by Dwain Hebda
It takes a lot to believe you’re behind an entirely new way of doing things, from entrepreneurial vision to cold, calculating engineering to operational excellence, marketing savvy and sheer chutzpah.
Jerry Lee Bogard of Stuttgart brought together all of these elements when he founded Grand Prairie Farming & Water Co. a few years back. And while the company may not yet be a household name in the U.S. – or Arkansas, for that matter – Bogard is confident it soon will be. In fact, he believes the company’s business model for water sharing represents nothing short of the future of agriculture whose time has come.
“Not many people know about what we do because we’ve just in the past 10 months proven the efficacy and put all of the science together in a package,” he says. “Now we’re presenting the science and all the benefits that come about with our system, and we think that we have a pretty creative business model that we are promoting and putting in place. It’s different from anything that’s ever been attempted here in Arkansas and probably anywhere around the country.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, ever since commercial agriculture began on the Grand Prairie, farmers have looked to one of two places for the water to nourish their crops: surface water, either via rivers or captured in specially-built irrigation lagoons, and drilling for groundwater. The latter was facilitated by the march of technology and amplified by the growth of rice farming, given that crop’s high water needs with plants requiring 33 inches of water annually to grow.
In 1906, the site reports, there were roughly 4,000 acres of rice in cultivation. So great was the stress on groundwater that in less than 20 years, the water table had lowered noticeably. As rice acres grew over time, the pull of water out of the ground followed suit, eventually draining the shallower alluvial aquifer and forcing farmers to drill deeper to reach the Sparta Sand aquifer, also the source of Arkansas’ drinking water.
The Sparta aquifer extends from south Texas, north into Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee, and eastward into Mississippi and Alabama.
As a rice producer himself, Bogard, 64, has faced the issue of the shrinking water supply firsthand.
“I started farming back in 1976 and made my first crop on my own in ‘77,” he says. “I think I had my first well go dry in ‘78. I began to get interested in what was going on. Every time I drilled a well, especially a deep well in the drought of 1980, I began to realize that we were on a collision course here on the Grand Prairie and the Delta in general as these wells continued to dry up.”
Bogard’s company tackles the problem by contracting to deliver surface water to farmers, saving them money while simultaneously easing the strain on the Sparta aquifer.
“We contract with farmers and other landowners in tangible contracts that were created specifically for this purpose,” he says. “The farmer agrees not to pump his or her groundwater aquifer wells and in return, we supply just-in-time deliveries of surface water for all of their agricultural or wildlife waterfowl conservation needs for the prescribed period within the contract.
“Generally speaking, the cost to the farmer or landowner for our surface water in replacement of their aquifer water usually runs about 50 percent of what they would historically have paid were they pumping those aquifer wells.”
Bogard sees more ancillary benefits than just reducing farmers’ costs. He says the company’s system also helps all water users by reducing the number of pipes in the Sparta pool. The less sucked out by rice farmers, the more left behind for household use, he says, thus controlling utility costs.
“We have third-party verifiers of our impact on the aquifers in Layne Christensen, which is a publicly traded water well company that keeps very precise and long-standing records for all activity within the aquifers,” he says. “I can tell you that in an average year, we will preserve enough aquifer water to supply approximately 200,000 homes their annual water use.”
And, Bogard insists, the aquifers will be given the breathing room to replenish themselves via a natural water cycle. That’s virtually impossible now as water is being pulled out of the ground much faster than it’s coming back in.
“Mother Nature can recharge the Sparta over time, but the only way to do that is to stop using it,” he says. “The only way to get there is you’ve got to involve agriculture in a very meaningful way in a system where farmers are comfortable shutting off their wells and going to a different source. Of course, that’s got to be surface water.”
What’s more, Grand Prairie Farming & Water also claims to be improving the water through its closed loop surface-water distribution system of some 27 miles of pipelines, canals and easements in the region.
“What we discovered in 2017 is that when we pick water up out of tributaries that we own the access to and have a right to the water, basically it looks like coffee with a dash of milk in it,” he says. “We created this closed system to recycle primarily through rice and corn and soybean plants, corn and rice being monocots which have big root-wad systems at or near the top of the ground. After we ran it through our system, it went from looking like coffee with a splash of milk to looking more like rainwater.
“We did 1,300 water samples in a test case study set up by the USDA and Ducks Unlimited in 2017, and what we found out was that, in fact, we take out the total soluble solids along with nitrates and phosphates.”
Bogard says this cleaning effect is particularly important to help curtail toxic algae bloom, which captured headlines last summer. The Los Angeles Times reported in August that, fueled by warm conditions and fed by fertilizer runoff in water, algae was taking over bodies of water around the country, some of it toxic algae. The article goes on to report the toxins are particularly lethal to dogs and can be harmful or fatal to humans both directly and from eating contaminated fish and seafood.
“That’s plaguing the Gulf Coast states right now,” Bogard says. “In 2019, every beach in Mississippi was closed after two individuals unfortunately lost their lives having come in contact with that toxic algae bloom. It is an emerging emergency as declared by certain federal agencies here in the United States, and it’s not going away.”
Of course, the limitations of Grand Prairie Farm & Water’s system, as Bogard himself admits, is distribution. Water can only be delivered one way – through pipes – and there’s a limit to how far it can be pumped from a holding source such as a canal, to say nothing of the capital construction costs. The company currently services between 15,000 and 20,000 acres, but Bogard says bringing the system to a scale that can serve the majority of Arkansas rice country will take partnerships.
“We’ve carried this 100 percent on our own with our own resources up to this point,” he says. “It’s now time to have a public-private partnership, which is what we’re advocating, with federal, state and local governments and water districts whereby we can shoulder this load together with the business community. That’s how you spread the costs out and that’s how this thing would be successful.
“Government can’t solve this by themselves; they don’t have the ownership of the assets. Private business can’t solve it by themselves because of the magnitude of the problem. This is not just an agricultural problem. This is a ‘we’ problem, meaning everybody. We’ve got to come up with the creative ways to solve it, and we think we’ve done that.”