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July 05, 2001   Email to Friend 

Jeff Helms
July 05, 2001

Pickens County farmer Mark Randall, left, is one of about 2,000 farmers nationwide who have participated in a voluntary environmental review conducted by America's Clean Water Foundation.
"Montgomery, Ala." One look at Mark Randall's Pickens County farm and it's easy to see why his friends call him a perfectionist. From the gravel drive that winds gracefully through lush hay fields, to his crisp, white hog barns separated by manicured lawns, the farm is picture perfect. Even his office is orderly--complete with notebooks for tracking everything from soil fertility to daily weather patterns.

For Randall, however, accurate records and well-maintained facilities were not enough. He wanted assurance from unbiased professionals that he was doing everything possible to protect the environment. So last year, Randall joined a growing number of farmers who have taken advantage of a free environmental assessment program.

Originally developed through the producer-funded checkoff programs of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), the On Farm Assessment and Environmental Review (OFAER) is designed to help farmers evaluate the environmental impact of their operations. Today, the program is administered through America's Clean Water Foundation, which conducts the assessments at no cost to the farmer thanks to a grant from the federal government. Dan Uthe, who coordinates the program for NPPC, said the review is a valuable management tool for producers like Randall.

"There are a lot of misconceptions and preconceived ideas about the environmental impact of pork production," Uthe said. "This program gives producers an opportunity to have trained professionals come in and assess their environmental management. We identify strengths in the operations, and we make recommendations of how to improve areas that could present an environmental challenge."

Uthe said more than 2,000 farms have participated in the program since March 1998, and the results have been extremely encouraging.

"What we are finding is about two strengths for every challenge," Uthe said.

Allan Stokes, CEO of America's Clean Water Foundation, reported similar results.

"Certainly there are some challenges out there, but we have found that producers, as a whole, have been responsive to addressing these concerns."

Like many producers, Randall's on-farm assessment revealed only minor challenges, which he was able to correct for minimal cost. Still, he said participating in the review was well worth the effort.

"I feel that it's always good to have someone evaluate what you are doing and offer constructive criticism," Randall said. "This was an opportunity to have two professional, unbiased engineers come to the farm and make observations that could help me do a better job."

OFAER assessors are trained and certified by America's Clean Water Foundation and include engineers, animal scientists and environmental experts. Frank Owsley, an Extension swine specialist at Auburn University, was among the first assessors trained in Alabama. He said one of the advantages of the program is that it educates farmers about what areas could pose an environmental challenge.

"It empowers the farmer to evaluate his farm better on a daily basis. We are showing them the areas they need to be looking at on their daily walk-throughs," Owsley said. "If we did nothing else on the farm, just that experience of going through the barns with two or three outside professionals would be worthwhile."

During the review process, Uthe said the assessors focus on five key areas including the general appearance of the farm, the condition of the buildings, the operation of manure storage structures, the nutrient application program and mortality management. When they are finished, data from the 50-page assessment form is analyzed, and the producer is sent a report. All review results are then disassociated from the producer's name in order to protect his confidentiality.

As an assessor, Owsley said he has been impressed by the quality of the operations he's evaluated.

"When a farm's in good shape, it's not a last-minute thing," he said. "If they go in and clean up the barn the day before we get there, we can tell it. We are not seeing that. The positive things we are seeing are very much a result of good management practices that were already in place on the farm."

Randall, who was Prestage Farms Contract Grower of the Year in 2000, credits the technical support provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Extension Service for his positive OFAER report.

"The outcome of the assessment was the result of having a good nutrient management plan that was comprehensive and thorough," he said. "Ultimately, we have a system of local people--backed by state and national resources--working to ensure the environmental quality of their area. It's a partnership that has worked as intended and, from my perspective, has served the public well."

Randall said Terry Williamson, district conservationist with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and County Extension Agent Sam Wiggins were particularly helpful when he was developing the management plan for his 7,000-pig nursery. Their advice on forage management, lagoon sampling and soil testing not only yielded measurable data for the OFAER report, but also saved the farm money, he said.

Although the OFAER process was developed for hog operations, Stokes said it is now available for poultry and cattle producers as well. He also emphasized that the program is open to both large and small operations, noting that about 42 percent of the reviews conducted have been on farms with fewer than 300 animal units.

Alabama Farmers Federation State Pork Committee Member Jon Petree had an assessment conducted on his Franklin County hog operation about a year ago. As a result, he's now cleaning the ventilation system in his barns more frequently and spraying the mature hogs with water to help control dust.

"I think everybody that's in the swine business should go through it," Petree said. "A trained professional coming in might notice something on your farm that you might not see or know to look for."

Owsley agrees.

"This is a golden opportunity to have someone who is not associated with the farm assess the environmental status of the operation," he said. "Even if you get a clean bill of health, it's nice to know you are doing a good job. It also shows you are trying to be a good neighbor."

For more information about OFAER, contact Alabama Farmers Federation Pork Director Brian Hardin at 1-800-392-5705, ext. 4217.

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