Conservation on display Almost 60 years ago, thousands of young soldiers traveled to an isolated Air Force base in Mississippi to serve their country.

In the years since, the Greenville, Miss., military base many World War II soldiers called home has undergone numerous changes. With old barracks either torn down or converted into government offices and preschools, the once bustling area of activity is a skeleton of its former self. Now, in what could be its final transformation, a large portion of the old military base will become a public showcase for Delta agriculture.

The Delta Conservation Demonstration Center in Greenville, Miss., will operate as a conventional Delta farm, while also showcasing best management practices and other environmentally sound production practices such as alternative cropping and tillage systems.

The center, which consists of 624 acres of cultivatable land plus adjacent wooded areas, is being leased from the city of Greenville by the Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District. The District's five commissioners will operate the Delta Conservation Demonstration Center with Hiram Boone serving as executive director of the farm project.

"We want to show farmers and landowners the benefits of buffer strips, field borders and vegetative water ways. We also want to showcase some non-traditional conservation methods that are often more economical than the conventional practices farmers are using," says Boone.

To jump-start the demonstration farming operation, the district commissioners are receiving private "seed money" donations through a newly developed tax-exempt foundation.

The group has also begun seeking out partnerships with private companies and public research agencies. Some partners, such as crop specialists with the Delta Research and Extension Center and the USDA Agricultural Research Service, will serve as farm advisors, providing production advice and guidance throughout the growing season.

In anticipation of next spring, a soil mapping project is under way on the farm and a massive precision land leveling project is scheduled for this winter.

"Our concept was for this not just to be a Washington County conservation project, but a true multi-state effort to demonstrate the conservation-oriented practices that can be used on farms in the Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas Delta," says Boone.

The demonstration farm, he says, will be operated just like any other farm in the Delta would be operated, with one exception. The demonstration center will be completely open to the public. Fact sheets of the production and conservation practices used will be available to the public throughout the growing season.

"It's no secret. We are going to be completely open about everything we do on this farm," he says. "We will be planting transgenic crop varieties and conventional varieties side-by-side, and we will be keeping detailed production records, from planting to harvest, on each field."

"We want you to know exactly what we put into each crop and what the outcome was," Boone says.

At the same time, the group of conservation district commissioners want to show farmers that conservation production practices can be friendly both to the environment and to farmers' wallets.

"Farmers are already doing a pretty good job as conservationists. What we're doing is providing the unbiased scientific information which reinforces the benefits of the conservation measures farmers are putting into practice," says Ronnie Hudspeth, district conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Greenville, Miss.

Another of the farm's underlying goals is to increase the bottom line for Delta farmers. "We'll do whatever it takes to make this farming operation the most profitable," says Hudspeth.

"We need to know what's profitable and what's not profitable for farms in the Delta. One way to do that is to make this a true, self-sustaining farm," he says. "If we can't make it support itself, we need to be doing something else.

The conservation district commissioners are also considering plans to demonstrate alternative crops for limited resource farmers, forestry best management practices and turf management. The group would also like to utilize the farm as a state-of-the-art training site for USDA employees.

"The scope of possibilities for this farm are endless," Boone says. "The only limiting factors for this farm are our imagination, our level of determination, and our ability to find funding."