The idea of opening up your farm to inspection might be a bit daunting to some farmers. But Louisiana farmer Christian Richard wouldn’t bat an eye at the opportunity, thanks in large part to his involvement in Louisiana’s Master Farmer program.

Richard farms about 4,000 acres of farmland in a rice-soybean and rice-crawfish rotation around Kaplan, La. Richard’s farm is closely tied to environmental practices that improve water conservation, water quality and wildlife habitat. On Richard’s operation, there’s nothing to hide and everything you want to know about environmental stewardship.

For Richard, it’s the only way to go.

“It’s all about telling the message to the public,” Richard said. “To be able to say that you are a Master Farmer, that you can provide a wetland habitat for birds, can take the negative stigma away from a rice farmer and put a positive spin on it. This is obviously good for everybody.”

The coordinator of Louisiana’s Master Farmer Program, Ernest Girouard, along with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, helped Richard write a resource management system (RMS) plan. “We went to every field,” Richard said. “We found a couple of places that needed pipe drops. Wherever we needed to address resource concerns, we put a plan in place to address them. If there were programs where we could apply EQIP, we did. We had all kinds of different avenues to get some cost-share to help us implement these plans.”

Once the RMS plan is implemented, “it’s a living document,” says Richard. “As you add farms, you add them to your list. When the state does the ranking pools for NRCS for EQIP, you actually get extra points for being a Master Farmer.”

In other words, the Master Farmer program is not just a status program for high-level achievers. It’s a work-in-progress of environmental stewardship for all farmers. For example, Richard recently acquired 500 acres of land and immediately enrolled it in EQIP. With the knowledge he has acquired as a Master Farmer, he plans to put in a tailwater recovery system that will eventually allow him to water 300 acres of rice from a reservoir.

Richard has also enrolled acreage in the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, whichbegan during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Projects provide food and critical habitat for bird populations, much-needed water during drought and support for local economies through attracting hunters and bird watchers. NRCS helps producers implement a MBHI plan through the Wetlands Reserve Program, EQIP and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.

“All of my crawfish ponds are enrolled in it,” Richard said. “Basically you drain the crawfish pond in July, disk it, re-laser-level it, fix up all the ruts and holes, then flood it again. It provides a habitat for the shorebirds, ducks and geese. And it works well crawfish production.”

Richard picked up a number of ideas, if not the spirit of environmental stewardship itself, as a member of the 2005 Rice Leadership Development Program, sponsored by John Deere Co., RiceTec, Inc., and American Commodity Co., through The Rice Foundation and managed by the USA Rice Federation.

A visit to several California rice farms during the program was eye-opening for Richard. “We’re not at that point yet, but we are seeing what they’re getting mandated to do, and we don’t want that to come here. Once we meet the requirements, we are granted certified Master Farmer status and are considered  in ‘presumed compliance.’” (Act 145, passed by the Louisiana state legislature, allows the state commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to grant certification).

Presumption of compliance means a Master Farmer program participant who completes all three phases of the Master Farmer certification process and is certified by the commissioner, is presumed to be in compliance with state soil and water quality requirements as long as certification is maintained.

 “We are using best management practices to grow rice in a very environmentally conscious way,” Richard said.

Richard notes that local rice mill has started providing a small premium for rice grown by certified Master Farmers. “Their goal is to sell the product with a stamp on it that says this was grown in a company-wide and producer-sustainable manner. As farmers, we are the ultimate environmentalists.”

Clearfield rice has had a significant impact on Richard’s ability to succeed at environmental stewardship. It allowed Richard and many other south Louisiana rice producers to convert from water-seeded production to a dry-seeded program. The result has been tremendous savings in diesel, labor, trips across the field, and nutrient and sediment reduction, and an improvement in water quality.

“It’s paramount that we follow the stewardship program,” said Richard, who this year planted 86 acres of Jazzmen, 200 acres of conventional hybrids, 500 acres of Clearfield XL 729 and 900 acres of CL 111.

“If we don’t, we’re back to water-seeding. We can’t be as efficient, and now a lot of farmers don’t know how to manage rice the old way. Clearfield has been a lifesaver. I’d farm only half the land I farm now, and with twice the labor, without Clearfield.”

The Clearfield technology was discovered and developed just a few miles down the road from Richard at the Rice Research Station in Crowley. “We have a real jewel in the Rice Research Station. When you think about all of the technology that we’ve gotten from there, it’s amazing.”

Richard received his Master Farmer certification in 2009. In 2010, Richard was named Outstanding Louisiana Master Farmer. Richard said completing the Master Farmer program wasn’t as intimidating as one might think, and he recommends it to other farmers.

“Some farmers say they don’t want somebody coming out to their farm. Some people are private like that. But the people who are writing the RMS plans are not there to tattle on you. They’re going to help you address concerns. It’s proactive. The NRCS guys are really helpful.”

“Christian knows that soil and water conservation practices work,” said Ernest Girouard, of LSU AgCenter, who helped Richard develop his RMS. “He’s there for the long haul. He wants to protect all of the natural resources so they will be available for him each year and in the future. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to implement the newest technology.

“He’s on auto-steer and uses that in his plowing, harvesting, fertilization and spraying. He keeps excellent records and uses all of the new technology available, not only with his equipment, but also in management of his operation, with his iPhone and his computer.”

Richard says his environmental stewardship has led to higher yields with fewer resources and lower production costs. But that’s only a part of the reason why he’s doing it.

“You can’t afford not to be doing this. You can’t be a successful rice farmer without doing some sort of land-leveling or land-forming. You can’t afford to waste water. You can’t afford to let a diesel engine run 10 hours more than what it needs to, just to put some extra water on the field because it’s not level.”

Richard’s family is supportive of his efforts. His wife, Julie, works for the Louisiana Farm Bureau as assistant director of field services for the Young Farmers and Ranchers program and is coordinator of the Women’s Leadership Committee activities. “She understands the hours farmers work, because her dad was a farmer. That’s a huge deal. Not many spouses would understand that farming is a different lifestyle.”

Richard and his wife have two children, Katherine and Saul. Richard credits his grandfather, Robert Landry, “for teaching me how to farm, and my dad, Jude, for teaching me how to be a businessman.” Richard’s mother is Terrie.

Thanks to them, and his involvement in Louisiana’s Master Farmer program, Richard has the confidence that he’s doing everything the right way.