Louisiana Cotton Farmer Honored For Sustainability Leadership And Outstanding Conservation.
As a Louisiana black bear cub meanders along the fields of Somerset Plantation in Tensas Parish, Louisiana, Jay Hardwick is mindful of the important role farmers must play in balancing the needs of agriculture with the needs of the land.
Formerly listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act from 1992-2016, this Louisiana black bear cub signals an achievement that many would be surprised to learn can be attributed to agriculture and efforts from farmers like Hardwick.
“It is very gratifying to see that our activity is supporting the return of a species that was on the threatened list, maybe extinction, which points to other things that might be happening on a smaller scale — other mammals, other insects that all contribute to a diversified environment,” Hardwick says. “It’s my feeling that a diversified environment in terms of crops we grow, the trees, the water and the wildlife, is a reflection of a landscape that is healthier than without.”
Hardwick says he believes in the inherent qualities of the natural landscape to provide solutions to issues like water quality, air quality and soil quality. In addition to actively managing 12,000 acres of farmland, he has restored 450 acres and preserved another 3,000 acres of wetlands on Somerset Plantation, while also maintaining 6,000 acres of bottomland hardwood timber, which provides crucial habitat for the Louisiana black bear.
“I’ve created wetland areas to provide extended wildlife opportunities and habitat, resulting in an incredible amount of burgeoning wildlife like the Louisiana black bear,” Hardwick says. “In addition, these wetlands offer supplementary irrigation if we need to draw upon it, reducing pressures on groundwater resources.”
Leadership Rooted In The Land
Recognized for outstanding conservation efforts on his farm and leadership in advancing sustainable agriculture, Hardwick was honored as Field to Market’s 2018 Farmer of the Year.
Working to harmonize productive agricultural operations while maximizing natural resource protection, he has created a comprehensive conservation plan for the whole farm. This includes extensive crop rotation, field borders, filter strips, minimum tillage and wetland restoration.
The Farmer of the Year award celebrates Hardwick’s vision and legacy, which permeate his entire family’s mission. Their goal is to maintain and grow the diversity of the agricultural, forestry and native habitat of their property while ensuring a fully functional and sustainable farmstead for generations to come.
“The ways we address sustainability are grounded in a basic land or agricultural ethic that is rooted in something that one of the premier conservationists in the United States, Aldo Leopold, said, which has stuck with me and guides me: ‘A thing or event that preserves the integrity, stability and beauty of the landscape, the farmscape, is right. That which does contrary is wrong,’” Hardwick says.
“We have a greater responsibility other than just owning the land. We have a responsibility to the planet in terms of its sustainability — from air, water and soil — and these are all important parts for farmers.”
Passing Down A Legacy
This passion for sustainability is a legacy that has passed from father to children, as Hardwick equips his sons, Marshall and Mead, to one day take his place in managing the operations of Somerset Plantation.
“What I want to do as a farmer, or my mission so to speak, is try to find the balance between my production and the resources of the habitat itself — what they need,” he says. “And there is a point where that investment becomes something other than a personal interest; it becomes generational. In our case, my sons are entering the business. Have they bought into this? Is this something that will continue to go on and they’ll improve upon? I hope so.”
As they manage increasingly more of the day-to-day operations of Somerset Plantation, Mead and Marshall are taking up their father’s sustainability mantle.
“Take care of the land, and it’s going to take care of you. Just treat it as a living organism — it’s got to be cared for; it’s got to be maintained and it will give it back to you,” Marshall says.
“I believe just trying things and thinking outside of the box is probably one of the biggest things that makes him a great farmer,” Mead says.
Learning Through Innovation
This comfort level with pushing the boundaries or exploring new practices is a trait that Hardwick has instilled in both sons.
“I think he’s influenced us and taught us to be open minded,” Marshall says. “What works best today, we may find a better way to do tomorrow. Don’t be scared to adapt. Don’t be scared to try new things.
“There have been plenty of times where we thought outside the box and kind of fell flat on our faces, but it was a learning experience. He would just say keep trying. You’re going to fail. You may find one thing out of the next 10 that’s successful for you, but it will pay off and will help you in the long run.”
“You only fail if you don’t learn something from it,” Mead says.
And learning to fail fast and continue experimenting has become a boundless source for solutions that help conserve soil, water and biodiversity for the Hardwick family.
In winter, they use water control structures to block off culverts and catch rainfall to flood fields for migrating waterfowl. They also embrace technology to enhance a multi-faceted approach to nutrient management — experimenting with poultry litter as a nutrient source, planting cover crops and using satellite mapping to determine which areas of each field need specific nutrients.
And this diversified approach is yielding positive benefits by building up organic matter in the soil, which helps it hold water longer. In the same way, by using poultry litter and cover crops to add nutrients to the soil, the Hardwicks are betting on the long-term benefits outweighing any short-term costs.
“Higher organic matter acts like a sponge, so to speak, to absorb not only rainfall but to maintain water in the soil profile a lot longer,” Hardwick says. “We want those [nutrients] to stay in the field and build upon them rather than lose them and then have to regain them.”
Documenting Stewardship Results
With increasing consumer interest in where and how food and fiber are grown, Hardwick and his family are part of a growing group of producers committed to documenting and demonstrating the sustainability performance of their management decisions.
“People want to know what we’re doing with our farming,” Hardwick says. “How are we growing our products? What impact are we having on the atmosphere, on the landscape, on the water, on the air we breathe? We have a huge responsibility and agriculture can be an important part of that solution.”
Since 2010, Hardwick and his family have used the Fieldprint Calculator to document the stewardship of their operations.
Through the sustainability analysis offered by Field to Market, he quantified the effect of moving non-economic and highly erodible areas into natural habitat and limiting crop production to land most suitable for crops. Moreover, Field to Market’s sustainability metrics have enabled Hardwick to demonstrate to other farmers, conservation groups, brands and retailers how conservation practices can be used in a profitable manner.
“The Fieldprint Calculator is truly a valuable tool in the toolbox to evaluate how this is impacting my bottom line, my energy use, the amount of water I’m using,” he says. “Can I find a better way of managing that water, so I can reduce my costs?
“This is the terrain where growers need to go to maximize not only their returns but to look for new opportunities for revenue and address some of the important responsibilities that agriculture has to a greater society.”
Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture provided this article. This group is a diverse collaboration working to create opportunities across the agricultural supply chain for continuous improvements in productivity, environmental quality and human well-being. Field to Market’s work is grounded in science-based tools and resources, unparalleled system-wide collaboration and increased supply-chain transparency.