They received their certificates, along with a 12-inch by 20-inch sign for their property that says Certified Master Farmer, on January 8 at the 63rd annual convention of the Louisiana Association of Conservation Districts in Lafayette.
“This group joins 65 others who’ve been certified for a total of 92,” said Ernest Girouard, coordinator of the Master Farmer program for the LSU AgCenter, adding, “This is an elite group.”
The Master Farmer program, which got its start in 2001 as a way for farmers to learn up-to-date, research-based conservation practices in a comprehensive manner, is a partnership of five agricultural entities – the LSU AgCenter, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, Louisiana Cattleman’s Association, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF), which has the authority by law through the Commissioner of Agriculture to approve the certification.
“Numerous agricultural commodity groups and state natural resource agencies also endorse the program,” said Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor and director of the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service.
In addition to the 27 farmers, Robert Thevis from Avoyelles Parish was named the first Master Farmer of the Year.
“We added this dimension to the program to recognize the best of the best,” Coreil said.
Thevis, who farms nearly 2,000 acres of soybeans, corn, milo and wheat, was in the first group certified as Master Farmers in 2006.
“Robert continues to show his dedication to adopting conservation in every aspect of his farming operation,” Coreil said. “We use his farm to teach others about best management practices.”
J.P. and Mary Ann Hebert, one of the three couples named Master Farmers, said it took them three years to get through the program.
“We’re the first Master Farmers in St. Mary Parish,” Mary Ann Hebert said.
The Heberts, whose farmland was once used for sugarcane, said they have re-done the property into a cattle operation. They also raise goats and produce hay. Because of instruction in the Master Farmer program, they’ve put in fences, heavy-use pads and water troughs in all the pastures.
“We’ve gone from mud to grass to stop the erosion,” J.P. Hebert said.
Girouard said it can take several years to get through the program because it includes three phases. In Phase one the participants go through classroom instruction. Phase two involves visiting model farms to witness first-hand conservation practices in action.
“The last phase takes the longest because the producer has to work closely with NRCS to develop and implement a plan unique to his operation,” Girouard said. “Proof of implementation of the plan is what is presented to LDAF for final certification.”
Coreil said the premise of the Master Farmer program is to reward farmers for voluntarily adopting conservation practices.
“The practices they adopt usually cost them money,” Coreil said. “But the long-term effect is a more efficient operation that will be more profitable.
“The public benefits because the ultimate result is clean air and water for everybody,” he said.
“We build relationships with farmers through this program,” said Kevin Norton, NRCS state conservationist. “Our challenge is to be there to assist farmers and help them solve problems in the future.”
“This program gives farmers the chance to go back to school,” said Dr. Mike Strain, LDAF commissioner. “The goal of our farmers is to be good stewards of the land so they can hand it over to the next generation.”
Girgenti is a resident of Amite and former owner of Hometown Farm & Garden Center.
For more information about the program, people may contact their local LSU AgCenter parish extension office or Girouard at (337) 788-7570; his e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.