You may never have heard of Metcalfe, Miss., but more and more people from the Mid-South and around the country are making their way to this tiny town to see firsthand how conservation practices can enhance farming operations.

On a blazing hot mid-July day, certified crop advisors from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and the Missouri Bootheel have packed the auditorium of the Delta Conservation Demonstration Center for a day-long seminar and field tour that will earn them five hours of continuing education credits for license renewal.

“We would've been overjoyed to have 30 people,” says Hiram Boone, director of the 638-acre facility that abuts the Greenville, Miss., airport. “We've already registered more than 60 people, and they're still coming.”

The response shows “the high level of interest in conservation practices,” says Sam Newsom, who is chairman of the center's board of directors. “Conservation CEUs are among the hardest for advisors to get, and we're pleased that we can now offer this valuable training for the Mid-South.” The training is made available free of charge to the advisors.

Although this is the fourth year of operation for the center, the new administration building/auditorium has only recently opened. “But we've been busy,” says Boone, who spent 35 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before becoming the center's director. “We had a group of 150 visitors a couple of days ago, and others are booked through the end of the year. We've had insurance adjuster groups who want to see farming practices close-up; a group from Omaha, Neb. will be here in August. USDA and the National Resource Conservation Service sends people here from all over the U.S. for a week of training.”

The facility is one of three around the country established to demonstrate, under actual farm conditions, a wide variety of conservation practices and best management practices. It is also a certified facility for the national Core 4 program for common-sense approaches to improving farm profitability while addressing environmental concerns.

Although groups of young people have already visited the center, Boone says future plans call for possible multi-week “boot camps,” where youngsters would come to gain firsthand experience in farming operations.

All Mid-South crops are grown here — cotton, corn, rice, soybeans, grain sorghum, and wheat. All crops are no-till and are grown in full-size fields. Extensive data are collected on all operations and practices and updated information sheets are available at all times in mailboxes located at each field in the event farmers want to visit for self-guided tours. Plans also call for the data to be made available on a center Web site.

“This is the first place I know of where every acre can be monitored for everything that's done to it and for everything that's applied to it,” says Newsom. That includes water management and an array of conservation practices related to irrigation, water run-off, etc.

“Our long-term goal is for the center to be a place where growers, industry, government agencies, and regulators can come together to work on problems and opportunities related to the conservation of natural resources. In the future, we'll focus more on show-and-tell about how natural resource conservation can be done under real farm circumstances. In fact, I foresee a full 50 percent of our future activities devoted to demonstrating, teaching, and training.”

But, Newsom emphasizes, “This isn't for preaching — this is for hands-on, see-in-action what conservation can mean, environmentally and economically, in a real-farm environment.”

James Johnson, National Resource Conservation Service, Greenwood, Miss., says the center “can offer a lot of service, not only to the farmers of the region, but in providing training and insight to NRCS employees, crop advisors, and others who can see firsthand the benefits of incorporating proven conservation practices in farming operations.

“This facility is a valuable asset to the region, and will become more so as more data are accumulated from year to year.”

More conservation practices are being computer-designed, Johnson says. “This facility will enable us to see them on the ground and monitor them continuously.”

Interest in conservation has increased significantly, he says, particularly with the advent of the government's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which made available some $908 million nationally in cost-share funds in fiscal 2004 for conservation practices. NRCS data show $20.835 million for Arkansas; $15.156 million for Louisiana; $19.492 million for Mississippi; and $11.513 million for Tennessee.

In cooperation with USDA's Agricultural Research Service, monitoring stations are located throughout the farm to measure nutrient and chemical runoff and water turbidity.

“Interest in what is leaving the field has become a key issue in agriculture,” says station director Boone. “Using these data will help prove to the public that the farmer is a far better environmentalist and conservationist than is often portrayed in the media. The information can also be used to establish standards for agriculture.”

Biodiesel made from soybeans is also being used at the center to power irrigation pumps and for tractors and power units.

“No reduction in power or other performance-related problems have occurred,” Boone says. “Fewer emissions were observed, engines seem to run quieter and start easier in colder weather.”

Additional information about the center, training programs, tours, etc., may be obtained by telephoning 662-332-0400, or e-mail hboone@dcdcfarm.org.


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com