SIKESTON -- A once thought of useless wetland could prove to be something of a little more value for Sikeston farmer Ben Hunter and other Missouri farmers.
Last month Hunter was awarded a grant by the Missouri Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Award Program to raise crawfish in re-established wetlands.
"It was basically just a big hole in the middle of the field," Hunter said about the wetland. "With farming being the way it is now, I decided to make something out of it. It actually came out of a necessity . . . and I like to eat crawfish."
After visiting a couple crawfish operations in Dudley and Chaffee, Hunter decided to check with the Stoddard County University Outreach and Extension Office for more information.
Located on one of Hunter's farms about 10 miles south of Sikeston in Stoddard County, the wetland has been restructured to include pipes and drainage, Hunter said. Crawfish were seeded last spring and harvest season is from April through June, he said.
"People are already asking me, 'When are your crawdads going to be ready?'" Hunter laughed.
While there are "two or three commercialized crawfish operations in the area," no one has established an operation from wetlands, noted Dr. Van H. Ayers, natural resource engineer at the Stoddard County University Outreach and Extension Office.
"Ben is producing crawfish on a lot smaller scale than other crawfish farmers," Ayers said. "I think it's really quite interesting that he's taking a piece of land that basically has served as little or no value and making it into something that may be profitable."
Hunter admits he's not an expert on crawfish, but he has learned quite a bit from a couple of the area's crawfish farm operators.
"I'm learning as I go," Hunter said. "I ask the other crawfish farmers a lot of questions. But it's kind of like when another car lot goes up in town. Nobody wants that extra competition, but these guys have been good in helping me get started."
Under the sustainable agriculture program, farmers throughout the state try innovative projects that protect and conserve the state's natural resources and reduces dependence on nonrenewable resources, such as minerals and petroleum.
"Any Missouri farmer is eligible to participate in this program," said Joan Benjamin, program coordinator of the sustainable agriculture program.
Benjamin continued: "The whole point behind this is to encourage farmers to try out and adopt sustainable agriculture practices on their farms. And that simply means techniques that are ecologically sound, economically viable and socially responsible."
Projects typically help farms cut back or eliminate their pesticides, chemical fertilizers and fuel. Since the Missouri legislature established the program in 1995, more than $666,000 has been awarded to 214 producers.
Of the 60 applications the sustainable program received this year, 23 received grants in the amount of $3,000. Farmers have an option of finishing their project in one, two or three years. The program also requires participants to share their findings with other producers through on-farm demonstrations, published reports, field days, poster sessions and other means.
"Every year there are lots of really innovative ideas and this year is no exception," Benjamin said. "We have a really good response from farmers."
A lot of farmers are looking at alternatives to diversify what they're growing and are hoping to become more profitable, Benjamin explained.
For example, one grant recipient from Macon will use surplus fruit from his orchard to create ethanol to fuel equipment on his farm.
"Missouri gets so much more out of the program than farmers realize," Benjamin said. "It's really a great benefit for farmers and the state."
Ayers agreed. If farmers are trying to do something different, the program lets them look at their ideas, and the information will be accessible to other farmers in the future, he explained.
"Not only are the farmers and their projects helping farm families to make better income, but they are also keeping money in local communities. A lot of them look at direct marketing and want to keep money where it's going to support the community."