Though quiet and unobtrusive, the Lonoke County Agriculture Center at Lonoke has an effect felt nationwide, even globally with research in agriculture and aquaculture. County extension agent Keith Perkins told of the center’s work and other contributions made to agriculture in the county during the two-day annual meeting of the Association of Arkansas County Extension Agents held here last week.

Perkins, as outgoing president of the AACEA, hosted the annual meeting, which showcased Lonoke County’s contributions to agriculture and aquaculture.

The extension agents learned how Arkansas’ once thriving dairy industry could be in its final days; and how farmers have taken the lead in preserving the area’s water supply with the mammoth Bayou Meto Water Management Project in a daylong tour of the county.

James Smith, a Lonoke County dairyman, told the group that the number of dairies in the state is steadily dwindling, now down to about 90 from hundreds.

Only 30 years ago there were well over 100 dairies in Lonoke County, Smith said. "Now there are four."

Arkansas no longer produces enough milk for local needs and must "import" from other states, he said.

Perkins led the county agents in a tour of the Agriculture Center, on U.S. Highway 70 at Lonoke, where much of the research on weeds, plant diseases and aquaculture is done by the University of Arkansas system.

Dr. Anita Kelly, fish biologist with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, was a speaker.

"Our mandate is to study fish diseases in the state … and to check water quality, whether commercial or recreational," she said.

The lab also helps certify fish-raising operations, allowing them to export world wide, Kelly said. "About six million baitfish leave Lonoke County every year," she said.

Kelly also pointed out that the county is home to three of the world’s largest fish operations.

Anderson Fish Farms is among the largest baitfish producers.

J.M. Malone and Son, Inc., was the first to produce certified triploid grass carp on a commercial scale, Kelly said. Triploid grass carp are important for clearing weed-infested areas but not becoming an invasive species because they are unable to reproduce, she explained.

Keo Fish Farms is the world’s largest producer of hybrid striped bass, Kelly said.

Aquaculture research is important because there are only three antibiotics that can be used in fish farming, and two antifungals, Kelly said.

Kelly also explained a small eco-system operating at the laboratory raising peppers and fish together. The plants remove the fish wastes from the water, which is re-circulated. The plants and fish have been together for about two years now, she said.

The weed research and disease laboratories were also visited.

Perkins said that, since farming is an inherently risky business, extension agents must often cope with the trepidation of farmers when posed with suggested changes stemming from the research done at the center. "The first question will be, ‘Why should I change what’s been working for me,’" he said.

Retiring farmers used to be replaced by their children, Smith said. "Now, when someone gets out of the business, you have lost another dairy."

Smith, speaking with county agents on a tour of his dairy operation, told of the daunting challenges of dairy farming. Smith has a dairy herd on about 300 acres near Woodlawn.

Feed, drought, strong competition posed by "western" mega-dairies have combined into what is likely the end of "small" operations such as the one he shares with his father, Bill Smith.

Aflatoxin, present in some corn supplies, can rapidly climb to unacceptable levels, Smith said. "If it gets into the milk, and your milk contaminates what’s already in the truck, it’s all yours and it all gets dumped," he said.

Dairies will also reject loads that test positive for antibiotics, Smith said. He said he does not feed antibiotics to his cattle, but they are used to treat injuries and infections — milk from treated cows cannot be sold until the antibiotic has cleared from its system.

But perhaps the greatest threat to smaller dairies such as his are the huge operations in western states, Smith said. "They run on a margin that I can hardly compete with," he said.

Yet, despite the difficulties, there is nothing else he would rather be doing, Smith said. "It’s in the blood," he remarked.

Gene Sullivan, project manager for the Bayou Meto Water Management Project, explained the multi-county, multi-function project.

Begun in 1950 as a flood control measure, the project has evolved to meet a wide range of needs from wetlands recovery, to wildlife preservation, and agriculture.

When complete, the giant pumping stations at Scott and Reydell will pump water from the Arkansas River into the system when levels are low, and out of the system into the river when too high, Sullivan said.

The project would serve about 433,000 acres including about 270,000 acres of cropland, 22,000 acres of fish farms, the Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, hardwood forest protection, and wetland management in Lonoke, Prairie and Jefferson counties.

It will also serve to protect the aquifers underlying the area, which have been hard hit by irrigation needs, Sullivan said.

The Marion Berry Pump Station, near the David D. Terry Lock and Dam at Scott, now under construction, will have six pumps with a total capacity of 1,750 cubic feet of water every second, Sullivan said.

There will be two other, smaller, pump stations; one south of Lonoke and one at Reydell, Sullivan said.

When complete the system will include more than 100 miles of canals, more than 460 miles of pipelines; and 132 miles of ditches, Sullivan said.

Farmers formed a water improvement district and are already paying levies for the system, and will pay to take water from the system when operating, Sullivan said.