Coffee County Success Stories
Wingate (PDF) (219 KB)html
Shoats (PDF) (149 KB)html
Vickers (PDF) (349 KB)html
McKinnon (PDF) (195 KB) html
Carter (PDF) (213 KB) html
By Amelia Hines, Public Affairs Specialist Assistant Athens
The Wingate Family is serious when it comes to preserving natural resources on their land and continuing a legacy of conservation that spans generations.
The family recently entered a Wetland Reserves Program (WRP) agreement with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that placed more than 1400 acres into permanent conservation easement that spans three different counties: Berrien, Coffee, and Irwin.
WRP is a voluntary program that assists landowners in restoring, protecting, and enhancing wetlands on eligible private or tribal lands while maximizing wildlife habitat benefits. The emphasis of WRP is to protect, restore, and enhance functions and values of wetland ecosystems on privately owned lands to attain habitat for migratory birds and other wetland-dependent wildlife and protection and improvement of water quality.
Under WRP, 752 acres of hydric soils have been classified as wetlands and will be restored. Another 703 acres are upland and are considered WRP buffer acres. The agreement also involved the re-establishment of longleaf and slash pine on several acres, the construction of seven stream crossings, and light and heavy site preparation.
Each of the practices implemented through WRP will perpetuate wildlife native to the area such as the indigo snake, gopher tortoise, and wood stork. NRCS District Conservationist Zack Railey has worked with the Wingates on the project and explained that “they still own the land. We’re just doing the restoration and improving habitat. They give us the rights to implement the practices.”
The family patriarch, Billy Wingate, has been farming the property since 1970. His grandfather moved to the area in the 1930s. He said that he and his sisters “wanted to keep it in the family; great wetlands for hunting and fishing potential. It seemed like a good deal for us,” Wingate said.
The Wingate's aren’t new to dedicating land to easement programs. Will, Billy Wingate’s oldest son, works for the Georgia Conservancy and is behind the family’s first venture into permanent easements with the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC). In fact the GFC’s 889 acres of conservation easement borders the land that the Wingate's have under WRP. “Partnership is a big thing. This isn’t the only contract where our easement borders a WRP easement,” Jeff Rockwell with GFC said.
While the collaborative effort has taken time and patience, Wingate believes it will all be worth it. “We can continue to grow timber and pass it on to our grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. It’s good now that this land won’t be developed in any way. It will be for hunting, wildlife, and recreational purposes,” Wingate said. Coffee County is a designated StrikeForce county in Georgia. The USDA StrikeForce Initiative is designated to help relieve persistent poverty in high-poverty counties like Berrien and Irwin Counties.
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Nearly 30 years ago, Kenneth Shoats had a vision. He wanted to turn a pine plantation into a row crop farm. “I had to start from zero. You have to love it to stay out here,” Shoats said. Shoats developed an interest in agriculture at an early age while working on his grandparents’ tobacco and hog farm. His childhood memories of helping out on the family farm led him to make a big leap in 1984.
Shoats said, “I sold my boat in order to have a down payment on my farm.” That down payment helped purchase 50 acres of land. But, even from the beginning it was a challenge to get his farm up and running. “I had to borrow a tractor and implements my first year of farming,” Shoats explained.
Over the years, Shoats has grown a variety of vegetables including squash, green beans, onions, watermelons, mustards, turnips, collards and kale. “When I first bought my farm, I decided that growing produce would offer the highest profits and allow me the best opportunity to get my farm paid for,” Shoats explained.
Currently, Shoats has a contract with Kroger for his seedless watermelons, mustards, turnips, collards and kale for the chain’s stores in Southeast Georgia. Shoats is always looking for ways to make his operation more efficient, environmentally friendly and profitable. He plants a winter cover crop of wheat. This cover crop helps reduce erosion, improve soil nutrients and provides food and cover for wildlife.
Shoats also follows a nutrient and pest management program. By applying nutrients and pesticides only when necessary, water quality of surrounding ponds and streams is protected. In 2008, Shoats visited his local Douglas USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in hopes of getting technical and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
District Conservationist Zack Railey said, “Kenneth was interested in planting some slash pine trees on some woodland he had recently cut. Before leaving, he completed an EQIP application to convert his diesel irrigation pumping unit to a more energy efficient electric pumping unit.”
Shoats also submitted a WHIP application for re-planting cutover woodland back into slash pine trees and an application for converting a mobile high pressure irrigation gun to a more efficient low pressure center pivot. Fortunately, Shoats was approved for EQIP assistance. “It’s been good. You have to have plenty of patience. I was surprised when he (Zack Railey) called me about my application approval,” Shoats explained. “I was really shocked that I received financing,” he added.
Shoats received an EQIP contract to convert his diesel pumping unit to electric and he completed the installation in 2010. “The electric pumping unit has decreased my costs of irrigating; saving me significant dollars with the constant irrigating I have done this year,” said Shoats. He went on to say, “In recent years, I have noticed more programs focused on helping the small farmer. I appreciate the program assistance and cooperation I have received from the NRCS.”
