Twenty-seven Louisiana farmers, including three couples, have achieved the status of Master Farmer — a title that means they have not only learned the latest in conservation practices, but they are implementing them on their farms.
They received their certificates, along with a 12-inch by 20-inch sign for their property that says Certified Master Farmer, 8 at the 63rd annual convention of the Louisiana Association of Conservation Districts in Lafayette, La.
“This group joins 65 others who've been certified for a total of 92,” said Ernest Girouard, coordinator of the Master Farmer program for the LSU AgCenter, adding, “This is an elite group.”
The Master Farmer program, which got its start in 2001 as a way for farmers to learn up-to-date, research-based conservation practices in a comprehensive manner, is a partnership of five agricultural entities — the LSU AgCenter, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, Louisiana Cattleman's Association, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF), which has the authority by law through the Commissioner of Agriculture to approve the certification.
“Numerous agricultural commodity groups and state natural resource agencies also endorse the program,” said Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor and director of the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service.
In addition to the 27 farmers, Robert Thevis from Avoyelles Parish was named the first Master Farmer of the Year. “We added this dimension to the program to recognize the best of the best,” Coreil said.
Thevis, who farms nearly 2,000 acres of soybeans, corn, milo and wheat, was in the first group certified as Master Farmers in 2006.
“Robert continues to show his dedication to adopting conservation in every aspect of his farming operation,” Coreil said. “We use his farm to teach others about best management practices.”
J.P. and Mary Ann Hebert, one of the three couples named Master Farmers, said it took them three years to get through the program. “We're the first Master Farmers in St. Mary Parish,” Mary Ann Hebert said.
The Heberts, whose farmland was once used for sugarcane, said they have re-done the property into a cattle operation. They also raise goats and produce hay. Because of instruction in the Master Farmer program, they've put in fences, heavy-use pads and water troughs in all the pastures.
“We've gone from mud to grass to stop the erosion,” J.P. Hebert said.
Girouard said it can take several years to get through the program because it includes three phases. In Phase 1 the participants go through classroom instruction. Phase 2 involves visiting model farms to witness first-hand conservation practices in action.
“The last phase takes the longest because the producer has to work closely with NRCS to develop and implement a plan unique to his operation,” Girouard said. “Proof of implementation of the plan is what is presented to LDAF for final certification.”
Coreil said the premise of the Master Farmer program is to reward farmers for voluntarily adopting conservation practices.
“The practices they adopt usually cost them money,” Coreil said. “But the long-term effect is a more efficient operation that will be more profitable. The public benefits because the ultimate result is clean air and water for everybody,” he said.
“We build relationships with farmers through this program,” said Kevin Norton, NRCS state conservationist. “Our challenge is to be there to assist farmers and help them solve problems in the future.”
“This program gives farmers the chance to go back to school,” said Mike Strain, LDAF commissioner.
New Master Farmers listed alphabetically by parish: Claiborne: Paul Hylan; East Carroll: Brian Howard; Evangeline: James Deshotel; Jefferson Davis: Rene' Daboval and Ronnie Zaunbrecher; Lafayette: Darrell Richard and Donald Simon; Livingston: Dawn Wales and Lennie Wales; Natchitoches: Robert Alost, Robert Scott and Hubert Wilkerson; St. Landry: Dale Bertrand, Nell Menard and Nolton Menard; St. Mary: J.P. Hebert and Mary Ann Hebert; Tangipahoa: J.A. Girgenti; Vermilion: Raymond Fontenot, Kevin Landry, Tracy LeBlanc, Kent Lounsberry, Kevin Meyers, Charles Payne and Christian Richard; West Carroll: Charles Raymond; Winn: Glenn Austin.