Farmer-fisherman exchange ties both ends of the Mississippi River

Conservation issues affect South Dakota, Louisiana

They may speak differently, dress differently and make their living off the land in different ways, but the Barnyard to Boatyard Conservation Exchange gave farmers in South Dakota and fishermen in south Louisiana a chance to see just how connected they are

A contingent of South Dakota farmers came to south Louisiana in July to learn about issues Louisiana faces, from the annual dead zone of low oxygen off the coast to coastal land loss. Then in early August, fishermen from south Louisiana traveled to South Dakota, where farmers shared their conservation techniques and led tours of dairy farms and ethanol plants.

The Barnyard to Boatyard exchange is the brainchild of Tim Kizer, private lands field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which sponsors the program. Kizer also is an entrepreneur from Arkansas who has spent time hunting and fishing on both ends of the Mississippi River.

While bird hunting in South Dakota last year, he said, he witnessed the drought the state was enduring. A week later, he was in Louisiana fishing for red fish.

“It dawned on me that people at both ends really have no idea how connected they are,” Kizer said. “We just need to learn more about not only how ecologically connected they are but also politically connected.”

For instance, with the battle going on over the Farm Bill in Washington D.C., many Louisiana fishermen didn’t realize how the legislation impacts them.

“People in coastal Louisiana don’t understand how critical that fight is to them,” Kizer said.

Parts of the Farm Bill touch on efforts to reduce nutrient load in waters that drain into the Mississippi River and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. These nutrients — much of it from fertilizer — lead to the formation of the low-oxygen “dead zone.”

Although some of the participants were eager to get involved in the Barnyard to Boatyard exchange, others weren’t so sure what they were getting into.

“At the time, I wasn’t all that interested in going up there. I like to stay here and fish,” said Capt. Howard Cuevas, owner of Xspecktations Coastal Charters out of Dulac and Cocodrie. Once he got to South Dakota, however, he learned about the issues the farmers were facing, including having too much sediment building up behind dams along the Missouri River.

“They’ve got just the opposite of what we have going on down here,” Cuevas said, referring to the need for sediment in Louisiana marshes.

The coastal land loss in Louisiana was one of the things the Louisiana group wanted to talk to the upriver participants who visited Cocodrie in July.

“I’ve been making my living off the land for 33 years,” said Capt. Ryan Lambert, owner of Cajun Fishing Adventures in Buras. “And we’re losing it so fast.”

Lambert, an outspoken advocate for coastal restoration, said the exchange was an education for both groups.

“If we managed our health care system the way we manage the river system, we’d all have measles and small pox,” he said.

Lambert said he was impressed with the no-tillage work farmers are using to leave more ground cover to prevent erosion and the precise methods some farmers are using to strategically place fertilizer to minimize any nutrients running off into water bodies. Nutrients from farms, cities and other sources flow into the Mississippi River and lead to the annual formation of a low-oxygen zone off the coast every summer.

“It will get better and better,” he said about improvements in farming techniques designed to reduce impact on the environment.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported on Aug. 27 that conservation efforts in the lower Mississippi River basin reduced sediment loss by 35 percent, nitrogen loss by 21 percent and phosphorous by 52 percent. Nitrogen and phosphorous are what feed the annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. Although the report covers farmland in Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, it’s the kind of results the South Dakota farmers spoke about as well.

Farmers who participated in the exchange said they learned a lot about the issues facing Louisiana as well.

“First off, the hospitality was second to none,” said Walt Bones, a former South Dakota secretary of agriculture who is a fourth-generation family farmer in that state.

Bones decided to participate in the exchange because he wanted to learn more about what was going on in Louisiana, but he had some reservations.

“I also kind of went down there a little defensive,” he said, because agriculture is often singled out as the cause of the dead zone. “I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

He was intrigued by what he called the “hypoxic paradox” of having a dead zone, but then going out with the fishermen and catching great fish.

The participants and Kizer said they want the exchange to be a yearly event to connect people on both ends of the river not only for education but for taking action on issues that impact both groups.

“Our end goal is to create lifelong friends among these people,” Kizer said. “We want a whole new kind of activism.”

It appears to have worked. Lambert is making plans to return to South Dakota to do some pheasant hunting with friends he made up there.