Coffee County is a designated StrikeForce county in Georgia. The USDA StrikeForce Initiative is designated to help relieve persistent poverty in historically high-poverty counties.
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Mark Vickers is a 4th generation farmer in Coffee County Georgia. Mark has farmed most of his life and has the calluses to show it. Like most farmers, Mark has experienced the ups and downs of a livelihood in farming. Mark said, “In the 70’s commodity prices were low, cost of fuel was high and interest rates were high. I had to quit farming in order to save my farm. There was no profit to be made.”
Mark began farming full time again in 1988; and today his entire family, including his wife Sharon and their children Chloe and Cajah, are all involved in the operation.
Mark Vickers Farms is a very diverse operation. Mark manages 388 acres of cropland that primarily produce peanuts, cotton, and alfalfa hay, a 10-acre pecan orchard, 42 acres of pasture and 1030 acres of forestland, which includes 34 acres of Longleaf pines. There are also several Angus cattle and five broiler poultry houses on the farm.
Mark intensely manages every land use to maximize profits, yet continues to be a good steward by protecting and enhancing the natural resources on his farm.
In 1983, Mark began planting cover crops and practicing no-till conservation.
Mark was one of the first few farmers that started conservation tillage in Coffee County. Mark had some (HEL) Highly Erodible Land on his farm and due to provisions of the Food Security Act had to reduce the erosion rate in order to keep farming these HEL fields.
Mark began investigating his options, which were limited: plant these fields in grass, trees, or start planting a cover crop and use some type of reduced tillage planting.
At that time, Andy Page served as a District Conservationist with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Page and Coffee County Extension. agent, Rick Reed provided the support and technical assistance that Mark needed to convert to conservation tillage.
Mark now plants cover crops in the fall and winter, rye or oats, and no-tills (disturbing only 4” of soil) into a soil surface residue cover of 80 percent on all of his crop fields.
“I use to spend spring dragging soil back from the edges of my fields to fill in all the gullies, but after converting to conservation tillage, I eliminated the erosion problem. Not only did I eliminate the erosion, but also increased my soil quality & improved the water holding capacity of the soil,” Mark said.
Mark has implemented many other conservation practices on his farm such as conservation crop rotation, nutrient management, pest management, and irrigation water management.
Mark Vickers’ commitment to conserving natural resources on his land is how he earned a Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) contract with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2010.
CSP encourages farmers like Mark Vickers to continue to improve their natural resources. CSP provides many conservation benefits including improvement of water and soil quality, wildlife habitat enhancements and adoption of conservation activities that address the effects of climate change.
“The things I have done on my farm were done to better my farm. My motivation is always to improve my farm, especially environmentally. God has provided us with all the resources we need and in return we should be appreciative enough to be good stewards to protect those resources. CSP has rewarded me for my efforts and I am appreciative of that,” Mark said.
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Wayne McKinnon has been farming all of his life. McKinnon Farms, located outside of Douglas in Coffee County, grew out of a partnership with McKinnon’s father when Wayne was 18. In 1977 he purchased his first farm of 200 acres. Today he is farming 1,400 acres of crops with the part-time help of his son Clay, a fourth generation farmer. What was once a hog farm has become a diversified farm of peanuts, cotton, tobacco, poultry and blueberries.
“When the hog market went south, I eliminated hogs from my operation and diversified into cotton and also expanded my tobacco acreage. My poultry houses have been a big help by giving me a steady flow of income and providing 20 percent of my fertilizer needs. I also expanded into blueberries growing two different types of blueberries, became a partner in a cotton gin and a blueberry packing shed. My wife oversees the blueberry picking crews and manages the books,” said McKinnon.
His natural resource issues were erosion, water conservation and poultry litter. “Wayne was stacking litter on the ground which was impacting water quality - runoff was flowing to a nearby intermittent stream and the farm pond. Wayne was using older inefficient high impact sprinkler type pivots in his farming operation to irrigate cropland. These sprinklers take more water pressure to work properly, requiring more power and more money to operate the center pivots; and Wayne was farming using conventional tillage methods,” said Zack Railey, soil conservationist for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Douglas.
With the use of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Technical Assistance and the 319 program, McKinnon’s conservation resource problems were treated. A stack house was recommended and implemented to improve water quality downstream.
By providing a covered enclosed shelter with an impervious concrete floor, litter was protected from rain, runoff, and wind preventing excessive nutrients from entering any nearby streams or ponds. A comprehensive nutrient management plan and pest management was developed by the NRCS and implemented by McKinnon allowing for safe application rates of organic and inorganic fertilizers and pesticides onto fields during safe conditions.
The NRCS suggested McKinnon convert from conventional tillage to conservation tillage to improve soil quality, decrease soil erosion, increase water infiltration rate, and improve wildlife habitat by planting a winter cover crop and strip tilling into that winter cover crop the following spring.
Also, the NRCS recommended conversion of high impact sprinklers to the more efficient low pressure drops to disperse irrigation water. The low pressure drops allows water to be dispersed in larger droplets closer to the crop which decreases water loss from wind and evaporation. It also takes less water pressure & energy to pump water to crops through low pressure drop sprinklers as opposed to high impact sprinklers.
