Mississippi farmers are finding it easier to determine which water and wildlife resource practices will work on their farms and learn what’s working on their neighbor’s farms, thanks to a farmer-driven program called REACH – Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat.

“With REACH, if a farmer has an interest in evaluating a water resource practice on his land, like a 2-stage ditch or a low-grade weir, we sign them up,” says Dan Prevost, watershed specialist with DELTA F.A.R.M. in Stoneville. “Then Mississippi State University gets involved in helping set up a research project on the farm, demonstrating the scientific results of the practices and showcasing the results through Extension.”

Started with DELTA F.A.R.M.

REACH was started 2 years ago in early 2012 and is still getting established in the state. The first farmers to enroll were members of DELTA F.A.R.M. (Farmers Advocating Resource Management). “Our farmer members, which represent 1.3 million acres in the Delta, have really been doing the natural resource improvement work for years,” says Prevost. “What was missing was the on-farm research and science behind the practices.”

Enter Robert “Robbie” Kröger, an assistant professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture at Mississippi State University. His research focuses on water resource conservation in agriculture. The willing farmers in REACH offer working farms as real life research farms. The key is also that the farmers become the champions of the program.

Expanded Statewide

Kröger and his team have been gathering data on practices for two years and have expanded the program from the Delta to the entire state. Forty-eight  Mississippi farmers are enrolled in REACH, representing about 150,000 acres.

“We also have a monthly REACH email newsletter that goes out to roughly 525 people who are either engaged in the program or support what it’s trying to accomplish or just want more information about what REACH is doing,” said Beth Poganski, a research associate at Mississippi State University and REACH coordinator for northern Mississippi.

“DELTA F.A.R.M. and Delta Wildlife have been doing great work with their farmer members here for more than 15 years to get more conservation on the land,” says Alex Littlejohn, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy in Mississippi. “When we learned the Mississippi River Basin Initiative was going to make significant financial assistance available in the Delta to promote improved water resources which would be matched by farmers, a group of us thought we needed to do something to research and monitor the practices. One of TNC’s strategies for water improvement is to work directly with farmers to demonstrate the benefits of sustainable agriculture by implementing new practices and monitoring and sharing the results. REACH does just that.”

The data from REACH is shared by project partners and farmers engaged in the research. “The farmers themselves are our education tool,” Prevost says. “Each research project is driven by what interests that farmer. The farmer talks to his neighbors about how it works, and many of them host tours on their farms for people from counties farther away.

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Jeremy Jack, recognized last year as both the national Young Sustainable Farmer and Conservation Legacy Award Winner, is a REACH participant and advocate. Jack, a cotton, corn, soybean, rice and wheat grower near Belzoni in Humphreys County, is evaluating a tailwater recovery system on one farm, among other practices. “It’s too early to tell some of the results, but already our drainage is so much better than it used to be,” he says. “We get the water off our fields in a timely manner, and since we’re reusing rainwater for irrigation, we’re leaving more water in the groundwater aquifer.”

Show and tell with social media

Jack is designating one farm “as our flagship REACH farm, for field days, demonstrations and tours. We want to help other farmers learn because that’s how we learn, from other farmers. We will be setting up cameras on the farm to show what’s happening here on the Web, and there will be a Web site blog. We’re currently trying to use social media to show what’s happening on the farm,” Jack says.

Jack is convinced farmers are good stewards of the land, but could do a better job of communicating this to the public as well as sharing with other farmers what’s working to protect resources and farm efficiently.

“But we have limited resources,” Jack said. “So it’s much better to partner with others, like REACH. It’s our channel to get the science of what we’re doing to the public. We’re very fortunate to have this group of guys helping us do a better job of farming and spreading the word.”

Prevost says the practices being tested vary widely. They include 15 of the most popular practices that NRCS offers incentives to install. “We have a lot of interest in how low-grade weirs and 2-stage ditches can hold water longer in a drainage ditch to reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment leaving a farm, and we have many projects on irrigation efficiency,” Prevost says. “One project in the works is looking at drawing down irrigation storage reservoirs to provide mud flat habitat in late summer and early fall for shorebirds. There’s just a lot of variety.”

Research from farmers to farmers

“The whole idea of REACH is that our on-farm research can make results relatable from one farmer to another,” says Littlejohn. “Say a farmer is riding the fence on whether he wants to put in a tailwater recovery system. With this project, we can put him in touch with a farmer who has research to back up what he’s learned on his farm. This is the way to expand the use of water resource practices on farms – its’ a model that could work anywhere.”

For more information, go on the web to www.reach.msstate.edu

Lynn Betts is a freelance writer and photographer from Johnston, Iowa. He was a communications specialist for the Soil Conservation Service/Natural Resources Conservation Service for 38 years.