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AgriLife Extension soil testing program wins environmental award

Program credited with reducing agricultural fertilizer use and runoff

Texas AgriLife Extension Service has won the 2009 Texas Environmental Excellence Award in agriculture for a program that protects the environment by helping farmers reduce the amount of fertilizers they use.

The award, presented in 10 categories each year by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, celebrates "the bold efforts of citizens, communities, businesses and organizations to preserve and protect the Texas environment."

The award was presented to AgriLife Extension employees by Gov. Rick Perry at a ceremony held recently in Austin.

The "Nutrient Management Education in the Rio Grande Valley" program started in 2002 and has so far saved farmers from having to buy and broadcast more than seven million pounds of fertilizers worth $2 million, said Dr. Enrique Perez, an AgriLife Extension agent, in Cameron County, and program educator.

"That's millions of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus that otherwise would have ended up in the watershed of the Arroyo Colorado," he said.

The Arroyo Colorado is a 90-mile long river that runs the length of the Rio Grande Valley and serves as a sort of drain for water extracted from the Rio Grande for industrial, municipal and agricultural uses, Perez said.

The Arroyo's watershed covers most of Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties, home to about one million people, according to a 2006 Census report.

"The Arroyo Colorado is very important to the ecology of South Texas," he said. "Unfortunately, because it serves as a drain for this area, the Arroyo is on the state's list of impaired waters."

Perez said the object of the program was to reduce the amount of fertilizer ending up in the Arroyo from the agricultural industry.

"The key to all of this was encouraging growers to test their soils to determine how much fertilizer their soils really needed, if any," he said. "We were convinced that, short of a soil test, growers were over-fertilizing to be on the safe side, as far as crop production was concerned. But runoff carries excess fertilizers to the Arroyo and contributes to the problems there."

Through educational workshops and field days, more than 1,400 growers have received soil probes, testing forms and bags to collect soil samples. They are sent to Texas A&M University's Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory in College Station for analysis.

More than 3,000 soil samples representing more than 120,000 acres in the three-county area were tested and analyzed, Perez said. Soil fertility results are returned to growers, along with nutrient management recommendations.

"Using less fertilizer not only helps the environment, it helps growers save money," Perez said. "No grower wants to buy and use more of these costly fertilizers than they have to."

In presenting the award, Perry noted that the program's success will contribute to the continued viability of agriculture in South Texas.

"By teaching best practices of soil testing, proper fertilizer application and other conservation measures, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service benefits both the environment and the Valley's agricultural industry--clearly motivating generations to come," Perry said.

In addition to Perez, others who helped put together the multi-year educational and training program include Omar Montemayor, an AgriLife Extension agent from Starr County; Brad Cowan, an AgriLife Extension agent in Hidalgo County; and AgriLife Extension specialists Dr. Mark McFarland and Dr. Tony Provin in College Station.

The soil testing is partially subsidized by the Rio Grande Basin Initiative, a project administered by Texas A&M AgriLife's Texas Water Resources Institute, Perez said.

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