From the road, Wakefield Farm’s pastures look like most lining Highway 172 to Hartwell: brilliant green fields, studded with stands of trees and dotted with cows. But in fact this 1500-acre cattle farm bears scant resemblance to most cattle operations in Georgia. Wakefield’s owner and manager want to raise and sell top-quality beef, but they also strive to protect the land and water where their cattle breed, graze and grow to market weight.
Organic, locally-grown foods are available nearly everywhere these days. Farmer’s markets park trucks and pitch tents on small town squares, and in the hustle and bustle of cities.
But agriculture isn’t just about vegetables, it’s also about the poultry, beef, pork and dairy products shoppers buy in grocery stores, whether it’s a Whole Foods or, now that the country’s largest retailer has jumped on the healthy eating bandwagon, a Walmart.
And Georgia plays a major role in stocking those coolers.
Poultry and livestock farming is big business in Georgia, which holds the top spot for broiler production in the US and brings about 1 million cows and calves to market annually.
Hart County – Wakefield’s home – is a small land area but a major force in animal production. The county generates the second largest income in the state for livestock, poultry and their products, and nationwide ranks 126 out of 3,079 counties in the entire country.
Although livestock is economically essential for Hart County and for Georgia’s economy, this type of farming can take a major toll on land scarred by the region’s history.
Much of Georgia’s best topsoil now lies on the bottom of streams, loosened and depleted by years of cotton farming.
“Now you just scuff your toe on the ground and you’re hitting red clay,” said Robert Tate, program coordinator for UGA’s certificate in organic agriculture.
Georgia farmers now grow a more diverse array of crops than they once did and many former cotton fields are now pastures. While this helps soil quality rebound, herds of thousand-pound, hoofed animals can still have a rough impact on land and water.
Sustainable farming practices, aimed at protecting soil, water and the whole ecology of the farm, are a way to give back to the land that feeds him, says Wakefield manager Scott Fleming. “If this is my livelihood, what I depend on to eat, to put money in my pocket,” he said, “wouldn’t you think I’m going to try my best to protect that?”
Fleming and Asa Phillips, Jr., who owns Wakefield, are determined to keep the farm’s land intact and healthy for future generations.
On a traditional livestock farm, cows may wade into streams to drink and cool off, eroding banks and fouling water. At Wakefield, fencing and knee-high grass act as buffers for nutrient runoff and keep the cattle’s contact with water at a minimum.
Instead, massive concrete tanks with underground piping have been installed throughout the pastures to provide accessible, clean water for the cows. And since cattle have a habit of trashing their most frequently visited spots, specially made fabrics – called geotextiles – are placed under gravel in heavy use areas to prevent erosion and mud from piling up.
To give the ground time to recuperate, cows are rotated from pasture to pasture and act as natural lawnmowers. Fields of long grass lining paddocks are planted without tilling the soil and will later be harvested to make hay. To support the local economy, Wakefield uses poultry litter from nearby chicken houses when possible.
While Wakefield is taking strides to remain in the forefront of sustainable livestock farming, it is not an organic farm. They occasionally use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and they sometimes supplement their mostly grass-fed cattle with grain.
Although organic production is defined and standardized by the government, sustainable agriculture doesn’t fit into such a cookie-cutter mold.
Sustainability isn’t just about avoiding pesticides and hormones. It’s an umbrella term, and organic is just a piece of the pie, says Gary Hawkins, a pollution prevention specialist at UGA.
Instead, sustainability is about systems and studying the specific situation of each farm, says Julia Gaskin, the sustainable agriculture coordinator at UGA. It isn’t as easy as slapping a “sustainable” label on a farm or product.
What sustainable does mean, she says, is balancing profitability, environmentally conscious behavior and quality of life across generations.
The prospect of earning slow returns on major investments explains why more farmers don’t adopt sustainable practices.
Many farmers can’t justify the higher up-front costs of switching to alternative practices, which can require more time, manpower and management than conventional agriculture. “Management-wise, conventional agriculture is simpler,” said Tate, from the UGA organic program.
“It’s not necessarily a quick turnaround,” said UGA’s Hawkins. “But that high initial input for some practices should provide long-term benefits down the road.”
Modest financial incentives are available to farmers through government agencies like the USDA to conserve water, soil and other natural resources. Through the Conservation Reserve Program with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), farmers can get assistance to implement resource-saving practices.
Wakefield takes advantage of such cost-share programs, but Fleming says that many farmers don’t see the point. Why would you spend money on water tanks when there’s a creek running through the pasture?
Commitment to the future, a love of farming, and financial resources are needed to think beyond the immediate cash-flow model. “It takes a real degree of personal responsibility,” said Gaskin. “We need to think about it terms of our own personal choices and our lives.”
Public support is also crucial: local extension agencies provide information and tools for farmers who want to shift to sustainability. Wakefield turns to UGA for help with soil testing, pest management and other issues that pop up.
“We have a real good relationship with them [UGA] and it’s a real benefit to us,” said Fleming, the farm manager.
Even small steps make a difference. “You need to get people on the path and keep them moving that way.” said Gaskin.
Hart County farmers are taking steps to become leaders in sustainable practices. In 2007, 164 of the county’s 657 farms reported using conservation methods, the second highest number in the state behind neighboring Franklin County.
For farmers like Fleming, implementing sustainable practices just makes sense. “To me, it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “We’ve got to take care of this [land] if we expect it to take care of us.”