Sustainable snapshots

Producers such as Jay Hardwick are walking softly on the ground that provides them with a living and giving society the benefit of sustainable commodity crop production.

He often looks at an iconic photo taken in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl to see what happens when ag and nature collide. He then turns to a paraphrase of Aldo Leopold, the father of modern conservation, to discover the “right things to preserve the integrity of the land.”

Those who see connotations of the agrarian operation of yore in the word “sustainability” or see it as a feel-good, trendy coinage may have their heads turned when they check out producers such as Hardwick, who farms on the 8,000-acre Somerset Plantation near Newellton, La.

Key Points

• Project puts commodity crop perspective on sustainability.

• Fieldprint Calculator takes a snapshot of field practices.

• Goal is to reduce the impact on the land.


Hardwick, an artist turned farmer, is using many of the same environmentally friendly practices top growers have been implementing on a large scale for a while. In the past two years, however, he’s been involved in a national project that one day will put a commodity-crop perspective on sustainability.

Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture has as its aim to fit the producer into the picture of sustainability, say the organizers. The Alliance includes producer groups, restaurants, chemical companies and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Fieldprint Calculator is part of the Alliance’s goal to take a snapshot of the practices used on the farm, benchmark those against others on a regional and national level, and give the producer measurable guideposts toward reducing the impact on the land. The calculator measures energy use, water use, soil loss, climate impact and land use on the farm.

Hardwick, a self-described “tenant” on an operation owned by his wife’s family, says Somerset Plantation has shrunk its fieldprint over a 30-year period in cotton, soybeans and wheat. Through practices such as conservation tillage, wetlands mitigation and field drainage devices, the land is now not only more productive, but also in better shape.

Take a drive around Somerset Plantation through some of the same roads where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. William T. Sherman camped while preparing for the Battle of Vicksburg and you’ll come to a still active ancient channel of the Mississippi River. Today, it looks more like a gently flowing creek, but in years past Hardwick planted soybeans down to its banks. Most years he had to replant after flooding. After documenting the losses over two years, he went to his landlord, “Mr. Jack” — also his father-in-law — and showed him a 70-acre area that was providing no financial return.

Through the Conservation Reserve Program, he let the land return to its natural state of grass and trees and returned $60 per acre to his bottom line instead of farming it. The area is just part of 350 acres of timber, riparian strips and wetlands. “These areas have provided me with an opportunity to teach my family the basic responsibilities that our farm is performing,” Hardwick says.

On this farm, practicing stewardship is just as important as turning a profit. Hardwick reconstructed a wetland that used to be a dry bayou. It’s now stocked with fish and has attracted alligators.

Since the 1980s, Somerset Plantation has moved away from a monoculture of cotton and conventional tillage. Hardwick uses such practices as double-cropping soybeans behind wheat. In addition to the diversity of crops and the increased yields, he’s seen an explosion of wildlife on the plantation, including a comeback of the black bear.

In one field, he’s installed grade stabilization structures with cost-share money from the NRCS. He’s planted soybeans on 7½-inch rows to lessen the amount of sunlight hitting the soil and tap the reserve of the moisture captured over the winter.

“Everything is starting to be thought of as cause and effect,” Hardwick says.

Today on the operation he uses 50% fewer people than he did 10 years ago and counts on four tractors to do the work in a four-and-a-half-day workweek.

“I’ve accumulated a lot of new time through the use of technology,” he says. He is able to use variable-rate technology and GPS as a diagnostic tool.

Without a background in farming when he moved to northeast Louisiana with his wife to start a family, Hardwick took to the “Green Acre” experience much the same way he approached art when he headed the art department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Ag is like art,” he says. “It lets one get in touch with the soul like the arts do.

“Soils and water become the nuts and bolts — the paint and brush — of my operation,” he says.

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A river ran here: Part of Jay Hardwick’s fieldprint can be seen surrounding an ancient bed of the Mississippi River on Somerset Plantation. He documented the money he was losing by planting down to the river and eventually switched the land back to its natural state.

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Looking at the long term: Sustainability takes a long-term approach, says South Dakota farmer Bill Even.

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A gentle touch:
Sustainable practices conserve soil and lead to top yields.

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Water savings:
Use of low-energy precision application, or LEPA, irrigation leads to more efficient use of water.

This article published in the August, 2010 edition of MID-SOUTH FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.