By Julian Brunt
Two Brooks farm in Tallahatchie County has an interesting history. Owner Mike Wagner is a pretty interesting fellow, the quintessential Mississippi Delta farmer, with emphasis on being an old school gentleman. As I go over my notes from my winter’s morning interview with Mike, it’s hard to think of any aspect of Mr. Wagner and Two Brooks that is not exceedingly interesting.
P.H. Brooks bought the farm from a timber company that had cleared the land in the 1920s, and set about creating a plantation with some pretty lofty ideals. To start with, no juke joints were allowed, a mandate that must have caused some consternation amongst the field hands. Brooks installed a saw mill so his tenet farmers would have access to good lumber to build their homes, and built a church for them, as well. He also instituted a policy of selling land to hard working tenet farmers, an admirable act, but one that eventually broke his farm into two main pieces, Brooks Number One and Brooks Number Two, thus the name that Wagner gave to the sections he bought, Two Brooks.
In the 1980s, Wagner found himself in Tallahatchie County and took a liking to the land he considered renting. The soil was what he described as “buckshot:” lots of clay, and sticky, making it hard to work. However, he realized it was on the same longitude as his home place in the boot heel of Missouri. Locals told him it would grow nothing, but Wagner thought he could make a go of it. He explains, "Difficulty breads opportunity. When I first looked at that place, all I could do was dream of getting my hands in that earth. Now, that rich, thick ass earth is part of what runs through my veins, the rest of it is sheer determination.” The whole community laughed at him then, but they are not laughing now.
“It’s all about the efficient use of space and water,” says Wagner, but conventional farming was just not going to work. Because of the clay content of the soil, it rutted easily, which requires a lot of tractor time to level. Rice fields have to be level to be efficient, but Wagner figured it out. All of his equipment has tracts, not wheels. They do far less damage to the land.
But that was just a beginning. He was the first farmer to land form his fields, making them absolutely flat with the use of a laser. No levees are needed to hold the water in place, just the roads that border the fields. Wagner also conserves water in a big way, capturing the winter rains in lakes and cannels, so only a very small amount of water needs to be pumped up from the aquafers, 100 feet below.
Wagner figured out the next step was to flood the fields in the winter, after the harvest. Most farmers burn the rice stubble off or plow it under, both acts that Wagner considers wasteful. Burning pollutes the air, and plowing wastes fuel. The flooded fields attract thousands of geese and ducks which feed there, trampling down the rice stalks so that they compost in the soil, enriching it even more. The birds also leave their nitrogen rich droppings, so very little nitrogen has to be added, an additional savings. The wind causes a small, wave-like action on the fields, something with further levels the land, and means less tractor work is required.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a good system,” says Wagner. An understatement if there ever was one. Two Brooks is all about efficient and innovation, but a lot of what Wagner does there is an attempt to be good to the earth he farms. “Years ago, after watching the overwintering waterfowl population explode, and the benefits they give to the land, after watching the eagles roost around, after watching the deer population go up, I started thinking about what I was doing. I started thinking about the soil microbiology and biology. How, by the fact that we had curtailed tillage and allowed waterfowl to do the tillage, we were beginning to rebuild the soil structure with naturally living organisms that enhance the rice plants health, and require far fewer synthetic inputs (to this day I use no insecticides or fungicides).”
Wagner states, “I want to enhance the biological systems that were in place before we cleared this land. I finally realized that we were reintegrating our farm into the ecosystem and environment from which it came. There are a lot of woods and riverbanks and bayou banks on the place. And there is a lot of open farmland, too. I intend for this place to serve both mankind and nature to the maximum capable.”
Wagner is turning more and more of the responsibility of running the farm to his children, Abbey and Lawrence, and you can see some of the touches they have added on their Facebook and website. The page opens with, “Tastefully cultivated, naturally,” and goes on to say, “What do you want from your food? What do you want for your environment? For mankind? Surely, the best!”
When you take a look at the Two Brooks Facebook page, make sure to look at the many creative recipes they included. Things like rice and tomato fritters, chard and brown rice au gratin, pimento and cheese gritsotto, Thai inspired rice meatloaf and spinach egg and brown rice breakfast.
You will be surprised at the number of rice related products Two Brooks sells. There are at least 16 types of rice, rice flour and rice grits from which to choose. There is brown, white, red and black rice, basmati, wild and jasmine rice to choose from, far too many varieties to list here.
Mike Wagner is quite the Southern gentleman, but he is also a progressive thinker, a man who loves the land he farms, and is passionate about doing the right thing, for all involved. Visit Two Brooks at www.twobrooksfarm.com.