Title: 2007 Ag-Environmental: Gwinn Brothers Farm
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
It’s before noon and the thermometer is in the triple digits. Even in this heat, there’s nothing else the Gwinn Brothers love as much as farming.
Donell Gwinn: “I’ve been in farming most of my life. I just love it. It’s a hard way of making a living, but I love it. Getting up, working every day, and doing the best you can about it. That’s what I feel I do best.”
Donell and Robert Gwinn grew up working on the family farm in McAlpin, in Suwannee County. In the late 1970s it became Gwinn Brothers Farm and the two brothers have been a team ever since.
Robert Gwinn: “I’ve always been an outside person, loved to farm. I like to get up and hear the birds sing, get up early and hear the rooster crow. I just love the outside and all I’m used to is hard work. And that’s what it takes to be successful on the farm, and I like to do something and make it look good, do it right the first time and look back at it and say, that’s the way it was done.”
The pride they take in their work is apparent. On their more than 1,100 acres they have a small cow-calf operation and grow peanuts, iron clay peas, bahia grass seed, and hay. But they are best known for their premium watermelons, which are shipped from their own packing house and sold throughout the eastern United States and Canada.
It’s not just their success on the farm but their ethics, willingness to work cooperatively, and progressive nature that have earned them a respected place in the community. The Gwinn Brothers have partnered with many groups including the Suwannee River Partnership, Suwannee River Water Management District, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to implement Best Management Practices, or BMPs, that protect the environment and increase productivity.
Joel Love: “We had a meeting and called in Donell and another group of farmers, and Donell was the first one in the Suwannee River Basin to agree to participate being a demo farm to demonstrate that these best management practices actually work on a working farm.”
Donell Gwinn: “We feel like we help them by letting them see the things that we have done with the new practices they brought on board, and let the public know what we are doing to save our environment and keep everything good for the young people.”
Chris Menhennett: “He sees this as an opportunity where it can help other farmers and that if he can go through this process and it can work for him, then he can share things about this experience and it can be out there, available for other farmers.”
Innovative ideas and technologies have enabled agriculturists to use less water, fertilizer, pesticide and labor, and the Gwinns are employing many of these new techniques.
Working from a conservation plan developed by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, or NRCS, the Gwinns have made improvements that greatly changed the way the farm works.
With recent droughts and Florida’s growing population, one of the biggest concerns to all growers is water. This is of particular concern in the Suwannee River Basin due to extremely sandy soil that allows water -- and nutrients -- to quickly drain into the environmentally sensitive Floridan Aquifer, which is the main water source for crop irrigation.
With the help of the NRCS the Gwinns have increased the efficiency of their existing center-pivot irrigation systems by retrofitting them. Now smaller, more precise nozzles apply water more like a rainfall than a mist, and ensure uniform distribution the entire length of the pivot system. A mobile irrigation lab monitors the performance and efficiency of these retrofitted systems which save more than 12 million gallons of water annually. Additionally, this translates into less time needed to run the irrigation system’s diesel-powered irrigation pumps and generators, reducing fuel consumption and maintenance.
The brothers have switched their watermelon fields from overhead irrigation to drip. This, in conjunction with adding plastic mulch to hold moisture in the soil, cut water use by 30 percent to 50 percent annually.
In order to conserve water, the Gwinns employ a soil moisture meter – a probe that is placed in ground and registers the amount of water that is reaching the roots of the plant. The probe is linked to a sophisticated monitoring station, which periodically checks soil moisture. A read-out indicates when the ideal moisture level is met, allowing the brothers to irrigate only when necessary.
Using a plant tissue sampling kit, Donell also determines the ideal time to fertilize by measuring the sugars and nutrients in plant material taken from the fields. After the harvest soil samples are also taken to determine the nutrients needed for the next crop. Applying the correct amount of fertilizer at the right time addresses water quality concerns by reducing the possibility of leaching into the ground water. It also results in financial savings.
Chris Menhennett: “He seems to be always on top of new technology, willing to try and implement things. When other farmers may be more reserved and hesitant, he’s at the forefront of that. I think it’s just that leadership ability that he has and he’s probably one of the well-respected farmers we have here in Suwannee County.”
The Gwinns have installed GPS devices in several of their tractors. The system recognizes pre-marked coordinates then precisely guides the tractor to the exact row where attention is needed. This level of precision takes planting and applying fertilizer and pesticide to a new level, allowing spot application and avoiding overlapping of rows which greatly reduces the amounts applied. This practice saves the Gwinns time and thousands of dollars in fertilizer and pesticide costs, while yielding substantial environmental benefits, especially in the area of water quality.
In the past, a strict schedule of pesticide application was followed to manage the pest population. Now the brothers use an integrated pest management plan to reduce the use of pesticides on the farm. Inspecting the crops weekly, scouts check the fields for pests and, when their numbers are too high, Donell decides when, and precisely where, to treat.
To maintain habitat for wildlife, the Gwinns have left areas of the farm uncultivated.
Donell Gwinn: “We have some wooded areas around most of the fields. And we have deer in those areas, turkey, squirrel, rabbit. I have seen a bald eagle, two or three, and when we grow feed, the wildlife going to come to it. So we feel like we take care of them, too.”
Not only do the areas provide a home for the larger animals, they actually improve 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.
Another conservation practice the Gwinns have incorporated is prescribed grazing for their cow-calf operation. As forage for the cattle, the quality and quantity of grass plays an important part in their nutrition and weight gain.
Jill Epley: “And as you can tell by the look of the grasses that they have and the condition of their cattle, their implementation of their rotational system is working very well for them and we’re very pleased.
By moving the cattle to different pastures, the grass has a chance to rest and re-grow, ensuring its quality and sustainability.
Jill Epley: “They’ve been doing a very, very good job with what we would like to work with our natural resources here, in Suwannee County.”
Wind erosion is a big concern is the sandy soil of the Suwannee River Basin. By planting cover crops and wind barriers, the Gwinns are able to conserve the precious topsoil. Rye is typically planted during the winter in the fields that will become watermelon beds. The cover keeps the soil in place and, after the watermelon is planted, acts as a wind barrier to keep the spring wind from ripping the young plants’ leaves.
Implementing new production techniques require substantial record keeping to evaluate their effectiveness. Maintaining the documents is a job in itself but comes with benefits to the farm. Tracking water and fertilizer use and the plants’ growth patterns provides a broader perspective and can help the Gwinns project labor and supply needs. They also share their data for research and with other farmers.
Managing and working on the farm, meeting with regulators, and tracking progress is a tall task for a small family farm, and Donell’s work doesn’t stop there. His leadership skills are highly valued. Donell has served as District Supervisor for the Suwannee County Conservation District and is an adviser to the Suwannee County Farm Service Agency County Operating Committee, which is responsible for leading local conservation efforts.
For Donell, giving his time is worth the effort. His involvement and practical farming knowledge make him an important link to the local agricultural community.
Chris Menhennett: “He’s always willing to help a fellow farmer,- any advice or knowledge that he’s learned through his experiences, he’s always willing to share.”
Mace Bauer: “Donell and Robert definitely have a following in the agricultural community around here. A lot of young producers look up to them and look to them for information, you know, and it’s nice to have someone that’s successful and doing things right.”
Donell Gwinn: “We need some young farmers, because there’s a generation gap between the farmers, a big, huge generation gap. And there’s a few young ones just kind of interested now, because they can look around and see some of the good things that’s happening. And some of them want to get on board. If we’re going to keep making food in this country, we’re going to have to have some young farmers, because I’ve got a few years left, but time is winding down and some of this hard work is winding down, too.”