Hallie Shoffner returns to her roots; pushes for environmentally friendly farm practices

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,919 views 

Hallie Shoffner grew up on a farm near the township of Shoffner, named for her family in rural Jackson County. When she left to attend college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., she decided to study one of her passions, literature.

After graduating, she received a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and went to work at a nonprofit in North Little Rock that focused on the local Hispanic community. She loved her job, but the row crop fields in the Arkansas Delta kept calling her home, she told Talk Business & Politics.

Her parents, John and Wendy Shoffner, started SFR Seed in 1988, a soybean and rice research farm. Among other things, the company specializes in new seed plot trials. Shoffner decided to return to the family business in 2016, which included a 1,500-acre farm.

With each growing season one thing has become more and more obvious, she said. The climate is rapidly changing and it will have a significant impact on the farm community. She is one of the few Arkansas farmers who publicly recognizes the reality of climate change.

“Farming is a stressful job. … I wish there was more of a bridge between customers and farmers. It’s a hard job supplying the world’s food,” she said. “Climate change is a threat. It’s threatening our groceries.”

Agriculture is a major part of the U.S. economy. The crops, livestock, and seafood produced in the United States contribute more than $300 billion to the economy each year, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Climate impacts in the U.S. could have a significant impact on global food supplies. About 25% of the world’s grain supply (wheat, corn and rice) is produced in the U.S., the EPA reports. Higher temperatures can reduce yields in some crops such as corn, and pests such as insects and weeds do better in warmer climates.

One significant problem the farm community has been dealing with for years — water availability — will only get worse as droughts become more prevalent. The Arkansas Delta got a taste of that during the 2022 growing season. In late May, the rains stopped for almost two months and didn’t return until the last few days of July. That was followed by an even drier spell in late summer and early fall. The lack of rain pushed input costs higher for farmers who had to irrigate fields.

Even after the fields were harvested, another problem emerged. The lack of rain caused the Mississippi River to drop to record low levels near Memphis and Helena. Crops from throughout the South and Midwest are transported on the river. Barges were “bottlenecked” for weeks at a time, and at one point all barge traffic was stopped.

The situation got so bad that some farmers had to dump their soybeans on small islands on the river. It was cheaper to leave them than to move them or store them long term.

Shoffner said her farm suffered from the drought. Her corn yields were down, along with rice quality. She spent more money on diesel and electricity to irrigate her fields. Before the drought started it had been a wetter than normal spring. This led to a lot of late planting which also impacts yields and causes other problems, she added.

“The environmental factors have been very different,” she said. “The slim margins you had in farming are getting slimmer.”

To reduce the carbon footprint on her farm, Shoffner uses no till, or minimum till, practices. Many farmers will run a disk plow four times through a field to prepare it for the growing season. This causes carbon to be released into the atmosphere. It’s compounded by the carbon that is released by the farm equipment’s fuel use.

Not tilling the soil or minimally tilling it has a number of benefits, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It reduces erosion, saves time and fuel, and improves nutrient cycling, soil moisture, and resiliency in the face of drought.

Another environmentally friendly practice employed by Shoffner is the use of cover crops. A cover crop is a not-for-cash crop planted on a field off-season. The “cover crop” stops soil erosion and keeps and replenishes nutrients in the soil. Cover crops allow for much less tillage of the soil, which saves on fuel costs and reduces carbon emissions. It improves insect and weed control in fields as well as soil biodiversity and water collections. Cover crops can also provide biomass to increase soil coverage and soil organic matter as well as aid in nutrient redistribution for the next cash crop, said Trent Roberts, associate professor of soil fertility and soil testing for the experiment station, the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Mid-October is the latest recommended time to plant a fall cover crop like mustards or brassicas since they will typically “winter kill” and generate most of their above-ground biomass in the fall, Roberts said. But other cover crops like cereals and legumes will develop most of their biomass when they break dormancy in the spring. Developing biomass is key to improving soil health, Roberts said.

Even in irrigated fields, a cover crop can improve plant growth by opening the soil profile to let water seep in deeper so the roots can pull water and nutrients farther down in the soil than the first six inches.

“Cover crops help to build organic matter in the soil. It’s a good way to emit less carbon, and control weeds,” Shoffner said.

One of the problems farmers have is transitioning to operations that are more environmentally friendly, she said. Many farmers will need to build new infrastructure and buy new equipment to make the changes, she said.

The new farm bill that will be considered in Congress in 2023 would be a great place to start. Shoffner said she hopes there will be incentive programs included in the bill to promote no till, or minimal till practices, along with cover crops.

Shoffner was recently recognized by “Garden and Gun” as a champion of conservation. She is a vocal advocate on the dangers of climate change in the farm community, but she thinks a reasonable approach and response is the best way to tackle the problem moving forward.

“Yes, we have a problem with climate change, but we don’t have to be apocalyptic about it. … At the end of the day the goal is to protect our food supply and protect our environment,” she said.