Louisiana Leads the Nation with the Master Farmer Program

The Louisiana Master Farmer Program team
Harvey Gonsoulin of Iberia Parish, center, was among the first to be certified as a Master Farmer. Left to right are Ernest Girouard and Donna Morgan, Master Farmer coordinators; Charles Stemmans, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service; and Carrie Castille, now with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, who was one of the original AgCenter coordinators. Master Farmer participants who complete the Master Farmer training are certified. Under state law, they are presumed to be in compliance with allstate regulations. Photo by Bruce Schultz
Photo of Stuart Gardner
Stuart Gardner, kneeling at right, with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, talks about different forages that can be grown in Louisiana on the Vermilion Parish cattle operation of Craig Adam, at left. The Master Cattle Producer program includes instruction in conservation practices that enhance environmental stewardship, and NRCS is a partner in the program. Photo by Bruce Schultz
Photo ofFarmer Kevin Berken of Jefferson Davis Parish, at left, and County Agent
Farmer Kevin Berken of Jefferson Davis Parish, at left, and County Agent Eddie Eskew, now retired, talked about improvements being made on arice field near Lake Arthur in 2004. Rice farmers have taken the initiative to undertake projects that maintain water quality. Often, water released from fields is lower in silt than what is found in area waterways. The LSU AgCenter started the Louisiana Master Farmer Program in response to the threat of possible federal regulations that could have restricted many agricultural practices. Photo by Bruce Schultz

Article by Bruce Schultz

The Louisiana Master Farmer Program started in response to the specter of federal regulations threatening to impose unworkable requirements on agricultural operations across the state.

Paul Coreil, retired LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for extension, said he recognized the need for such a program in the early 1990s when more federal regulations were looming.

“There were some pretty significant regulatory proposals for forestry and agriculture,” he recalled.

Some of the proposals would have imposed nonpointsource pollution controls, restrictions on agricultural burning and possibly expanded the Endangered Species Act, which would have affected many Louisiana farms.

Coreil said the cornerstone of the Master Farmer Program is voluntary adoption of basic conservation measures, called best management practices, that farmers agree to follow.

“The whole idea was either one of voluntary compliance or letting someone come in from Washington and tell you what to do,” he said.

Coreil said as a model, he looked to the Master Logger Program established by the Louisiana Forestry Association in the early 1990s.

“I give them credit for giving us the motivation advancing the ideas of best management practices and stewardship,” he said.

Coreil said for many farmers the program includes practices they were already doing without any attention.

“We knew farmers were doing a lot of good things, and they weren’t getting credit for it,” he said.

Most farmers were aware of their obligation to protect the environment, he said. The Louisiana Farm Bureau and theLouisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry joined forces with the LSU AgCenter and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and they went to the Louisiana Legislature.

“We decided to develop a program with statutory validity,” he said.

A bill establishing the Master Farmer Program passed unanimously in both the Louisiana House and Senate in 2003. Under the law, certification by the Louisiana Master Farmer Program automatically designates that a producer is complying with state regulations.

After Louisiana enacted the program, other states came calling to find out how to establish similar programs, Coreil said. Now the program has expanded into environmental education for commodity-specific groups such as Master Cattle Producer and Kellogg’s Certified Rice Grower. Work is underway to create a program for poultry producers.

Coreil assigned Carrie Castille to develop the initial framework for the Master Farmer Program.

Castille recalled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had threatened to impose water quality standards on waterways used by rice farmers for irrigation, starting in the Mermentau River Basin. She said the LSU AgCenter organized educational meetings with rice-growing organi zations to let farmers know what steps that could be taken that might persuade the EPA that the industry was taking steps to improve water quality. Best management practices were stressed, although many producers had been implementing these practices on their farms for years, she said.

The EPA turned its attention elsewhere.

“I attribute a lot of that to the participation of the producers,” Castille said.

Now the deputy assistant commissioner at LDAF, Castille continues working with the Master Farmer Program.

New issues have arisen, she said. These include fuel storage tank regulations, dust control and pesticide drift.

“I think today the Master Farmer Program is even more relevant now than when it started,” Castille said.

She said environmental groups have more influence now, and the local food movement has drawn consumers’ attention to how and where their food originates.

“People are paying more attention to environmental issues related to food safety and how food products are handled,” Castille said.

Rogers Leonard, LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor for plant and soil sciences, said the Master Farmer Program is continually fine-tuned to stay relevant with current issues.

“We have found one of the stumbling blocks for the educational program has been the time and opportunity to get through Phases I and II. We took the suggestions of our farmers and created a Master Farmer University,” he said.

Phase I of the program involves classroom instruction, and Phase II requires a tour of farm that has put into practice a conservation plan.

In the Master Farmer University program, these two phases have been streamlined into two days, with the first morning devoted to a general session to introduce best management practices that apply to most agricultural operations, and that afternoon, sessions are tailored for specific commodities.

“On the second day, participants tour local farms or research stations and view BMPs in action while discussing these practices with producers and scientists,” Leonard said.

The third phase required for certification is development of a farm-specific conservation plan, which is guided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Certified Master Farmers are presumed to be in compliance with state soil and water regulations. To remain certified, the program requires six hours of continuing education annually.

To date, 197 farmers in Louisiana have attained the status of Master Farmer, according to Ernest Girouard, the statewide coordinator.

Bruce Schultz is an assistant communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.

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