McKinnon believes that EQIP is a benefit to the farmer. “They fund projects that benefit the farmer. These projects directly conserve energy & natural resources. Because of the shared cost between the farmer and the funded program, it is a more attractive and affordable program for the farmer to take advantage.” McKinnon said that the treatments have saved money. “It has saved me investment money that I can use for other conservation projects such as my boiler system for curing tobacco and heating poultry houses, which in return saves me $100,000 per year in energy costs. Pivot retrofits have enabled me to conserve water and electricity. Strip-till has reduced fuel reduce erosion and labor costs by limiting the trips across the field. The stack house has enabled me to store litter in a dry environment which preserves nitrogen and ensures clean litter for timely application,” said McKinnon.
McKinnon’s conservation philosophy is about stewardship of our natural resources. “All farmers are stewards of natural resources – water and soil. As green technology becomes available, it should be implemented. The minimal cost and cost sharing has proven to affect my bottom line in a positive way. We are grateful that these programs are made available to each framer and benefit the entire framing community and the consumer,” said McKinnon.
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Max Carter started farming in the 1950’s. By his own admission, he thought his worst problems were dead batteries and overdrawn bank accounts. In the early 1970’s he realized he had a much greater problem. Water and wind erosion were depleting his topsoil, his ponds were muddy, and so much silt had accumulated against one fence, he could step over it. As his land deteriorated, farming required higher and higher inputs of fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and water. Max thought there had to be a better way to farm. He heard about no-till farming. In the early to mid 1970’s, many Georgia farmers tried no-till farming.
Most of them failed to make it work on their farms and quickly returned to conventional farming methods. The reasons were many. Basically, neither the equipment nor the chemicals were adequate to allow for wide-spread use on different soil types and a wide variety of crops.
Max Carter decided to find a way to make it work. He was tired of soil erosion. He was tired of muddy water in his ponds. He was
tired of setting fire to his crop residues and watching them go up in smoke. He was tired of moving irrigation pipe from field to field.
Max reasoned that if mulch residue was good for flower beds, it should be good for his fields. He kept his flower beds mulched down
to control weeds and conserve moisture. Why not make it work in his fields. He never gave up on no-till. He altered and adapted his equipment to make it fit his needs. He experimented with different cover crops and different chemicals until he found a system that worked for him. At times he practiced his no till in the back fields, away from the road and out of the public view, but he never quit. He found a way to make it work.
He sold his irrigation equipment and his disk harrows. More than 33 years later it is still working, and Max is a much in demand technical consultant, speaker, and over all “expert” in no-till farming. He enjoys the many benefits of no-till farming on his farm: clean water, better soil quality, reduced use of insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, sustainable crops, less fuel consumption, less wear on equipment, and more time to enjoy life.
Serving as a NRCS volunteer, he has presented his story to agricultural councils, civic clubs, seminars, sustainable agricultural conferences, and other agriculture related functions all over Georgia traveling thousands of miles and volunteering hundreds of hours. His educational efforts include hosting more than 30 farm and environmental groups at his farm to promote no-till farming.
Senators and Congressmen seeking information to help develop the Farm Bill, Environmental and Educational groups, research scientists from all over the U.S., India, Brazil, Germany, and other countries have come to “Mr. Max’s” to hear his story and see conservation in action. He has presented his story to groups all over the United States including: The National Research Council in Washington D.C., The National Association of Conservation Districts in Nashville Tennessee, The University of California Cooperative Extension Service at Davis, California, the Southern Sustainable Ag Working Group in Mobile, Alabama, the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Norman, Oklahoma, the Georgia Association of Conservation District Supervisors, SARE, Eastern North Carolina Conservation Districts and more than forty field days, sustainable agriculture conferences, Conservation District meetings and other functions in Georgia.
His story has been told in numerous publications including: The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, The Georgia Times Union, the Conservation Technology Information Center Magazine, Progressive Farmer, South East Farm Press, The Furrow, The New American Farmer, Panorama (the Georgia Conservancy), ACRES USA, and many local news papers. He is a charter member and helped develop the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance, and the Coffee County Conservation Tillage Alliance.
He was selected Conservationist of the Year by the Altamaha Soil and Water Conservation District, and Farmer of the Year in Coffee County. Due in large part to “Mr. Max’s” efforts, working with NRCS, the Cooperative Extension Service and other partners, Conservation Tillage in Coffee County has increased from a few acres to more than 65% of the total cropland in the county.
In the Southeastern United States, conservation tillage has seen a phenomenal rise in popularity and nationwide more than 40% of all crops are planted using conservation tillage. “Mr. Max’s” untiring efforts to promote adoption of conservation tillage have been a big part of this movement.
Once he developed a no-till system that fit his operation he claims it was like retiring. He has a lot more time to enjoy the increased wildlife populations, particularly quail that are a great secondary benefit of no-till, and even took up golf for a while. Although he claims to have been retired for several years, he still plants 400 acres of cotton, peanuts, and wheat and still finds time to assist other farmers getting started with no-till.
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