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Modern Farm Practices Improve Water Quality
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi farmers have a history of concern for their environment. After all, they depend on it for their income, their families' health, and their year 'round enjoyment. Recent research indicates that current agricultural practices are improving the state's water quality.
For years, monitoring efforts were directed toward industries and cities with a pipe or pipes emptying waste water into the environment. Today, there is an increased focus on non-point source pollution, such as storm drains, septic tanks and agricultural lands. Mississippi farmers and researchers have been preparing for this increased awareness.
"Research is showing that agriculture is not the bad guy some people make it out to be. Farmers are leading in cleaning up the environment with their voluntary practices," said Dr. Jonathan Pote, Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station researcher.
Pote co-chairs the Mississippi Delta Management Systems Evaluation Area Technical Steering Committee. The MSEA, developed since 1995, combines the efforts of federal, state and local agencies to evaluate water quality enhancement programs at three oxbow lakes in two Delta counties. Oxbow lakes are water impoundments that remain after a river changes its course.
"The agricultural trends were already in place to make these lakes better than when we started the research about four years ago," Pote said. "Water quality in the United States was at its worst in the '60s and '70s when DDT was in use. We didn't realize the impact we were having on the environment."
Pote, director of the Water Resources Research Institute at MSU, said today's pesticides have shorter life spans, making any efforts to remove chemicals even more effective.
"Farmers in the '90s are plowing less and keeping away from the edge of the water, following soil sample information and using less fertilizer, and using safer chemicals with shorter life spans," Pote said.
Charles Ed Snipes, MAFES plant physiologist and MSEA lead agronomist, explained that the project is validating practices used for some time. Farmers have been using many Best Management Practices that never have been scientifically evaluated.
Frank Gwin Jr., project coordinator, is responsible for the daily operations and serves as the liaison between 11 farm operations, 19 agencies and private organizations, and 49 scientists.
"The major problem had been with soil eroding into the lakes. They are much clearer now," Gwin said. "There is a balancing act in decreasing soil loss, the greatest threat to Delta water quality. If the water flows off too fast, it erodes the soil; if it moves too slow, the standing water kills crops and keeps farmers from working in the fields."
Project developers chose three lakes in the heart of Mississippi's agriculture surrounded by farms using conventional tillage methods. The lakes are located in the southern portions of Sunflower and Leflore counties between the Yazoo and Big Sunflower rivers.
"These are some of the most innovative farmers in the Delta. They are very interested in gathering this scientific data for future policies," Gwin said. "Even without the project, they would be working to improve the water quality of the lakes."
Don Linn of Sunflower County is one of the farmers who have volunteered for the project. He has two goals for the research: to establish science-based data for future policy decisions and to discover the best, most economical ways to improve water quality.
"We want policies to be formed out of good science. This project offers a real opportunity for some accurate scientific data to be gathered and used," Linn said. "As future policy is formulated for non-point source pollution or agricultural runoff, this will be the background for a good, strong scientific basis for those decisions."
Linn said farmers involved in the project already have learned techniques they weren't aware of four years ago.
"We learned that some simple practices could be as effective, or almost as effective, as the more exotic options," Linn said.
Duane Gill of the Social Science Research Center at MSU is surveying Delta farmers to determine the likelihood of their adopting some of the best management practices being studied in the MSEA project.
"Apparently, farmers with land near an oxbow lake are more likely to use BMPs. We're trying to learn why farmers choose to use best management practices," Gill said. "Economics will be an important issue, but other factors enter into the decision as well. We also want to see what it might take to persuade more farmers to incorporate best management practices on their farm."