Title: 2008 Ag-Environmental: Brock Family Farm
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
On the Brock Family Farm in Jefferson County, conservation is more than just a smart practice, itís a necessity. In this quiet north Florida countryside the landscape that makes the area so beautiful also makes it a challenge to farm here. 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. Itís not surprising; heís been farming this land for six decades.
Gene Brock: In 1949 I planted my daddyís first corn crop at this location with a mule. And after three or four days getting in shape for that much walking and plowing 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 8-row equipment, I would say Kirk could plant 15 acres in one hour if he wanted to.
Geneís 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. Itís 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 1050 acres, some of which they own, the rest leased from a nearby plantation.
In todayís 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 8-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.
One thing the Brocks know well is that, in farming, the future brings change, and Geneís vast knowledge and experience, coupled with Kirkís education with soil science and new agricultural techniques, gives this partnership the confidence and ability to adopt innovative methods.
Kirk Brock: Historically, with conventional farming, probably the first practice people did to deal with the hills and the water was contour farming, where youíre running the rows around the hills to try to help hold the water up on the hills and decrease your slope. You also had terraces and waterways that people implemented. Even back in the 1930s, the federal government came through this area trying to get people to-- or help people build terraces to control the water. So itís been a long process of attempting to deal with Mother Nature. We found that those terrace strategies were not working for this area. So weíve transitioned to a no-till farming, heavy residue, cover crops, and a minimum disturbance of the soil seems to be working wonders for us.
High-residue farming begins with planting a cover crop in the winter; for the Brock family this crop is cereal rye.
Kirk Brock: We chose the cereal rye for a cover crop, because it produces a tremendous amount of biomass to enrich the soil. These soils of the southeastern United States are highly weathered soils. So weíre 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 itís just easier to grow a crop.
In the spring, when the mature rye reaches about 5 or 6 feet, itís 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 troughs, disrupting 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 cropís 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 improve 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 theyíve learned with other producers.
Kirk Brock: 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 whatís working and problems that some farmers may have.
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.
Kirk Brock: I love farming. You know, to go out there and plant a crop and nurture it and see it through harvest. I hope I get to farm -- you know, physically able to farm the rest of my life. Itís fun and challenging and itís like a race team. You donít ever get to where you want to be. Itís a weekly challenge of improving where youíre going.
Gene Brock: So Iíve actually been working -- doing -- either gathering eggs or something when I was four years old on the farm. And I wouldnít really trade it for anything. Itís been a challenge, though, you know. Youíve 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. Thereís a lot of improvement out there, too. I donít really miss the past; Iím just glad I lived in it.