Saturday, April 13, 2024

Discovery Farms Conference conversations center on conservation; bringing new farmers, funds into the field

⋅ BY MARY HIGHTOWER ⋅

Farmers must not only conserve the soil and water it has today, but it must also seed the ground for future farmers and public efforts to strengthen agriculture, speakers at the Arkansas Discovery Farms Conservation Conference, said on Wednesday.

The two-day conference brought together farmers, researchers and others in the ag industry to discuss findings and experiences that are part of the conservation research and learning program. The Arkansas Discovery Farms program engages working farms by testing best practices for conserving water, soil and reducing nutrient runoff in real-world conditions. Since the program’s beginning, 17 working farms have participated, with 13 active projects across the state.

Desha County farmer Steve Stevens discusses the positive aspects of being involved with the Discovery Farms program. Taken Feb. 15, 2023, at the Arkansas Discovery Farm conservation conference. (U of A System Division of Agriculture photo)

“The thing is that a farmer has to work toward is the future. Our future generations are what’s important to us,” Steve Stevens, Desha County cotton farmer said. “If we use up all the resources that we have today, and we don’t leave something for future generations, how is the world going to eat?

And we have something unique in southeast Arkansas in that the water table has dropped,” he said. “It’s been near and dear to my heart to help slow that process and maybe stabilize it so the future generations have water.”

He cited two computer programs that help farmers maximize their irrigation when using polypipe: PHAUCET, Pipe Hole and Universal Crown Evaluation Tool, and Delta Plastics’ Pipe Planner, adding that close to 80 percent of growers have used these tools.

Stevens also cited cover cropping as a useful practice.

“Cotton is healthier with cover crop,” he said. “The thrip can’t find it.” Thrips are insects that are destructive to seedling cotton.

Water is also a major concern for Terry Dabbs of Arkansas County, farming about 3,500 acres of rice, soybeans and corn. Dabbs said the farm is located in a critical groundwater area.

Back when his wife’s grandfather purchased the farm in the 1940s, “they had the foresight to know that water was going to be an issue in the future. So, he built the first reservoir built on the Grand Prairie. At the time, the farm had three shallow wells and that reservoir. In the 70s, all three of the shallow wells went dry.

“Today, the farm is limited to surface water only,” Dabbs said. “We don’t have any other option for water for our crops.”

Dabbs said the farm uses a tailwater recovery system so “we capture every drop of water on this farm and pump it back to the reservoir.”

As practices continue to improve, Mark Morgan, owner of Peach Pickin’ Paradise in Johnson County, said “The thing about making a conservation transition is that you’re never done.”

During a panel discussion by growers, Wes Kirkpatrick, a former extension agent, who now farms full-time, said that “The world population is continuing to grow, but the acres that we farm and the resources we use to farm are not going to increase, so we’ve just got to do our part.

“I firmly believe that if everybody does a little bit, that cumulatively, it makes a bigger difference,” Kirkpatrick said.

Long-term view

Deacue Fields, head of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said the Arkansas Discovery Farms Program exemplifies a land-grant program in action.

“We like to talk about Discovery Farms as a model,” he said. “It touches on every one of these three pillars of our land-grant system.

“It has that on-farm research component. It has the teaching component. It’s not always what you think of as the formal teaching component that happens on campus, but there are parts of that too,” Fields said. “But then you have the extension and outreach component that gets our information out and makes sure everybody understands and adopts some of the practices that are being attempted during this overall process.”

The program is part of a broader landscape of public investment in agricultural research and development that’s critical to food security, he said. “You always have to think of the long-term view.”

Public funding remained flat until 2007. Then, we “started to decline that public investment in agricultural research, while other countries have really shot up the other direction,” Fields said.

Upending misconceptions about ag

While the Discovery Farms program helps farmers learn new tactics a new partner of the program in the Discovery Farm Educational Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, aims to help youth realize that agriculture may not be what they think it is.

Tomekia White, interim 1890 scholarship coordinator at UAPB’s School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences, talked about the need to bring youth back into farming, especially minorities.

The Discovery Farm Educational Center will provide hands-on training and education for youth K-12, as well as the growth of 4-H youth development programs and the Minorities in Natural Resources and Related Sciences organization known as MANRRS. It will also host field days and summer camps.

Agriculture is something many youths “think of as a low-grade-type career,” she said. “I was one of those kids who had those misconceptions of what agriculture is.”

White grew up on a farm with cattle, row and vegetable crops.

“All I knew was picking greens, shelling peas and picking corn and I knew that’s not a life I wanted to do forever,” she said.  After earning degrees in biology and a Ph.D. in applied science biosciences, “now I’m back.”

“We want to reach out to youth, youth who have that misconception of farming is — just work and dirt,” White said, and “to remove the barriers of what young people think ag is.”


Mary Hightower is University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture communications director. She may be reached at mhightower@uaex.edu.

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