Tuesday, August 14, 2012

TOP STORY >> Pryor is pushing to help farmers

Leader senior staff writer

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) hopes the House of Representatives will add language favorable to Arkansas rice and catfish farmers to this year’s farm bill.

The Senate-passed version of the bill does include drought and heat disaster relief to farmers, Pryor said Tuesday.

He appeared as a featured speaker at the field day at the Pearlie S. Reed/Robert L. Cole UAPB Small Farm Outreach Wetlands and Water Management Center in Lonoke.

Neither Pryor nor Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) voted for the version of the farm bill passed by their Senate colleagues. The farm bill easily passed the Senate 65-45.

Pryor said he is among those using the drought to start “a water caucus” in Congress, noting that critical agricultural irrigation needs are just one component of the need. Industry needs water, and the the need for clean drinking water is another concern.

“I’m trying to get the senators interested,” Pryor added.

Along the same lines, Pryor and Boozman have gotten $5 million for the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project, $5 million for the Bayou Meto Basin Water Management District—which is largely but not entirely an agricultural irrigation project.

Otherwise, the two programs will be “mothballed” until or unless money is found to push the projects forward.

“I’m concerned about mothballing for a year,” Pryor said. It could be expensive.

“We got some funding in the Senate, but we’re waiting on the House,” Pryor said.

“I encourage you to talk to your congressmen,” Pryor told those finishing their fried catfish lunches.

“In Arkansas, the Grand Prairie and Bayou Meto are important to farmers but also to hundreds of communities (who depend on the aquifer for drinking water) in eight states.

“Agriculture is a core strength in the U.S. economy,” Pryor said. “We do farming very well. We are a world leader in farming and technology.”

He said the U.S. trade deficit was bad, but that it would be terrible without agriculture.

Pryor said that free trade and the farm bill were part of his six-point solution to keep America at the cutting edge of agriculture.

Toward that end, Rep. Rick Crawford, Boozman and Pryor recently went to Panama and Columbia. They said tariffs were coming down and trade would be going up.

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, a 1973 graduate of the University of Arkansas, has warm feelings about the state. Pryor said Martinelli signed an agreement with the university to help his country set up a cooperative extension service to help advance agriculture in Panama, a country of three million people who can’t feed themselves.

The UAPB wetlands farm at Lonoke is a research station, and Tuesday, farmers toured several exhibits and demonstrations.

The farm has the U.S. Geological Service’s only Lonoke real-time aquifer water level monitoring well, which is solar powered and calls its data in daily by cell phone.

Hydrologist Aaron L. Pugh had an aquifer water level graph for that well which shows that even after recharge and recovery each year prior to irrigation season, the water level has consistently trended lower.

Before large-scale agricultural irrigation, the Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer flowed generally westward across the Delta counties, including Lonoke, until the water flowed into the Mississippi River. Now the water flows from every direction toward cones of depression—low water levels in the alluvial aquifer under parts of Lonoke and Prairie counties—even flowing away from the Mississippi River.

Jason Robertson, assistant director of pesticides-special projects for the state Plant Board, demonstrated remote solar powered weather stations, of which about 50 dispersed mostly across the Delta.

The information, related by cell phone every five minutes, lets farmers and crop dusters track winds and conditions so they know when they can apply pesticides and herbicides.

Bee specialist Yung Park, answering a reporter’s questions, said colony collapse was never as bad as the media portrayed it. Park said he believes over use and imprudent use of agricultural chemicals was the cause.

A bigger problem right now is bee mites, which take over some hives and consume the honey.

Extension weed specialist Bob Scott said barnyard grass was a problem in rice fields. “It’s the pigweed of rice,” he said.

He said it was herbicide resistant, with no new products in development. Like so many weed and pest problems, crop rotation is part of the solution.

Consultant Pat Bass, former Natural Resources Conservation Service official, said he was conducting research on the Lonoke farm’s 40-acre reservoirs to determine how farmers can protect their reservoirs from wave action erosion.

Reservoirs are increasingly critical to area farmers as they combat droughts and look for storage for the water they hope to someday get from the Arkansas River if and when the Bayou Meto project is back on track.