."
Almost 60 farmers from Avoyelles and Rapides parishes participated in the introductory session of the Master Farmer Program held Feb. 18 at the LSU-Alexandria campus.
"The Master Farmer Program is a multi-agency effort targeted at helping agricultural producers voluntarily address the environmental concerns related to production agriculture," said LSU AgCenter water quality specialist Fred Sanders.
The original formation of the Master Farmer Program was a product of the Environmental Protection Agency's ongoing monitoring of the Total Maximum Daily Load of pollutants in water bodies, which has resulted in a number of streams in Louisiana and other states being placed on EPA's impaired waters list. To improve these waters, Louisiana needs to reduce the amount of pollution entering the streams and rivers.
To address the part agriculture may play in that process, the LSU AgCenter, the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation and many other state and federal organizations such as U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Louisiana Association of Conservation Districts and the state departments of Environmental Quality, Agriculture and Forestry, and Natural Resources worked together to develop the Master Farmer Program.
This educational program is being offered to all Louisiana's agricultural producers — both large and small — throughout the state on a watershed by watershed basis until all producers in all of Louisiana's 12 watersheds are trained.
"To date, more than 400 farmers have enrolled in the Master Farmer Program, and those represent over 600,000 acres of agricultural land in the state," said Sanders, stressing, "Farmers want to work and do their part to improve the water quality standards."
The quality of the Master Farmer educational program is endorsed by the agricultural producers.
"Look at this information," said Mike Boone, a farmer from Lecompte, La. "I always wondered where water goes that falls on my farm. Now, with the drainage map in this book, I can trace the water to the Gulf."
The Master Farmer Program is an evolving program that begins with eight hours of classroom work focused on environmental stewardship. During that phase, farmers receive an overview of the environmental regulatory climate, the benefits derived from the use of Best Management Practices (BMPs) in reducing agriculture's contribution to non-point source pollution, and methods of obtaining assistance to implement BMPs in practice on their land.
For certification as a Master Farmer, the producer then is required to visit at least one model farm, which will showcase the successful implementation of BMPs.
"Model farms will serve as monitoring points to help us keep track of the differences these measures are making in our environmental quality," said Sanders.
Among the practices involved in agricultural BMPs are a wide range of conservation practices such as planting filter strips to stop nutrients and sediment from leaving the farm, precision leveling of fields to conserve water and reduce erosion, soil sampling to apply nutrients as recommended, and planting a crop into existing vegetation to avoid soil disturbance.
As part of the Master Farmer Program's completion, each producer also is required to develop and implement an approved conservation plan.
Then, once certified as a Master Farmer, each participant must continue his or her education by earning continuing education points by attending a variety of activities such as field days and grower meetings.
In addition to the core curriculum of the Master Farmer Program, there also will be opportunities for the producers to receive further education on the commodities they grow.
John Chaney writes for the LSU AgCenter. (318–473–6605 or firstname.lastname@example.org).