Louisiana farmers are entering the second phase of the LSU AgCenter’s Master Farmer program and are creating environmentally friendly farms that will be models for others around the world to follow.

A total of 12 farms have been chosen as model farms for the Louisiana Master Farmer program, according to Carrie Castille Mendoza, Master Farmer Program coordinator for the LSU AgCenter. They were selected to represent the state’s various major watersheds and the crops grown here.

"The purpose of these model farms is to allow farmers to show others in their watershed how certain practices can be implemented and how those practices can benefit their farming operations and the environment," Mendoza explained.

The model farms are spread across five of Louisiana’s priority watersheds, Mendoza said, adding that those include the Mermentau, Vermilion-Teche, Calcasieu, Ouachita and Red River watersheds.

"We had many innovative producers apply to become part of the model farm program, but we could select only 12 farms to represent the commodities grown and practices implemented in the watersheds," Mendoza said.

The next step for the model farms will be setting up water quality monitoring stations to collect data on how selected best management practices implemented on the model farms affect the runoff and the water bodies in surrounding areas.

The LSU AgCenter’s Master Farmer program was implemented in 2001 as a means for agricultural producers to learn more about protecting the environment, reducing nonpoint source pollution and improving the profitability of their operations.

To date, Master Farmer courses have been offered across more than half of the state, and about 1,600 farmers participate in the program. The program also is beginning to be offered to producers in the remaining Louisiana watersheds, and model farms also are being developed in those watersheds.

Brian Howard of Lake Providence owns one of the model farms in the Ouachita Watershed. Howard farms row crops of soybeans, corn, cotton and wheat – and he is a graduate of the LSU AgCenter’s Agricultural Leadership Development Program.

"I started using conservation tillage practices about eight years ago," Howard said. "I really liked it, so I continued to use it."

Conservation tillage is a no-till method that reduces soil erosion by protecting the soil surface and allowing water to infiltrate instead of running off. Reducing soil erosion is important, because erosion removes the productive layer of topsoil, reducing crop yields and land value. Soil removed from fields eventually ends up as sediment in streams, rivers or lakes – and that sediment collects and reduces their water-holding capacity. Some crop nutrients and pesticides also attach to soil particles and are carried and deposited in waterways along with the soil.

In addition to reducing soil erosion, Howard said he has found other advantages to using the conservation tillage method.

"I’m able to do more (work) with less labor," he said. "For us to stay profitable, no-till was the answer."

Howard said that because the amount of runoff from his fields has been decreased, water bodies on his property have become clearer.

"It has been very rewarding to see the changes that have taken place," he said. "In addition to clearer water, the population of earthworms also is increasing. And earthworms are useful because they aerate the soil."

Coupled with those advantages, Howard said he also been able to reduce the use of machinery for tilling on his farm.

"We do have to do some tilling," Howard said, explaining, however, that the amount is greatly reduced. "I don’t like doing it, but sometimes I have to till to maintain the quality of my fields, so I do just what has to be done."

In addition to being environmentally friendly, using the no-till method has other advantages.

"Now that I don’t till that much anymore, I have more time to be with my family," Howard said. "I get to go to school functions and other things that I once couldn’t go to because now I’m not tied to practices that are so time consuming. It’s definitely a lifestyle change for the better."

U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, supports the LSU AgCenter's Master Farmer program and said she will continue to do so in the future. Louisiana’s model farms got a boost with monies made possible by Landrieu.

"I worked hard to include funding for the LSU AgCenter’s Master Farmer Program," Landrieu said. "It allows Louisiana farmers to demonstrate that while they are among the most efficient and productive farmers in the country, they also lead the way in conservation. This program is a shining example to the nation of our farmers' ability to meet the daily challenges of weather, disease and competition in a global market – and still be good stewards of their environment."

LSU AgCenter Chancellor Dr. Bill Richardson agrees with Landrieu.

"No other state that we know of has an environmental education program statewide and as comprehensive as this one," Richardson said. "Louisiana is No. 1 with our Master Farmer program."

Donna Morgan, an LSU AgCenter extension associate working with the Master Farmer program, said the money the senator helped to obtain helps with the use of state-of-the-art equipment to conduct water quality research on these model farms.

Additional money for the program also was received through the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s 319 Program, Morgan said.

In addition to Howard’s farm, other model farms in the Ouachita Watershed are Jay Hardwick’s, Edgar Raymond’s and Tim Wart’s.

Model farms in other watersheds are: Jim Dupont’s in the Calcasieu Watershed, Errol Lounsberry’s and Craig Adam’s farms in the Mermentau Watershed; Gary Lirette’s farm in the Red River Watershed; and Ronnie Gonsoulin’s, Jeff Durand’s, Kenneth LaHaye’s and Robert Thevis’s farms in the Vermilion-Teche Watershed.

"We will continue to teach phase one of the program, which includes eight hours of environmental stewardship education," Mendoza said. "Now, with the model farms up and running, producers also can move on to phase three, which is the development and implementation of comprehensive conservation plans with NRCS and their local soil and water conservation districts at any time."

The NRCS is a federal partner with the LSU AgCenter in this endeavor, Mendoza said.

Information learned from the model farms will be presented at LSU AgCenter Master Farmer conservation field days that are being planned for 2005. A congressional tour of the farms also will be held, Mendoza said.

A. Denise Coolman is a writer for the LSU AgCenter.

e-mail: dcoolman@agcenter.lsu.edu