Mid-South agriculture is again under attack from environmentalists seeking limits on nutrients released into water bodies.

According Carrie Castille, associate commissioner, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, who addressed the Louisiana Cotton and Grain Association annual meeting in Monroe, La., recently, pressure has been renewed in large part due to a suit from the Gulf Restoration Network and other environmental organizations. The suit asks that the government set nutrient criteria, similar to total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs.

The groups hope their action will begin the process of eliminating a hypoxic zone that in the Gulf Mexico. “They feel that the major contributor to the hypoxic zone is agriculture along the entire Mississippi River basin,” Castille said. “Studies have shown that Louisiana’s contribution to the hypoxic zone is 1.5 percent to 2 percent. But they don’t care about that. They’ve tied the lawsuit to the mouth of the river, and they want to set limits and standards on agriculture. Every state that drains into the Mississippi River basin would have to comply with the same standards.”

Castille noted that Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain “is working with commissioners of agriculture throughout the United States to make sure we’re in the best position possible to defend these lawsuits. We don’t believe it is necessary to set nutrient criteria or limits on fertilizer and pesticides. No. 1, it would cripple the industry, but secondly, we have voluntary programs in place that are doing all these things.

“Our producers want to do the right thing. We feel we need to get credit for that. We feel like the voluntary approach is working. That’s what we will continue to advocate for.”

LDAF has created a statewide nutrient management task force to address the nutrient issue. It is also working with EPA on a comprehensive, statewide nutrient management strategy, which could mean tougher standards coming down the pike once reliable data has been gathered. “We’re looking at homeowners, point sources, non-point sources and any source of nutrient loading into the Mississippi River Basin,” Castille said.

The LDAF is responsible for writing the agriculture and forestry section of the plan, which is “somewhat voluntary, but is strongly encouraged by the EPA,” Castille said. “Many times we have been on the opposite side of EPA, but this is one case that they are siding with us, saying it’s not necessary to establish nutrient criteria. They feel like what we’re doing now is working.”

This includes Louisiana’s Master Farmer program. “If you complete every phase of the program, you are presumed to be in compliance with the state’s water conservation standards,” Castille said. “That stands for something.”

Rogers Leonard, associate vice chancellor for research at the LSU AgCenter, stressed that farmers have to get involved in the process. “If we don’t take the steps to have some input in the development of a statewide plan, somebody else is going to do it for us.”

The LSU AgCenter has developed a survey to gather producer input on nutrient management, including practices they use that work, or don’t work. “It’s important for us to provide baseline information to the task force and the commissioner so that we already know exactly what we’re already doing right and what our limitations are, to increase our adoption of BMPs (best management practices),” Leonard said. The survey is anonymous.

 

To fill out a survey on practices you use on your farm, click LSU AgCenter survey, then click the Stakeholder Engagement tab.

 

Castille also said that EPA is increasing its focus on CAFOs, or confined animal feeding operations, which have been attacked frequently by environmentalists lately.

“They are looking at these operations under a microscope, looking at not only nitrogen applications but phosphorus. They are looking at limiting the amount of litter that you can apply the pastures.”

Castille noted that the deadline for having a Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure plan, or SPCC, in place is May 10, 2013. Farms with oil storage capacity between 1,320 gallons and 10,000 gallons, with no single tank greater than 5,000 gallons will be able to self certify. A farm with total storage capacity greater than 10,000 gallons, or with any one tank greater than 5,000 gallons, will need a professional engineering plan.

 

For more information from EPA on this issue, see EPA SPCC. LSU AgCenter has information at LSU AgCenter SPCC.

 

Castille noted that several congressional leaders from farm states have introduced the Farmers Undertake Environmental Land Stewardship (FUELS) Act which would increase the exemption level of the EPA regulations from 1,320 gallons to 10,000 gallons. A study has shown that the FUELS Act could save the agriculture community an estimated $3.6 billion in compliance costs.

 

On March 26, 2013, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will be hosting a free webinar: Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) Planning for Farms.

 

If you’re thinking of purchasing farmland, consider this observation from Vincent Malanga, president and CEO of LaSalle Economics, a speaker at the LCGA meeting.  He believes producers should consider “how much of the rise in farmland prices over the past few years has been from the projection of a transitory circumstance into a permanent circumstance.

“By that I mean that crop prices, which have been very high for the past year or two, are being projected to remain very high as we look out into the future, rather than to take on the type of cyclicality that they have typically taken on in the past.”

Malanga doesn’t believe that corn prices and commodity prices in general will hold current levels. “Price acts as an arbiter. When price gets too high, it chokes off demand. Ultimately prices will get low enough that demand will come back.”

That could happen quickly in corn, Malanga said, especially with a big supply and a reduction in demand. “It would certainly not be unreasonable to see the price of new crop corn drop back into a range of between $3 and $4 a bushel.

“If the current price of farmland is projecting that the price of corn is going to be at $7 to $8 a bushel for as far as the eye can see, then I think it’s legitimate to think that the price of farmland is too expensive.”

 

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