What is in this article?:
• For Kirk Brock and Myron Johnson, the search for an edge in making a living on the farm means thinking beyond the afternoon weather and putting confidence in science.
ALABAMA GROWER Myron Johnson talking with Wendy-Lin Bartels, an anthropologist with the Southeast Climate Consortium.
The crop annihilator
Two hours south in the Florida Panhandle, Kirk Brock is also intent on killing his cereal rye. He plans to do it with a machine he’s built and affectionately nicknamed “The Crop Annihilator.” The machine will crush $50,000 worth of rye in the course of a few days.
In contrast to the visible energy Johnson exudes, Brock is quieter, slower to answer a question. He squints his piercing blues eyes, the creases growing more visible around them as he searches for right words.
He describes himself half-jokingly as someone “afflicted with learning.” It shows in the way he talks about working with his Extension agents to tinker with different cover crops and reads soil science journals from the 1940s in search of lessons for today.
Brock also has a memory that a Vegas card counter would envy, despite claiming otherwise. He rattles off a dizzying array of years, weather events, and crop outcomes like they happened yesterday.
His family has been farming in the Florida Panhandle since 1948. He left after high school to pursue a degree in agronomy and eventually to work in agribusiness. After years away, though, he returned to Brock Family Farms in 2000 to help his 77-year-old father keep the family business going.
Just like Johnson, he knows what the alternative to cover cropping is. “We used to spend four, five, six weeks a year hauling soil back up the hill,” he said, pointing to the deceptively gentle slope behind him. “And as far as soil quality we still wouldn’t be at the spot we were 12 months earlier, as the good stuff had been lost to the creeks.”
Brock can tell you exactly what it takes to make a hillside erode. Four inches of rain equals 108,000 gallons of water falling per acre. Over a 10-acre hill, that’s a million gallons of water or nearly two Olympic-sized pools. When that much water falls in a short period of time, it can turn the gentlest of slopes into a pit of sand and mud.
Both Johnson and Brock have taken the cover crop idea to the extreme, planting some of the tallest, heaviest cover you can: rye. Lush and green, rye can grow up to seven feet tall. Brock noted that the grass was so tall last year that he could barely see over it out of his tractor cab.
When you flatten that much biomass, it’ll be sure to hold some of the soil in place. While the erosion control benefits are what drew both farmers to cover cropping, it’s not the only benefit each has discovered. It keeps rainfall in the soil, and it cools soil temperatures at the height of summer.
“The money comes when you mat that stuff out and you save the moisture,” Johnson said, standing outside his barn in the humid air after the storm.
It’s not uncommon for evaporation rates to reach a quarter of an inch a day in southern Alabama. As a dryland farmer completely dependent on rain, the only water Johnson’s crops can tap is what stays in the ground. If a cover crop helps reduce evaporation by even a fraction, it can mean the difference between a poor and a great year.
Last year is one example of that. “I promise you I had a desert here. We had a spot of rain, but it made 1,800 pounds,” Johnson exclaimed, referring the amount of cotton per acre he harvested last year.
“A good yield would be between 750 and 1,000 pounds,” Birdsong chimed in. “A very good yield would be 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. A great yield is 1,200 plus.”
“If you told me you were dreaming of that much cotton, of even 1,500 pounds, that’d be a dream come true,” Johnson responded, his cadence picking up a bit.
“We’re in Peter Pan land now with 1,800 pounds. We’ve got the little wings and everything,” he said, breaking out into one of his infectious laughs.
The flattened cover crop also keeps the soil cool. Monticello, Fla., about 10 minutes from Brock’s farm, holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in the entire state. Factor in the sunshine, and the ground can turn into an Easy Bake oven.
The cover crop reflects sunlight, similar to wearing white on a sunny day.
“We went in a field last year in May, maybe early June, and at 10 in the morning, the soil with that radar gun was 118 degrees,” Brock recalls. “You roll back the cover crop residue, and its 85 degrees. That’s 33 degrees difference.” For corn and other cash crops, that’s the difference between life and death.