An eye for conservation

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The Durand family’s crop mix on their St. Martinville, La., farm includes rice, crawfish and resource protection.

Driving down Highway 347 past massive live oaks dripping with Spanish moss is a sea of sugar cane as far as the eye can see. In the middle of all that sugar is the Durand family rice farm, or as it is known in the spring, the place to buy crawfish.

Jeff Durand, his two brothers, C.J. and Greg, along with three sisters — Margot, Joanna and Connie — work side by side to grow rice, farm crawfish under the Teche Valley Seaford name and provide wildlife habitat on their property near St. Martinville, La.

1980 was a watershed year for the Durand family. That was when they began growing rice in earnest, but their love of the land started many years before. DurandTextBox1

“Our dad and his brother cleared some of the property we farm today. He had someone else growing rice in the ’60s and ’70s, and we farmed crawfish,” Jeff says. “As soon as we were old enough to start going to the ponds, all my brothers and sisters would go after school and run crawfish traps.”

JeffDurandPhotoAt one point, the tenant rice farmer retired and the subsequent farmer started growing soybeans that hurt the crawfish business.

“So that’s when we decided that we would grow rice ourselves,” Jeff says. “We also cleared some more family property at that time and continued to grow the family farm.”

A rice evolution
Over the years, the operation has changed and adapted. At one point crawfish was the biggest crop, but today more acres are devoted to rice production than to shellfish. The Durands plant about 900 to 950 acres per year and fallow about one quarter of the land, typically 250 to 300 acres.

They also ratoon about half of their rice acreage, making two cuttings.
And  Natural Resource Conservation Service programs have played an integral role in helping the Durands reach their conservation goals. DurandTextBox3

“We first started utilizing NRCS programs in the late ’80s, and we’ve been partnering ever since,” Jeff says. From opportunities, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program and Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, he says the NRCS programs have made all the difference.

Taking care of business
Bart Devillier, NRCS Lafayette Field Office district conservationist, has worked with the Durands since he started in the Lafayette office.

“I’ve been a (district conservationist) for 22 years, and working with the Durand family has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had,” Devillier says. “The Durands are so friendly, they are a pleasure to work with because they take care of business.”

C.J. echoes that sentiment.

“The technical assistance has really been helpful,” he says. “We do a lot of no-till or minimum till on our farm; we try to improve the quality of our soil.”

The brothers use a chain harrow that minimally disturbs the soil, laying the rice stubble on the ground and leaving it to decompose over the winter. By leaving that residue, water quality has improved significantly. Muddy surface water pumped into the field is almost clear by the time it leaves the property. DurandTextBox3

Laser leveling also has helped with water management and in optimizing rice-growing ground.

“One rice field had 32 levees,” Jeff says. “But after the laser leveling, that field now has three levees, which is huge for water conservation.” DurandCalloutBox

Through EQIP, the Durands have incorporated improvements that include grade-stabilization structures, underground irrigation pipelines and conservation crop rotation to increase their production of rice and crawfish.

“Practices that we offer through NRCS, like grade stabilization structures, irrigation land leveling, nutrient management, crop residue use, the Farmstead Energy DurandFieldShotImprovement (energy audit) and the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, have all been used effectively on the Durand farm,” Devillier says. “These conservation practices put in to place on the Durand farm have a positive impact on everyone in this area. By utilizing these NRCS programs, we all have better water quality, lower soil erosion and improved wildlife habitat.”

Looking to the future
And what about wildlife on the Durand farm?

“We have lots of it,” Greg says, laughing. The rice and crawfish fields create great wetland habitat. More than 250 different species of birds have been documented on the property.

The timing of the rice harvest coincides with migrating birds in the fall and spring. That doesn’t count the other abundant wildlife that includes deer, otters, bobcats, raccoons, alligators and even bald eagles.

Looking to the future, the Durands have a singular purpose.

“Our next conservation effort is examining our soil quality and working to get it at an optimum balance,” Greg says. “More than anything else, we want this land to be healthy and productive for the next generation.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service in Alexandria, La., provided information for this article.