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News and Reports > Conservation Officials Look to Farmers to Fight Gulf Dead Zones


New research shows low oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico this summer have created more than hundred square miles of dead zone. MPB’s Daniel Cherry reports how the solution to the problem lies hundreds of miles up the Mississippi River.

Pete Hunter manages the five thousand acre Stovall Farms near Clarksdale.
While surveying the land from his pickup, he shows off new conservation methods he’s put in place on the farm.

“Actually, we’re just controlling everywhere we want the water to be, and suspended in that water will be nutrients and soil particles.”

Hunter led the charge on Stovall Farms to implement some of the most advanced water conservation practices of any farm in the nation. They’ve built a system using pipes, gravity, and retention ponds, to re-circulate every drop of water that ends up on the farm.

“Straight ahead of us is a pad that goes all the way around the field. It makes it a bowl, it makes it a basin, it makes it hold all the nutrients and water on this field.”

Now the farm is being used as an example of how to reduce runoff. When water runs off a field, it carries silt, chemicals, and nutrients off the farm, into rivers. Hundreds of miles downstream, Gulf coast residents feel the effects. While touring Stovall Farms by trailer, Nancy Stoner, the Acting Assistant Administrator for Water with the Environmental Protection Agency, explains what runoff means for the Gulf.

“For the same reason that you put fertilizer on your lawn, or a farmer puts fertilizer on their field to get plants to grow, but when you have too much you have algal growth. You have green slime, and then that decomposes, sucks all the oxygen out of the water then there’s no oxygen for the fish to breathe.”

It’s a phenomenon called hypoxia, more commonly known as dead zones. Every summer the dead area covers thousands of square miles of the Gulf and becomes a major problem for Mississippians relying on the water.

“The fishermen that go out have to go farther to find the fish because of the dead zone often. So that costs them money, uses more gasoline, causes more pollution. So there are lots of costs associated with it.”

Relatively speaking, Mississippi is far from the largest contributor to agriculture runoff. The Mississippi River drains all or parts of 31 states between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. Recently, about 40 farmers and agriculture officials from across the nation came to see projects benefiting farmers and reducing pollution in the Mississippi Delta. Bill Northey is Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture.

“We certainly don’t see the results of poor shrimp fishing in Iowa, or southeast Iowa, or anyplace in Iowa, but it is something that we all share and we care about water quality.”

So how do environmental management officers convince farmers hundreds of miles north of the Gulf to put up the money to implement conservation practices like recycling water? Fertilizers and chemicals running off is literally money leaving the farm. That’s a big selling point for Hunter, but also he’s concerned farmers rely too heavily on groundwater for irrigation.

“When I was young there were maybe 6,000 wells in Mississippi. Now there’s three or four times that many. Our water table is falling, fast. If we don’t do something about it, we’re going to have areas of this state, in the Delta that are going to run out of water.”

The world population is expected to hit 9 billion people by 2050, and agriculture production will have to increase dramatically to keep up with demand. Ann Mills, Deputy Undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment with the USDA says finding a balance between high production and protecting the environment will be key.

“We’re going to have to increase agriculture production by 70% so how do we do a great job of growing crops but also protecting the ecosystem, water quality, air quality, and wildlife habitat?”

Mills says conservation projects like those taking place on Stovall Farms in Clarksdale need to become a priority and more common.

“It’s a problem that we can definitely tackle if we’re smart, if we make the right investments. We can do it, but we have to be extremely focused and very strategic in how we pursue our strategies.”

When Congress reconvenes in September, some environmental groups hope the new farm bill will include incentives and tax breaks for farmers who implement conservation practices.