Discovery Farms program expanding to 4 additional sites in 2015
By Ryan McGeeney
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture
- Discovery Farms project uses water monitoring technology on privately-owned farms
- Currently nine farms participating in Arkansas program; adding another four in 2015
- Helps farmers identify nutrient runoff, water use issues
LITTLE ROCK — Researchers with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture are expanding the Arkansas Discovery Farms program to four additional privately-owned farms in 2015, bringing the state-wide total to 13 by the end of the year.
The program, which resembles models established in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, provides “edge-of-field” water quality monitoring and analysis, designed primarily to detect nutrient run-off from row crops, livestock and other operations.
Michael Daniels, extension water quality and nutrient management specialist with the Division of Agriculture, said the program also looks at the quantity of water being used for irrigation and, in some instances, the health of the soil in individual operations.
Daniels said each monitoring operation is in response to a request from a farmer himself.
“We want this program to be farmer-led,” Daniels said. “We don’t try and make decisions about what fields to monitor — we leave that up to the farmers.”
Daniels said that the program began in Arkansas after extension researchers took a delegation of Arkansas Farm Bureau members to Wisconsin, where the first Discovery Farms program began, in 2008. He said interest among Arkansas growers percolated as public concerns over nutrient content in public waterways, such as the Illinois River Watershed, became more widespread.
“I just think the farmers realized concerns over water quality weren’t going away from agriculture. They felt a lot of people blaming agriculture really had no data to support that, but if they were causing some of the problems, [the farmers] would be willing to work with them,” Daniels said.
Daniels said that without scientific data, arguments over who or what was contributing high nutrient loads into waterways were futile. After the Farm Bureau delegation’s Wisconsin visit, Daniels and other Division of Agriculture researchers spent several years designing a Discovery Farms program specific to Arkansas and trying to drum up funding from various sources. In 2010, Daniels secured funding from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission to purchase monitoring equipment, and began installing it on the program’s first farms.
Daniels said researchers would like to have at least five to seven years’ worth of data on a farm before graduating it out of the program. “We feel we need to be there that long to really document what’s going on, and to account for variability and climate,” he said.
He said that while growers participating in the program had expressed a sense of environmental stewardship, there are also obvious economic motivations.
“If you have a lot of nitrogen showing up in your runoff, that means you’ve spent money on fertilizer you didn’t need,” Daniels said. Analyzing the nutrient runoff from one growing season can help a grower trim input costs for the next, he said.
Three of the existing nine Discovery Farms are located in northwest Arkansas, and include two poultry operations and one beef cattle operation. The other four are row crop operations, and are located in Desha, Pope, Cross and Arkansas counties.
Andrew Sharpley, University of Arkansas professor of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science, helps administer the Discovery Farms program with Daniels. He said purchasing and installing the monitoring equipment costs about $10,000 - $20,000 per farm, and an additional $10,000 annually in lab analysis, labor and travel.
The four new farms will be primarily funded through cost-share grants from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which are paid to participating producers. The producers then contract with the university to monitor and analyze water quality at multiple sites on a specific farm.
The farms identified for the expansion are considered “historically underserved,” Daniels said. Three of the four farms are in the Pine Bluff area, and the fourth is near Forrest City in St. Francis County. The grants are provided under what is known as Conservation Activity 201 and 202.
Sharpley said that he would eventually like to see the program expand to more farms throughout Arkansas, but that realistic management of such an operation would require a full-time administrator dedicated to the program (Daniels and Sharpley currently administer the program alongside other teaching and research responsibilities with the University of Arkansas).
“We’re trying to expand the program within a manageable framework and our current resources,” Sharpley said. “But the bigger it gets, the harder it is to keep on top of everything. If we’re going to do it, we want to do it right. “
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Media Contact: Ryan McGeeney
Cooperative Extension Service