Skip Navigation

#Fridaysonthefarm: A Georgia Family's Roots Run Deep

#Fridaysonthefarm: A Georgia Family's Roots Run Deep

 Story by Chris Groskreutz, NRCS Georgia
Photos by NRCS and Courtesy of the Bembry Family

Each Friday, meet farmers, producers and landowners through our #Fridaysonthefarm stories. Visit local farms, ranches, forests and resource areas where NRCS and partners help people help the land.  CLICK HERE to view all #Fridaysonthefarmstories.


For the past 200-plus years, the Bembry family has made a living off their Georgia farm, adapting and evolving how they managed the land as needed. Diverse ventures in row crops, cattle and timber has led to an array of benefits, including profitable lands, cleaner water downstream and top-notch wildlife habitat. Johnny Bembry is continuing what his great, great, great, great grandfather started. This Friday, join us as we take a walk down Bembry Lane.

Two centuries ago, William Lancaster purchased the land following the Revolutionary War

Family Roots

Two centuries ago, William Lancaster purchased the land following the Revolutionary War. It was the first land bought in the county, and it was the creek that cut through the property that got his attention. Lancaster built a dam on the creek and it was later used to hydropower for a grist mill. It would be renovated and rebuilt over the centuries, hosting weddings and social functions along the way. Today, it’s used as an agricultural irrigation reservoir.

The upland surrounding the old mill pond has remained in timber production since the original purchase and some of the trees found nearby are hulking reminders of a time gone by.

I don't know how old that pine tree is and there isn't an increment bore big enough to safely determine it,” said Johnny Bembry (right). “We'll just have to wait to figure that out one day when it dies.”

"I don’t know how old that pine tree is and there isn’t an increment bore big enough to safely determine it,” said Johnny Bembry (right). “We’ll just have to wait to figure that out one day when it dies.”

Meandering through the land, you can witness how nine generations have been caretakers of this place and that they are planning for many more to come. Johnny uses his grandfather’s former home for a farm office, and hidden among the briers and the brambles are old pine trees that still bear the scars from the harvest of turpentine many years ago.

You can also find old farm equipment and an old dairy. And while these aren’t in use anymore, it doesn’t mean the family isn’t actively managing the land. Today, the family continues to grow timber, peanuts, corn, cotton, cattle and hay. Read more about the land’s history here.

Tall Timbers

These days, Johnny focuses most of his efforts on improving the health of this pine forests, including the restoration of the longleaf pine ecosystem. Of the property’s 2,200 acres, more than 1,600 are in trees. Longleaf pines trees can provide ample economic and environmental benefits. Longleaf grows stronger, yields straighter lumber and provides habitat for many wildlife species. But it grows slower.

“I’ve long thought the quality of the wood of the longleaf pine for structural purpose was superior to the faster growing trees,” Johnny says. “Longleaf wood has superior strength and resilience.”

Longleaf pine forests are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. But they have suffered a tremendous decline because of fire suppression, development and lack of forest management.

Johnny, who is also a veterinarian, is bringing the fire back to the forests to improve the health of his longleaf pine forests. When he isn’t putting out metaphorical fires in his animal clinic, he, his sons Tilden and William, and brother-in-law Bill, are starting actual fires in the forests.

Prescribed burning is one of the main conservation practices used to manage for healthier forests, especially pine forests. These fires wipe out shrubby competition and enable pine trees, which are largely fire resistant, to flourish. By burning occasionally, Johnny is also minimizing the risk of wildfire on his as well as the neighboring land. He has also used other practices to prepare for prescribed burns as well as to control unwanted plants in the understory.

Longleaf pine forests depend on fire to stay healthy. Through prescribed fire, landowners introduce this natural process in forests.

William Bembry is helping with a prescribed burn on the property.

Johnny turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for help in planning and implementing a variety of conservation practices on the land, using expertise and programs from both USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA). Over the years, he has worked with USDA through a number of Farm Bill programs, including the Environmental Qualities Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). 

Read more about the programs that Bembry has used. As he puts it: "The quail and butterflies don’t know what program helped plant the trees and habitat around them."

This assistance helps Johnny and his family manage his working lands so that they remain profitable while also providing many natural resource benefits. The land also has 200 acres of crops, growing peanuts, corn, cotton and hay. Other family members managed the row crops but with similar stewardship. 

“If the land can’t pay for itself, it’s going to get converted to a different usage that will likely be a lot less environmentally beneficial for the rest of our society,” he says about his goal of keeping the property as working lands.

Wildlife Abound

Well-managed forests, like Johnny’s, provide critical wildlife habitat for wildlife. From the northern bobwhite to the gopher tortoise, a variety of game and non-game species are thriving here.

For example, Johnny lets the grass grow up in fields to benefit ground-nesting birds like bobwhite. “When the grass is growing the most, you think that’s when you need to mow, but if you can leave it alone while they are nesting, it’ll give them a chance,” he says.

(Photos 1 and 2) The northern bobwhite is often referred to as an “edge” species, seeking habitat where crop fields intersect with woodlands, pastures and old fields. (Photo 3) Old trees, or snags, provide vital habitat for bats and other species. (Photo 4) An array of pollinators thrive on Bembry's

(Photos 1 and 2) The northern bobwhite is often referred to as an “edge” species, seeking habitat where crop fields intersect with woodlands, pastures and old fields. (Photo 3) Old trees, or snags, provide vital habitat for bats and other species. (Photo 4) An array of pollinators thrive on Bembry's working forest and farm fields.

During harvests, Johnny’s crews are careful not to disturb gopher tortoise burrows. The gopher tortoise, named for its deep underground lairs, is the keystone species of the pine savannas of the South. The species has suffered declines across its range, and landowners like Johnny are helping restore habitat for the species.

Additionally, he has managed for wildlife openings, which provide food and habitat for a variety of species, and he leaves old trees, or snags, behind to provide habitat for bats and other species.

And while the property has several ponds, home to countless bass, bream and catfish, the farm also enjoys a healthy wood duck population. They frequent the wetland areas and stand to benefit from the next phase of major conservation efforts of the Bembry family.

Being adjacent to the Ocmulgee River, there are several wetland areas that flood in times of heavy rains. Through a conservation easement through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the Bemby family is restoring these wetlands to their natural hydrology. 

Family Affair

Johnny and his sister Amy believe in passing on the love for the land and all it offers us all, much like the generations before them did.

“Being a grandmother now and witnessing the exuberance the triplets exude when we ride across the farm, is so delightful,” Amy says. “When timber has been harvested, we take the girls to watch the cutting and loading, and then seeing it transported off the farm in those big trucks amazes them, as well as us.”

One of Johnny’s sons, Tilden, is back home after working in Atlanta for several years. His goal: to help manage the land. “The old expression is that absence makes the heart grow fonder,” he says. “The desire to enjoy the recreational benefits that the farm provides and to be nearer to family were both appealing. But I also felt a deeper sense of responsibility to continue to be a steward of the farm and the environment, as generations of my family have done in the past.”

It sounds like the next crop of land stewards have been well established. No surprise there.

Fridaysonthefarm: A Georgia Family's Roots Run Deep



Son and father, Tilden and Johnny Bembry, in one of the property's young longleaf pine forests.

Helping You Help the Land

To learn more about NRCS assistance opportunities, landowners should contact their local USDA service center. 

-----

Follow the #Fridaysonthefarm and other voluntary conservation stories on @USDA_NRCS Twitter  and @USDA Facebook. View the interactive ESRI storymap of this #Fridaysonthefarm feature.

<