Discovery Farms Program Helps Farmers Save Money While Saving Face


Steve Stevens, a Discovery Farms Program participant and cotton farmer, shows off equipment on his farm southeast of Dumas in Desha County.
Steve Stevens, a Discovery Farms Program participant and cotton farmer, shows off equipment on his farm southeast of Dumas in Desha County. (Jason Burt)

The Arkansas Discovery Farms Program is giving farmers data to help them farm sustainably, which, in turn, increases profitability, participating farmers and other state agriculture experts say.

In addition, they say, the program gives farmers a public relations boost that indirectly affects their bottom line.

The program is a public-private partnership between the University of Arkansas System’s Division of Agriculture and private landowners. It was launched in the mid-2000s by Co-directors Mike Daniels and Andrew Sharpley after a visit to Discovery Farms in Wisconsin.

Twelve commercial farms across Arkansas are taking part in the program currently, letting researchers set up and use technology to monitor the quality of water running off certain fields.

Daniels described for Arkansas Business the stations that are installed: The main equipment is placed inside a small plastic storage shed on an elevated platform. From there, peripheral equipment, namely a water-sampling line, runs to the pipe through which runoff water is directed. The stations are designed to detect nutrients, or fertilizer, that the fields lose to runoff water.

Each station can be programmed to take samples automatically, based on the volume of the water running off fields.

“We can program it to, say, every 5,000 gallons, take a sample. And we’ll take 100 samples during a storm event … so we get an average concentration across that entire runoff event,” Daniels said.

In addition, the stations can be programmed to alert researchers to a runoff event. “For example, if we get a rainfall in the middle of the night and water’s running off, it will automatically pull a sample for us, send us a text message on our phone to let us know it’s sampling and tell us when it’s done. And then the next day we go out and physically get the sample from the sampler,” Daniels said.

Pasture runoff flowing through an edge-of-field sampling site.
Pasture runoff flowing through an edge-of-field sampling site.

A ‘Farmer-Led’ Program

But the technology used is not what makes this program a standout. “One of the aspects of this program that makes it unique is that it’s farmer-led. What I mean by that is we don’t go out and tell farmers what they have to do,” Daniels said. “We just go ask them, ‘If you could monitor the quality of runoff and the volume of runoff, what field would you want to do that in and what kind of agricultural practices do you want to look at.’ … So it’s farmer-led, stakeholder-driven.”

The program is free to farmers. In fact, they’re paid to participate through a cost-sharing arrangement with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Daniels said. Participating cattle farmer Ron Morrow of Wedington (Washington County) said he gets paid $2,500 a year.

The program is funded by that arrangement and grants obtained by Daniels and Sharpley. It doesn’t have an annual budget per se, Daniels said, but setting up one monitoring station costs about $15,000 in equipment, labor and travel. It costs another $100-$120 to get each of hundreds of samples analyzed.

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The payment to participating farmers, however, is not the only or even the benefit most often cited by farmers interviewed by Arkansas Business. Farmer Steve Stevens of Desha County, for one, said the program has saved him a lot of money. His farm is southeast of Dumas.

After finding out that water was not moving through his farm’s soil as it should have, Stevens planted cover crops. Researchers found that the fields planted with cover crops retained more than twice the amount of water than before the cover crops were planted, meaning he could irrigate less frequently, use more rainwater, use less fuel, reduce the wear and tear on his irrigation equipment and use less fertilizer.

Since he’s been involved in the Discovery Farms program, Stevens’ farm has become more than 90% efficient. So 90% of the water pumped into his fields with cover crops stays there, and so does most of the fertilizer used in the fields.

So far, the Discovery Farms program has shown that participating farms are losing just 3%-4% of nutrients to runoff.

“Healthier soils translate into higher yields and lower cost of production,” Stevens said. He can grow cotton for 60 cents less per pound by using cover crops, and the Discovery Farms monitoring verifies that.

From left, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack  hears about the program from participating farmer Jeff Marley and Mike Daniels.
From left, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack hears about the program from participating farmer Jeff Marley and Mike Daniels.

Technician Larry Berry checks a water sampler intake in a creek bed at the edge of a farm field.
Technician Larry Berry checks a water sampler intake in a creek bed at the edge of a farm field.

‘Real Numbers’

Poultry farmer Jeff Marley of Elkins (Washington County) brought up another benefit of the program for farmers: not getting blamed for environmental damage they didn’t cause.

Before he began participating in 2011 or 2012, there was no way to measure the effectiveness of his practices to limit nutrients leaving his farm and going into the White River. That river feeds Beaver Lake, the region’s main water source.

“The other thing is that there was a lot of, for lack of a better term, being accused of, finger-pointing or whatever — ‘ya’ll are doing this, this, this and you’re causing all this.’ Well, there were no numbers to dispute that,” Marley said. “We’re doing what science is saying we’re supposed to do. This gave us real numbers so that we can say, ‘Hey, now, wait a minute, that statement you made is not necessarily accurate.’”

Daniels, the co-director, said the program also offers an educational platform, encouraging dialogue and empowering farmers to tell their stories of stewardship. Regulators and policy-makers tour Discovery Farms, he said. Marley and Morrow, the cattle farmer, echoed that. Marley said he appreciated the opportunity to be a voice for the poultry industry, and Morrow said having Discovery Farms data gives him credibility talks to people about what his farm is doing.

The public relations boost also impacts the farmers’ bottom line, said Bill Robertson, cotton specialist with the UA Division of Agriculture.

He said the supply chain wants food that is sustainably produced. “Everybody wants to do the right thing. ... But the farmers’ main goal is to be in business next year, to produce. For them, to be sustainable is to be profitable. Our farmers are having to become more and more efficient all the time just to stay in business.”