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Farmers in Delta recycling runoff

CLARKSDALE, Miss. -- Soybean farmer Mason Dunn uses an irrigation system that recycles leftover water in an effort to conserve water, a precious commodity in the Delta region.

CLARKSDALE, Miss. -- Soybean farmer Mason Dunn uses an irrigation system that recycles leftover water in an effort to conserve water, a precious commodity in the Delta region.

Dunn's 900-acre farm along the Sunflower River employs numerous methods to conserve water and limit the impact on the environment. The federal government helps him pay for all of them.

"It's time consuming, but I'm glad I did it," Dunn said.

Dunn is one of many Mississippi farmers who use programs offered by the Natural Resource Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program help farmers update their farms to make them more efficient and lower their environmental impact.

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Although the programs are out there, not enough farmers use them, NRCS leaders say.

"I would encourage people to talk to their district conservationist or the other district officials about opportunities available," NRCS State Conservationist Homer Wilkes said. "Then we can look in our toolbox of programs."

In the Delta, many of the programs focus on water quantity and quality. About 20 years ago, some farmers realized their wells were drying up, and environmentalists began to offer solutions, NRCS Assistant State Conservationist Al Garner said.

One way to save water is tailwater recovery, a measure Dunn uses on his Coahoma County farm. Runoff water from irrigated fields is captured, stored and then reused, rather then letting it flow into nearby streams and rivers.

Also used on Dunn's farm is a stabilization structure that removes sediment from the water before it's flushed into streams and rivers. Sediment not only clogs waterways, but it often infuses high levels of nutrients in the water.

"Everything that we do to keep soil on the land and nutrients out of the stream, we need to do," Wilkes said.

Large amounts of nutrients in the water fertilize algae growth. When an algae bloom dies, it causes hypoxia, which deplete oxygen from the water and create dead zones. Dead zones are a problem near the barrier islands.

Environmental programs aren't cheap, and Dunn said he's grateful for the help from NRCS, especially his district conservationist, Justin Norris. A tailwater system, like the one on Dunn's farm, cost about $50,000.

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Norris helped Dunn learn what programs he could qualify for.

Dunn, a 27-year-old farmer, was able to receive ample assistance because he is a beginner farmer. Assistance was in the form of a cost-share programs, which split the cost of the tailwater recovery system and the stabilization structure installed on his farm. Norris said in many of the programs, federal dollars cover 90 percent of the project.

The financial burdens of farming is a common concern in the Delta.

Earlier this summer, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and NRCS officials met with farmers in Isola, Belzoni and Stoneville, listening to concerns. Water quality and water quantity were big issues discussed, Wilkes said.

"Congressman Thompson was able to come and see what's going on in the countryside," Wilkes said. "As you know, there are major issues out there - like dealing with hypoxia."

The Delta is a special area of concern because farms use a large amount of water, especially catfish and rice farms.

Charles Houston, president of the North Delta Produce Growers, a co-op that aims to help small, limited resource farmers, attended the meeting.

Challenges for small farmers include growing enough food to deal directly with markets and purchasing big items such as coolers and irrigation systems, said Houston, who is based out of Grenada.

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Houston said NRCS and other agencies have helped him and other members of the co-op in the past, but the group is looking for more assistance. Many members of the co-op are moving from traditional row crops (soybeans, corn and cotton) to more specialty vegetables (squash, tomatoes, okra).

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