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Bleckley County Success Stories

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Conservation, a Must on a Tree Farm

Wanda and Earl Barrs of Cochran, GA are the Region V winner for the Governor’s Award for Environmental Conservation Excellence for 2010. Wanda and Earl are the owners and operators of Gully Branch Farm, a 1,500 acre tree farm in Bleckley County.

The Gully Branch Tree Farm holds a unique spot in the history of the Barrs family.

Earl’s family first settled the land in the late 1800s. His great grandparents share-cropped the land and raised their family there. Earl’s grandfather, James, was born on that farm. In the 1930s the land was up for sale for nine bales of cotton. Unfortunately, the family was unable to purchase it.

In the mid 1980s, Earl and Wanda were able to purchase 411 acres of the original farmland from a timber company that had purchased the farm in the 1950s. Now, expanded to 1,500 acres, the tree farm is a distinctive blend of heritage, venue for education, and personal experience for the Barrs’ role as private landowners.

Earl describes Gully Branch as a “work in progress,” and it is, just that. After acquiring the land from the timber company, the Barrs spent countless hours, endless energy, and ample resources to transform the industrially managed land into an esteemed, family-managed tree farm. Acres of topsoil piled high in windrows from the previous industrial owner were redistributed to yield more productive viewing and wildlife food plots, as well as acres of better quality soils.

Gully Branch showcases trees of a variety of ages – from nine years old up to one hundred –plus. The main products produced are pine pulpwood, chip-n-saw and sawtimber. Over the past 23 years, the Barrs have managed Gully Branch for optimal production and have done so with best conservation practices in an effort to minimize erosion, support water quality and enhance bio-diversity.

Gully Branch Farm is an excellent wildlife habitat. Earl and Wanda participate in National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) programs such as Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) for forestry. As part of these programs, prescribed burning has been carried out on a scheduled basis. Through the EQIP program, Gully Branch Farm pine stands have been thinned to a level less than the normal economic basal area. The purpose of this thinning is to help open the canopy and provide more browse for improved wildlife habitat.

The Barrs are working to begin implementation of a small acreage of the farm in silvopasture, participating in the EQIP grazing land program. For this project, they are establishing pasture in a pine forest that has been thinned to a very low basal area. Plans include the incorporation of a beef cattle operation, with the goal being to grow cattle and timber on the same acreage.

Earl Barrs, a leader in the forestry community, is a member of the Georgia Forestry Association’s Board of Directors. He also is a board member of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Currently, he is working with leaders in power production and biomass research to promote a strong partnership for developing alternative uses for the tremendous supply of pulp wood generated in Georgia.

One of the unique aspects of the farm is its use as an education and outreach center focusing on conservation, sustainability and education. Since 1994, more than 7,000 youth and adults from across the state have participated in hands-on learning activities as a part of field trips to Gully Branch.

Wanda is a trained Project Learning Tree facilitator using the farm and forest as a resource for training students and educators in the areas of forestry, environmental and conservation education.

In 2006, Gully Branch was awarded the BASF Outstanding Achievement in Sustainable Forestry award. Earl and Wanda were named Tree Farmers of the Year in 2009 by the American Tree Farm System and American Forest Foundation.

Among their many accomplishments, they have also been chosen as the 2009 Conservationist of the Year Award for Bleckley County by the Central Georgia Soil and Water Conservation District.

The couple has two grown children, Andy Barrs and Meredith Potter and son-in-law, Philip Potter. Sharing their parents’ appreciation of the land, all are very active helping with Gully Branch Farm. 

As a family, the Barrs plan to continue managing their property as a working tree farm, hopefully for generations to come.

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Conservation Programs Help Make Farm Profitable

Bradbury Farms located in the community of Cochran been named the winner of the Governor’s Agricultural Environmental Stewardship award for District III. The farm is owned and operated by Tom and Nell Bradbury.

The Bradburys’ purchased their 7,200 acre farm in 2003. The farm has 1,800 acres in cropland; major crops produced include corn, soybeans, wheat and sorghum. Approximately 5,100 acres are in timberland – a large percentage in longleaf pine. The farm has another 300 acres in various other uses, including a 185-acre lake Before purchasing the Bleckley County property, the Bradburys farmed in Alabama and West Georgia.

Bradbury’s goal is to keep his farm profitable while maintaining a high level of conservation practices. “Tom wants to give priority to farming practices that result in improved benefits to soil and water resources. He also strives to give priority to wildlife habitat,” said Danny Bennett, soil conservationist for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Cochran.

Bennett went on to say, “Tom’s practice of strict no-till is unique to our area. This, along with planting cover crops, has already shown progress in establishing a healthier, more productive soil medium for growing crops.” In addition to his no-till practices, Bradbury has also implemented precision agriculture practices such as yield monitoring, zone soil sampling based on yield variations, and a variable rate fertility program. This fertility program includes the use of a specially designed poultry-litter spreader that makes precision applications of analyzed litter.

Bradbury has outfitted all of his center-pivot irrigation systems with nutrient-injection systems. This allows him to apply almost all of the nitrogen fertilizer needed for his corn and wheat crops. Careful nutrient monitoring, including tissue sampling, has allowed Bradbury to reduce the amount of fertilizer applied by 25 percent. All pesticides are applied with machinery equipped with a sprayer guidance system that prevents overlap and off-target applications.

Bradbury utilizes the services of a precision agricultural crop consultant to stay current on the latest technologies and equipment available to implement conservation practices. Several of the practices implemented on Bradbury’s farm are part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), Conservation Technical Assistance (Conservation Planning), and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

“My goal is not to run a plow through my land, not even subsoil, but use cover crops to improve the tilth by using a strict no-till operation. I am aware of the fact that what you do to one natural resource affects the other resources on the farm,” said Bradbury.

Among the practices Bradbury incorporates for wildlife management are food plot establishment, prescribed burning, vegetation control, predator trapping and leaving part of the crop unharvested in the field borders. Bradbury’s forestry operation uses Best Management Practices (BMPs), as outlined by the GA Forestry Commission. Bradbury has most of the corners of his center-pivot irrigation systems planted in longleaf pines. These pines have been thinned and limbed for maximum wildlife habitat.

Paul English, Central GA Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor, states, “Tom is 100 percent committed to protecting the natural resources and conserving the water supply on his farm. His passion for conservation is evident in his willingness to try innovative ideas and share the results with others.”

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