REACH is Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat.
In the Mississippi Delta, the fabric connecting water, agriculture and wildlife is tightly woven. Fortunately, conservation-minded farmers are playing an instrumental role in developing solutions to challenges that save money, maintain or improve yields and conserve water and help improve water quality and wildlife habitat.
- Eighty percent of the 3 million crop acres in the Delta are irrigated. Once vast underground aquifers used to irrigate crops are heavily stressed.
- Pumping water from aquifers can be a significant expense for farmers given the amount of energy it requires.
- Depleted aquifers pose threats beyond drought-stricken crops or rising food prices. In many cases, healthy aquifers “feed” rivers and therefore sustain wildlife and habitats during dry months—something that often ceases when aquifers are overtaxed.
- When water runs off a farm field, it often carries with it nutrients from fertilizers and sediments that make their way into our streams and degrade water quality. In the case of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, when the nutrients make their way into the Gulf of Mexico, the algae blooms they form result in oxygen-depleted hypoxic or “dead” zones where little life exists, thus affecting critical commercial and recreational fishing and seafood industries.
A Win-Win (Win) Approach
A lot of water falls on and flows through the Mississippi Delta. But this typically happens in wetter winter and spring months, while crops require water in drier summer months. The traditional approach to water management on farms in the Delta—and throughout much of the nation’s breadbasket—is to use ditches or pipes to divert the water and nutrients that run off fields away from the property as quickly as possible.
Spearheaded by Mississippi State University and Delta F.A.R.M. (Farmers Advocating Resource Management) and supported by The Nature Conservancy, the REACH program works with farmers to evaluate and showcase the benefits of water conservation practices offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS.
While objectives are farmer driven and tailored for each farm, the basic principles are usually similar—and fairly simple. First, fields are graded and irrigation pipes are designed and installed so that water is used as efficiently as possible. Next, underground pipes are placed at the low end of fields to funnel runoff water (from rainfall or irrigation) into collection ditches. The water is then diverted or pumped into reservoirs where it’s stored until it’s needed for irrigation.
The benefits of this approach are many. Farmers can save a significant amount of money in fuel costs, because pumping surface water short distances costs far less than pumping ground water. Holding the water in reservoirs allows time for plants to help filter the nutrients from the water and sediments to settle from it. Preliminary studies also show that some of the water in these reservoirs seeps into the ground, where it helps replenish the aquifer. Plants in the collecting ditches also serve as natural filters that help remove nutrients from the water. And many of the designs the REACH farmers implement create prime wildlife habitat, such as wetlands.
Faces of Conservation
Mike Boyd and his son, Lamar Boyd, own and farm 3,500 acres near Tunica, Mississippi. They also own and operate Beaver Dam Hunting Services. Some of the duck hunts they offer take place on 900 acres of their farm, including 300 acres of flooded cypress trees.
Lamar says REACH provides benefits beyond operational savings from the use and recycling of captured surface water: “We can use the water we capture to flood our fields or our cypress stands just before and during duck season. We might have water on our property that attracts ducks when others don’t. That’s a big advantage.”
Pete Stovall owns and farms more than 5,500 acres near Clarksdale, Mississippi. It’s a farm his family has owned for decades. In addition to working with REACH to design fields and construct a reservoir to use surface water, Pete has also installed instruments that monitor soil moisture levels on his fields. In one instance, these devices showed him he was overwatering a field. “Not only did I save money by pumping less water, I saved money because my yields increased when I watered it less,” he says.
A prime motivator for implementing conservation practices on his farm is water quality: “I know what runs off my farm ends up in the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. I know that agriculture can impact water quality for people downstream, and I want to do my part to help fix that problem. I am also very passionate about fishing in the Gulf. I fish there several times a year, and I want to do my part to help protect it, too.”
More than 40 farmers who own or manage over 126,000 acres in Mississippi participate in the REACH program. Its mission is to integrate research and outreach on participating farms to demonstrate the benefits of water conservation on agricultural lands while encouraging profitable and sustainable production. The designs and practices developed by the program are used to further conservation adoption in agriculture.
Dr. Robert Kröger with Mississippi State University says the program is successful because it is driven by the farmer’s needs, not a set agenda. Conservation programs in the U.S. Farm Bill, particularly those that are part of the Mississippi River Basin Initiative or MRBI, provide the bulk of funds for practices that participating REACH farmers implement.
A second reason for REACH’s success is that participating farmers are some of the program’s strongest advocates. “Farmers listen to other farmers,” Kröger says.