Brock Family Farm
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On the Brock Family Farm, located in Jefferson County, conservation is more than just a smart practice, it’s a necessity. In this quiet north Florida countryside the landscape that makes the area so beautiful also makes it a challenge to farm. These rolling hills and fine sandy soil allow a significant amount of surface water runoff -- water that could be used to irrigate crops. Year after year, this runoff causes soil erosion, carrying away the precious top soil. No one understands this more than Gene and Kirk Brock.
Gene Brock knows these fields. He knows the crops and their yields, and how the weather was in years past. It’s not surprising; he’s been farming this land for six decades.
“I planted my daddy’s first corn crop at this location with a mule,” Gene Brock said. “And after three or four days getting in shape for that much walking in plowed dirt, I got to where I could actually plant seven acres in a whole sunup-to-sundown day with one mule and a planter, one-row planter. Nowadays, with the able equipment, I would say Kirk could plant 15 acres in one hour.”
Gene’s son, Kirk, grew up working on the Brock Family Farm through high school. But after studying agriculture at the University of Florida, Kirk wanted to try his hand in the outside world. In 2000 Kirk realized where he truly wanted to be, and came home to work the farm. It’s here that he is raising his family, living in the same house his grandmother did. More than just family, Gene and Kirk are also great friends and business partners. Each year they rotate their crops between corn, soybeans, peanuts and cotton. Today, the Brock family is farming 1,050 acres, some of which they own, the rest leased from a nearby plantation.
In today’s market, it is difficult for a small family farm to be successful. But the Brocks take it all in stride. With their imagination, resourcefulness, and jack-of-all-trades ability, the Brocks do what it takes to succeed. Instead of buying a new combine to handle their specific needs, they modified their old one to get the job done. Kirk built an eight-row cover crop roller to make for easier planting into the thick rye. And instead of driving into town to buy a new part when something breaks, they fix the broken one.
The Brocks know that in farming the future brings change. Gene’s vast knowledge and experience, coupled with Kirk’s education with soil science and new agricultural techniques, gives this partnership the confidence and ability to adopt innovative methods.
“Historically, with conventional farming, probably the first practice people did to deal with the hills and the water was contour farming where you’re running the rows around the hills to try to help hold the water up on the hills and decrease your slope,” Kirk Brock said. “You also had terraces and waterways that people implemented. Even back in the 1930s, the federal government came through this area to help people build terraces to control the water. So it’s been a long process of attempting to deal with Mother Nature. We found that those terrace strategies were not working for this area. So we’ve transitioned to a no-till farming, heavy residue, cover crops, and a minimum disturbance of the soil seems to be working wonders for us.”
Continued Kirk: “We chose the cereal rye for a cover crop, because it produces a tremendous amount of biomass to, to enrich the soil. These soils of the southeastern United States are highly weathered soils. So we’re attempting to reverse that process and increase the organic matter content. Also, any time you increase the organic matter content, you have more nutrient retention and more water retention and it’s just easier to grow a crop.”
High-residue farming begins with planting a cover crop in the winter; for the Brock family this crop is cereal rye. In the spring, when the mature rye reaches about five or six feet, it’s rolled down flat with a chopper-roller and left in the fields. Next the cash crops -- corn, soybeans, peanuts and cotton -- are planted in small trough, disturbing the soil as little as possible.
The flattened cover crop now serves a number of purposes. As it decomposes, the nutrients from the rye enrich the soil making it healthier and more productive; this richer soil provides nourishment for the cash crops; which, in turn increases their quality and profitability. As it mats down, the rye acts as a dam that decreases water runoff and any resulting soil erosion. Retaining this water also means more will be absorbed into the ground nourishing the growing crops. As mulch, it inhibits evaporation, holding the moisture in; this keeps the ground cooler, putting less stress on the crops.
High-residue farming has decreased the amount of insecticides and herbicides the Brocks use and provides increased habitat for many types of wildlife, from the microscopic to birds and small mammals.
To examine firsthand the health and growth rate of the cash crop’s root system, the Brocks do random pit sampling each year. The roots of the cover crop penetrate the subsoil taking nutrients deeper into the thick clay soil of North Florida. This not only loosens and aerates the soil, but when the roots decompose, they give the root systems of the cash crop channels that allow them to grow deeper into the soil.
Meticulous record keeping on data ranging from soil sampling to crop yields has helped improved the productivity and profitability of the farm. As leaders in the agricultural community, the Brocks have gone beyond adopting innovative conservation practices; they actively share what they’ve learned with other producers.
“I feel like farmers should be involved with each other and communicate with one another throughout their community, their state, and their area to further their education about what’s working and problems that some farmers may have,” Kirk said.
With a goal of making the land more productive with fewer man-made inputs, Kirk has seen firsthand the benefits of letting nature do the work. The high-residue, no-till method has helped level out the extreme fluxuation in yields from year to year caused by drought and disease, and he encourages other farmers to look into this farming approach.
“I love farming,” Kirk said. “You know, to go out there and plant a crop and nurture it and see it through harvest. I hope I get to physically be able to farm the rest of my life. It’s fun and challenging. It’s like a race team; you don’t ever get to where you want to be. It’s a weekly challenge of improving where you’re going.”
Said Gene: “I’ve actually been working, either gathering eggs or something, since I was four years old on the farm. And I wouldn’t really trade it for anything. It’s been a challenge, though. You’ve just got to love it. You believe in the future of farming by the works that have been already done. And of course there is always room for change. There’s a lot of improvement out there, too. I don’t really miss the past; I’m just glad I lived in it.”
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Cutlines for Brock Family Farm Photographs
01 Crops on Brock Hill at Brock Family Farm
02 Harvesting feed cord at Brock Family Farm
03 Feed corn being stored in silo at Brock Family Farm
04 Gene Brock moving feed corn into storage
05 Gene Brock with combine harvesting feed corn
06 Gene Brock in field at Brock Family Farm
07 Gene Brock, left, and Kirk Brock
08 Gene Brock
09 Kirk Brock checks corn in field
10 Kirk Brock, left, and Gene Brock in soybean field
11 Kirk Brock manages the farm’s books on computer
12 Kirk Brock repairing combine
13 Kirk Brock drives planter-tractor in field
14 Kirk Brock
15 Kirk Brock welding and repairing farm equipment
16 Pine tree on Brock Hill
17 Tractor-planter in field at Brock Family Farm
18 Brock Family Farm in Jefferson County