By embracing sustainability, Louisiana farmers make their farms more efficient

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Agricultural producers learn about conservation practices like cover crop management in the Louisiana Master Farmer certification program. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Master Farmer program

By Sydney McGovern

BATON ROUGE, LA – Mead Hardwick is a fourth-generation farmer. His family still lives and works off the same 20,000-acre plot of land that his great-grandfather purchased.

He doesn’t fit the conventional image of a salt-of-the-earth agricultural farmer surrounded by dust and dressed in overalls. Hardwick moved to Dallas, earned a bachelor’s degree and worked in real estate finance for 11 years before finding his way back to the farm in Northeast Louisiana.

“I grew up on the farm. I mean I literally, physically grew up here, and so that’s always kind of with you,” Hardwick said.

The farm produces corn, cotton, soybeans and grain sorghum. And the way these crops are produced has evolved significantly since the family’s start nearly 100 years ago.     

Changes like using tractors instead of cows and mechanized harvesting instead of picking crops by hand allow for greater efficiency. But less obvious technological advances have also reduced the farm’s negative impacts on the environment.

“The only way to farm, during that period of time, was plowing and things like that,” Hardwick said. “We don’t have to rely on that. We’re able to till the soil a lot less which keeps the soil on the field, out of the rivers, out of the ocean, which keeps the pesticides and fertilizers and things like that in the fields.”

“In terms of the way we farm, I don’t think we’ve ever done a better job.”

Hardwick, along with his brother and father, is a certified Louisiana Master Farmer. The Master Farmer program helps agricultural producers address environmental concerns and build resource management skills while enhancing production.

Impending regulations aimed at agricultural producers motivated the LSU AgCenter to develop a voluntary program to educate farmers on environmental issues, according to the program’s coordinator Donna Gentry. Since its conception in 2001, the program has seen nearly 4,000 participants.

“The goal is to educate producers and landowners about the impacts that they can have both positively and negatively when it comes to water quality and sustainability on their farming operation,” she said.

Maintaining high water quality is important in Louisiana. The Mississippi River and abundant wetlands have long been the state’s lifeblood. In many ways, Louisiana’s water systems are the basis of its economic vitality – the river delta is the largest port district in the world.

And the millions of tourists that visit Louisiana each year don’t just go to New Orleans. Thriving rural areas attract many outdoorsmen.

“Louisiana is a sportsman’s paradise, so a lot of people come here to fish and do recreation, and if our water bodies are not clean enough for them to do that, you know, not only does it impact us, but it impacts the people that may be coming into our state,” Gentry said.

Excess tilling and fertilizer use can cause nutrient-rich runoff that pollutes waterways and leads to the development of harmful algal blooms.

Read more about how algal blooms endanger fishing and coastal communities.

Although Master Farmer began with water quality in mind, it has grown to address an array of environmental concerns.

“The ag producers in the state really are concerned about losing their nutrients coming off the field, losing their soil, their organic matter,” Gentry said. “We’ve kind of shifted to where it’s not just the water quality we look at. We look at soil health, soil quality, things like that.”

Hardwick said that the program reenforced many of the sustainable practices he had already implemented on his farm, including minimum tillage, cover crops, soil testing and satellite imagery.

Minimum tillage and cover crops allow farmers to leave the soil surface undisturbed from harvest to planting, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These practices increase organic matter, increase soil health and help protect the soil from erosion, benefitting both farmers and waterways.

Soil testing and satellite imagery allows Hardwick to survey the health of his plants and target exactly how and where he needs to use fertilizer.

“Before that you may just say, ‘Okay well this whole field looks like it might be suffering, let’s just do the whole field because we don’t have any way of figuring it out,’” he said. “So now we can do exactly what we need to do.”

But despite their conservation efforts, combatting climate change isn’t most farmers’ main motivation, according to Gentry and Hardwick.

“You know they’re not putting a cover crop out there to go, ‘Oh well let me reduce my impact on climate change,’” Gentry said. “They’re doing it because, ‘Okay, you know, some of these legumes can make their own nitrogen so I don’t have to put out as much fertilizer when I plant.’”

Fortunately, many conservation efforts that help reduce the agricultural sector’s environmental impacts are also economically beneficial for farmers.   

“Things like no till– yes, people do those because they are truly better, but they also do them because you don’t have to drive your equipment over the landscape as much,” Hardwick said. “If you’re not driving the tractor over the landscape as much, what are you not doing? You’re not tearing it up, you’re not burning fuel, you’re saving money.”

Farmers often feel like a target, according to Gentry. They may not be eager to take the charge against climate change because agriculture is frequently blamed for contributing to the issue.

“They know it’s not just them,” she said. “It’s a worldwide problem, and a lot of things contribute to that, not just agriculture. I think agriculture sometimes gets a bad rap because it’s easy to point the finger.”

“Producers and farmers sometimes get a little, I don’t want to say defensive, but maybe protective of their way of life and what they do because they work very, very hard,” Gentry added.

She also noted that younger farmers, like Hardwick, are likely to be much more mindful of their environmental impacts.

While he doesn’t have strong feelings about climate change specifically, Hardwick is clear about one thing.

“As a person in the ag industry, we need a healthy environment for us to provide food, fiber and fuel for the population,” Hardwick said. “People in ag are always trying to do their best because we rely on this resource for our families to make their own living and to produce those things that rest of the world needs.”

Aside from their responsibility to provide resources to people around the world, farming sustainably is a personal matter for agricultural producers.

There aren’t many commercial farms in Louisiana compared to other states, and that makes a big difference, according to Gentry.

“These are farms are being passed down generation to generation, and I think most of them want that farm to be in as good or better shape for their children or grandchildren than when they took it over,” she said. “They’re trying to do the right thing.”

Hardwick certainly feels that way.

“You’re talking about nearly 100 years of one family owning a piece of property, and that didn’t just happen by accident,” he said. “My children are fifth generation, and if I don’t farm with the same care, precision and conservation-minded practices as everybody before me, then I’m not able to pass it on in as good a shape to the fifth generation. So that’s why it’s important to me.”

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