Commissioner Adam H. Putnam

Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making

Commissioner's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award

2007 Winner

Gwinn Brothers Farm
McAlpin, Florida

Donell and Robert Gwinn have been farming together at Gwinn Brothers Farm near McAlpin for over 25 years. They have a rich farming heritage in Suwannee County and are well known and respected throughout Florida and South Georgia, not just for their expertise in farming but also for their conservation efforts.

On their 1,137-acre farm the Gwinns produce peanuts, iron clay peas, bahiagrass seed, hay, and beef cattle, but they are best known for their premium watermelons, which are sold locally and throughout the eastern United States. During watermelon season the brothers operate a packinghouse in McAlpin, where they employ local workers.

The Gwinns are leaders in the implementation of Best Management Practices (BMPs) and generously share their knowledge and experience with neighboring growers. The brothers are presently participating in a Row Crop BMP farm demonstration project sponsored by the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF-IFAS), and they have participated in many similar educational outreach efforts in the past.

Gwinn Brothers Farm is a model of environmental stewardship. By following a conservation plan developed by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Gwinns have succeeded in conserving precious topsoil and improving water quality, plant and animal health, and wildlife habitat. Conservation measures implemented on the farm include herbaceous wind barriers, cover crops, conservation crop rotation, prescribed grazing, nutrient management, pest management, irrigation water management, and upland wildlife habitat management.

The Gwinns have taken important steps to reduce on-farm water usage and prevent runoff. They recently retrofitted their existing center-pivot irrigation systems in order to increase their application efficiency and distribution uniformity and save water. In their watermelon fields they have switched from overhead irrigation to drip irrigation, further reducing waste of water and fertilizer. In fact, by utilizing drip irrigation and plastic mulch, which holds moisture in the soil, they have cut water use in their watermelon fields by 30 percent to 50 percent annually. Moving away from overhead sprinklers has also lowered the incidence of disease in their watermelon plants, which means the Gwinns have been able to cut back on their use of fungicides and pesticides.

“The Gwinns have adopted sophisticated soil-moisture and nutrient-testing equipment to meet crop needs without the overuse of fertilizers and irrigation,” says Mace Bauer, BMP implementation coordinator for UF-IFAS. “While other farms sometimes overuse irrigation and fertilizers as cheap ‘insurance,’ the Gwinn Brothers prefer to use science-based information as their insurance.”

The brothers have embraced the latest technology in order to make their operation more profitable and more sustainable. Global Positioning Systems installed in several tractors help keep the Gwinns’ chemical usage to a minimum. The GPS systems ensure precision planting and precision nutrient and pesticide application. This new technology has helped the Gwinn brothers save thousands of dollars in fertilizer and pesticide costs while improving water quality.

Water quality is also protected by the Gwinns’ use of winter cover crops, which help improve rainfall infiltration and reduce soil erosion and runoff. Herbaceous wind barriers also protect soil and water. These are narrow strips of grass or other non-woody plants placed at intervals across fields, perpendicular to the prevailing wind direction. The strips prevent soil erosion by wind and provide food and cover for wildlife.

Managing for wildlife isn’t something the Gwinns do for purely altruistic reasons. Maintaining some areas of the farm for wildlife actually improves the farm’s productivity. Pockets of native vegetation provide habitat for birds, bats, and beneficial insects that can help control pest outbreaks and reduce the need for chemical pest control. Providing habitat for beneficial insects can also facilitate pollination. Other benefits of creating and protecting wildlife habitat on the farm include higher water quality and reduced soil erosion.

Donell and Robert Gwinn are conservation leaders and leaders in their industry. They participate in the Florida Farm Bureau’s County Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship (CARES) and were recently recognized by the Suwannee County Conservation District as Conservation Farmers of the Year. Donell Gwinn has served as a district supervisor for the Suwannee County Conservation District and is presently serving as an adviser to the Suwannee County Farm Service Agency County Operating Committee. -- 2007


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