Decades after becoming one of Mississippi's pioneer rice farmers, 81-year-old Layton Phelps' willingness to risk change in farming practices has resulted in setting another precedent for peers.

Three years ago, Phelps decided to invest in a cooperative cost-share program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, via the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office.

The capital investment enabled Phelps to adjust from conventional contour irrigation on the 1,400-acre farm near Falcon, Miss., to straight-line levees with an underground pipeline system on 742 acres.

Most of the remaining acres were designated for hardwoods under the Conservation Reserve Program.

The switch paid almost immediate dividends. It cut labor and equipment costs, improved yields and drastically cut water application levels with better water control and sustainability — often a persistent problem associated with contour levees. The move also helped prevent sediment runoff.

After skipping a planting season in 2003, a year later the Phelps farm recorded its biggest rice yield ever, 155 bushels, while irrigating with the least amount of water from wells ever.

This year, expectations are for higher yields, and he credits the 9,535-foot piping installation, inserted in sections over a three-year period.

“I always wanted straight levees, but I never could get them until this program came along,” said Phelps, who was one of 10 children to grow up on a rice farm near Stuttgart, Ark. “I wish I could have done it years ago, but I couldn't pay for it.”

For years, he and two employees spent all day, everyday, walking all his rice fields, checking for proper water stability.

Last year, he and his grandson finished that task much more easily and in half the time.

Land value

Kathy Respess, district conservationist with the NRCS in Quitman County, said Phelps is the first farmer in the state to implement a water control system over $100,000 with help from the federal assistance program, which splits the cost, funding approximately 50 to 75 percent.

Last year, a field day attracted several local farmers interested in seeing changes to Phelps' farm. “Now, there are three farms just in Quitman County applying this practice,” she said.

Cost for the pipe is about $21 per foot; cost for risers (about 20 on Phelps' land) — which help to raise or lower water levels on sectors of the farm — is about $300 each.

Phelps' son-in-law, Butch Scipper, has helped farm the land in the past and was instrumental in learning about the program and relaying the information to Phelps. He said Phelps' longstanding inability to afford considerable irrigation improvements had the family facing a dilemma.

“In 2003, we learned that the land's lack of profitability from farming didn't offer a real opportunity to rent it,” Scipper said.

Now, the farm's property value has increased by 50 percent, and Scipper said the money invested in the pipes is on schedule to be recovered in five years.

He said the transformation has enabled the family to move from being land users to “caretakers.”

Next generation

Perhaps most valuable to the Phelps, the improvements have permitted the family farm to be passed on to the next generation, while allowing Phelps to retire.

After seeing the upgrades on the farm while helping his grandfather last year, Layton Scipper, 25, negotiated to rent the farm, and now has begun a new, surprise endeavor.

“Until this farm was improved, it never crossed my mind to farm,” he said. “I didn't want to. The biggest help is with the rice pads,” he added. “We have had a flood for four days, and haven't had the wells on.”

While the farm once needed two fulltime employees, it now needs only one part-time helper.

“Not only can we now maximize our profits on the farm, drainage is improved, the field is more uniform and the straight levees help get good growth quicker,” Butch Scipper said.

“And we now have a heck of a good crop.”

Larry Pride, NRCS technician, said not all farmers are eligible for the funding program. A farmer, he said, must be capable of irrigating two out of the last five years. Also, the program will not pay for new wells on a farm, as many farmers might assume.

But the advantages to willing farmers, both large and small, he said, include available and consistent assistance from NRCS specialists, as well as a flexible payment plan that allows repayment over 10 years.

“This program is not difficult to arrange, and it can be custom-fit for a farm,” Pride said. “The biggest thing is that the farmer must decide exactly what he wants to do.”

Respess said many farmers are unaware of the funding assistance or are skeptical or reluctant to make the financial investment.

But Butch Scipper said it's important for a farmer to view the investment in a holistic, long-term perspective.

“Don't look at this as a field-by-field basis. You need to look at a 10-year plan for the entire farmland; it's like remodeling an entire house and not just one room,” he said.

Preserve and maximize

Larry Gill, NRCS district conservationist, said a farming practice that enhances wildlife areas, saves trees, conserves water and sustains nutrients while reducing chemical runoff into waterways benefits the collective area, especially in the Delta.

“Most Delta farms are not very productive in wetland areas. These areas can be put into CRP.”.

That approach bodes well for any region, Butch Scipper said, because of the competitive nature of agriculture moving into a global economy. “If we are going to compete we must maximize our acreage and preserve our lands,” he said.


e-mail: abell@primediabusiness.com