Clarksdale, Miss., producer Pete Hunter has seen first-hand how farming practices along the Mississippi River can impact recreational activities in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I love salt water fishing,” said Hunter, who farms Belmont Planting Co., and manages crop production for Stovall Farms in Coahoma County. “I fish from Lake Calcasieu and Lake Charles to Gulf Shores to the Keys. Over the last 40 years, I’ve seen the decline in the marshes. A lot of it is the hurricanes. Some of it is we’re dumping nutrients, such as phosphates, into our waterways at a very rapid rate.”
A couple of years ago, Hunter decided to do what he could to help, and with assistance from several government agencies he built an extensive tail water recovery system, installed weirs and overfall pipes, dug a 20-acre reservoir for irrigation and implemented variable-rate fertilizer applications across the farms.
The practices are already paying off for the environment with reduced nutrient loading of water leaving the farm. They have also reduced Hunter’s dependence on groundwater and reduced overall irrigation expenses.
Justin Norris, former head of the Natural Resources Conservation Service Coahoma County office, first approached Hunter about participating in the joint venture project a couple of years ago. Stovall Farms was ideal because of its location in a watershed suffering from nutrient over-enrichment.
Hunter decided to take it on.
The project consists of a tail water recovery system on the south end of a 560-acre field which had been watered by a center pivot. Hunter converted 20 acres of cropland at the south end of the field into a 20-acre reservoir which holds 160 acre feet of water.
“We built a holding pond with a pump to move water into the big reservoir. We also cleaned out two drainage ditches (running north/south) terraced them and put in grass strips and low water weirs to trap sedimentation.”
The pivot is now used to water only the north part of the circle, which solved a big problem for Hunter. The buckshot soil under the pivot took as long as eight days to water when the pivot ran a full circle.
Hunter land-formed the south part of the circle and ran underground lines from the reservoir to irrigate it. He also put pads around fields with overfall pipes to do a better job of controlling runoff. “We’re holding all that water on the fields and regulating the points where it goes out,” Hunter said.
After the system was put in, Hunter grid sampled his farm and started applying variable-rate fertilizer. “We use only the amount of fertilizer that we need. We set a target yield and fertilize for that yield. Not much runs off. We catch it in the tail water system and pump it back out on our fields.”
It’s a significant change from the way things used to be, noted Hunter. “One of the big things we have always worked toward is improved drainage, so when we get a big rain, water moves on out. When I first got out of college, every winter I worked on drainage. But today, we’re shooting more and more water straight to the river. That water contains silt which contains phosphorus and other nutrients. We have to conserve and reuse water and keep nutrients and chemicals on the farm.”
A large part of funding for the project came from a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant. Thirty percent came from Stovall Farms and Hunter, who says there was some “sticker shock” to the cost, including losing 20 acres of cropland to the reservoir.
But Hunter said the project is already paying off. At a recent field day on the farm, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that their monitoring station showed significant reductions in nutrient and chemical load in water leaving the farm. The monitoring is a cooperative effort between USGS, Mississippi State University and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
And there’s been an economic benefit for Hunter as well. “It’s a lot less expensive to pump water out of a reservoir than it is to pump it out of the ground. Even though it takes two pumps, I burn less diesel with the two pumps than I do with one pump sucking it out of the ground.”
Another important reason for implementing a tail water recovery system is to stay ahead of depleting water resources in the Delta, noted Hunter.
“We all know that the Delta is running out of water. During the 39 years of my career, I’ve seen us go from 6,000 wells in the Delta to three and four times that many. We already know that Sunflower County is running out of water,” said Hunter, who is active on the local NRCS committee.
“There’s going to be a point down the road where we are going to be allotted water. At that point, when farmers don’t have enough water to irrigate their crops, there is going to be a lot of people coming up with innovative ways to store water on their farms.”
Hunter hopes to be ahead of the game by the time that happens.
Stovall Farms is the oldest farm in Coahoma County still owned by the original family. It was purchased in 1838 from the Choctaw Indians in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit. The farm lies within the headwaters of the Harris Bayou Watershed.
Partners in the project include Delta F.A.R.M, Delta Wildlife, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, Mississippi State University, Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey.