By James Brabenec, Fort SillOctober 27, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Fort Sill's 94,000 acres primarily consists of land used to train artillerymen, however, a sliver provides benefits to the entire base populace and people outside the gate, too.
The Agriculture Lease Program leases about 6,000 acres to area farmers who work that ground in five-year leases with an option for an additional five years.
Chris Deurmyer, natural resources and lease program manager, said the post recently changed the program to encourage more competition. Previously, one farmer was selected from proposed bidders and worked or subcontracted out the entire 6,000 acres. Now, that lease is split into nine smaller parcels enabling smaller farm operations to bid.
The lease program consists of about 1,500 acres of alfalfa and crop land; the rest is native grass haying. Crops must be approved for planting but farmers have planted wheat, corn, cotton and sorghum. Recently some farmers intro-duced a new crop, planting sesame, one that does well in Oklahoma's drier climate and offers a good alternative to wheat.
"The benefits of this program are many and touch just about anyone who lives or works on post in one fashion or another," said Deurmyer. "Money from the agriculture leases goes to a Department of Army fund and Fort Sill can apply for some of that money to pay for natural resources projects such as control of feral pig populations.
Any motorist driving southbound on Interstate 44 can see the impact of the leasing program about one mile north of the Key Gate entrance on Chatto Flats. Historically, farmers have planted alfalfa here, a nutrient-rich legume that is excellent forage for cattle. However, it's noteworthy here because wildlife graze here too, such as the majestic elk that feed there in autumn.
Having recently won lease rights for a portion of Fort Sill ground on East Range, Trey Williams, operated a hay baler that gathered up raked hay and formed it into 1,500- to 2,000-pound round bales that rolled out of the baler looking like enormous shredded wheat biscuits. Trey's father, Rex, said they were fortunate and thankful to get this lease.
"We definitely needed this grass this year because of the drought, not only to feed 100 cattle we raise about 150 miles from here, but my son sells hay too, and we have hundreds of customers customers wanting to buy it," said Rex.
Farmers, or ranchers, such as the Williams, not only cut their leased ground, but extra ground as part of their contract with the post. Deurmyer said this mowing helps prevent woodlots from encroaching into fields and diminishing the value of the land for training purposes.
Farmers also provide some hay bales for the archery range and alfalfa bales for deer. Deurmyer said these items might not seem like much but combined with the areas farmers mow, they account for about $215,000 in savings to the post.
The managed land, especially crop lands, also adds width to firebreaks protecting the post from large wildfires. Another area cut by farmers borders Henry Post Army Air Field.
Randy Palmer, airfield manager, said Army and other federal regulations require cutting vegetation to prevent the grounds from attracting wildlife and birds that could be a safety hazard to aircraft. He said farmers cut the grass three times each year, as weather permits. Some of the ground isn't conducive to haying while other parts offer great potential for cattle feed.
For crop farmers, Fort Sill has a readily available soil conditioner that benefits both the post and crop production. The post's solid waste collected from the municipal water treatment plant is stripped of any harmful bacteria and applied to farm fields following crop harvest. Ronnie Graves, American Water Enterprises utility manager, said the process that converts solid waste to fertilizer complies with all mandated Environmental Protection Agency standards and saves the post substantial money in landfill costs.
"Last year the post generated 726 tons of sludge and all of it was returned to these agricultural fields," he said.
The sludge is anything, either food or human waste that goes down the toilet, tub or sink, said Graves. It is placed in a heat-controlled holding tank for a period of time that kills all disease-causing bacteria. Next, sludge passes through a machine that removes the water leaving a cake of nitrogen-rich material that resembles asphalt.
American Water then collects several soil samples of the farm plots and sends them off to a lab where they are analyzed to determine what amount of the sludge fertilizer can be applied to the fields. Once determined, the cakes are loaded in a spreader and a tractor fitted with a disk harrow follows mixing the cakes into the soil to help prevent runoff.
"This process is approved by the Department of Environmental Quality and encouraged as a way to returns that material to the environment in a beneficial manner," said Graves.
With training being at the forefront of Fort Sill wild lands, Deurmyer said the best hay and agricultural ground isn't rutted up from military training vehicles. These plots of ground are usually marked with reflective posts. Range control briefs units heading to the field that the posts denote off-limits land to military vehicles and training.
Deurmyer added respect and care for that land has a direct impact on the income the post makes from agricultural ground. The more money that is raised through leases, the more Fort Sill can request back from the Army to fund various natural resources projects that benefit Soldiers and their families.
With nine leases in place, Fort Sill is working on a 10th no-cost lease for 1,350 acres of ground on West Range just south of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. The one-year permit will allow U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials at the refuge to run longhorn cattle through a gate and graze on Fort Sill.
"Seventy percent of grazing has burned in either prescribed burns early in the season that didn't grow back or wildfires later in the summer, and the refuge is hurting," said Deurmyer. "This lease, a good neighbor arrangement with the refuge, will save taxpayer money to help feed the longhorns."
Refuge officials will have to put up about three miles of fence to prevent cattle from running throughout the post then pull the fencing out once the permit ends. Also, the arrangement will require negotiations with farmers who lease farm plots as to how they will be compensated or their crops protected from grazing.