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You can bank on green ag for protecting environment, pocketbook

The greening of agriculture isn’t just about becoming more sustainable and protecting the environment. It also saves “green.” Agricultural practices that reduce erosion, water use and input of fertilizer and other farm chemicals can save a significant amount of money.

One of the biggest trends in the state is precision agriculture, which is being used on approximately 25,000 acres of land in the state. Precision agriculture helps reduce the cost of production.

“With variable rate technology, you don’t have to apply fertilizer and chemicals at the same rate across the same field,” says Talbot Brooks, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies, Delta State University. “Some areas might be doing very well and don’t necessarily need the chemicals. Some are doing badly and need more chemicals. By employing this combination of remote sensing technology, precision steering in tractors and variable rate application, the grower can put just what is needed where it is needed in the field.”

Enhancing efficiency

Remote sensing uses global positioning system data to keep track of what parts of the field are doing well and those that are not. That information is then fed into sophisticated farm equipment that applies just what is needed. Money isn’t wasted on chemicals that aren’t needed, and it reduces contamination that might be contained in stormwater runoff.

“It benefits the environment by helping to prevent over or under spraying,” Brooks says. “I think it is a more profitable approach, and it also creates a more uniform field that ripens or matures equally. It makes it much more efficient to harvest. If you are driving in the Delta and look at a field of cotton, if all the plants are the same height and maturity, chances are that was a precision grown field of cotton. The grower then may only have to make one or two passes to harvest because everything is maturing at the same time, rather than having to do three, four or five pickings.”

Both precision application of chemicals and more efficient harvesting that can help reduce the number of trips needed over a field reduce fuel costs. With diesel at more than $4 per gallon at present, that is a major factor.

“You don’t necessarily have to come back and re-spray areas because the correct amount of chemical was used the first time,” Brooks says. “It also helps with the precision steering element in setting up fields at the beginning of the season. For example, with levees in rice fields, farmers may want them in the same location each year. This kind of technology helps them to do that.”

Another area of progress in agriculture is water use.

“We have had great innovations in irrigation which have allowed us to save water,” says Andy Prosser, director of public relations and marketing, Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. “For example, instead of flood irrigation, there is some technology with drip irrigation that conserves water. There have also been innovations in sprinkler irrigation. A lot of irrigation research is being done especially at Mississippi State University. Of course, water is a great natural resource and we want to use it to the best of our ability. It costs diesel fuel or electricity to run irrigation pumps. From an economic standpoint, we need to know how we can best manage our irrigation practices to reduce our input costs.”

Another innovation that has been coming on strong for the past couple years is in the timber industry. With energy costs so high, a number of kilns used to dry lumber are now being fired by wood waste instead of natural gas.

“They are utilizing what was a waste product in the past as a fuel,” Prosser says. “Wood waste boilers can also be used in the greenhouse industry to heat greenhouses. Another promising technology being researched right now in Mississippi is utilization of poultry litter to be converted into energy such as methane and electricity.”

Another ag innovation is “no-till” agriculture. Instead of completely turning over the soil, which can expose the soil to wind and water erosion, no-till equipment is available that conserves precious topsoil while reducing fuel costs.

“It reduces inputs,” says Don Underwood, executive director of the Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission. “The farmer spends less time in the field, and less diesel is used because there are fewer trips needed through the field. The environmental impact is there is less disturbance of the ground so there is less runoff and more cover.”

The method started with the commission and local Soil and Water Conservation Districts making no till drills available for a low rental fee. But now there are a lot of farmers who have purchased their own no till equipment.

Protect or perish

Depletion of topsoil is a major concern worldwide. Underwood says it can take as long as 100 years to create an inch of topsoil depending on the climate.

“We can lose that topsoil if we don’t protect it,” Underwood says. “We may be victims of our own success because topsoil losses aren’t nearly as visible as they used to be. You don’t usually see the gullies forming that you used to see. I remember when it was common to see pastures eroding out, and it still happens even in the Delta. You are going to lose topsoil. Our effort is to slow down that loss.”

With agriculture or silvaculture (tree production), topsoil can be taken for granted. But it is one of the basics for raw materials for food, clothing, building materials and many other products.

Another green innovation is tail water recovery. Any irrigation water that leaves the field is caught, held and pumped back into the field. Various structures are also used to regulate how long water stays on the field, which allows just the right amount to seep into the soil. Underwood says water is held on fields longer in the wintertime, which has big benefits for migratory wildlife.

Overall farmers today are exceptionally green for a number of reasons, Underwood says.

“One, sustainability is what they have,” he says. “Their future is tied to sustainability. Also, they love it. Most farmers do not make a tremendous amount of money, and they farm because it is what they love. The other thing is it makes good business sense. The reason we could get farmers to try no till is it helped them save money, and then they realized the environmental benefits of it. Precision ag saves money because we only use what we need. With the cost of chemicals and fertilizers these days, that makes green agriculture even more attractive.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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