Michael L. Wagner, owner of Two Brooks Farm, will be honored with the prestigious Swisher/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award for the state of Mississippi at the next Sunbelt Ag Expo, October 18-20, 2022. Wagner’s unique farming operation, his emphasis on stewardship of the earth, and the Two Brooks focus on quality over quantity earned him the nomination.
Interpreting food justice for the Mississippi Delta and other agricultural communities is often lost in theoretical conversations that lack real solutions and initiatives. Commercialized terms such as going green, local eating, opting for organic, as well as more philanthropic concepts of food insecurity, food deserts and food sovereignty can create confusion on supermarket shelves. There is no single solution to these complex issues, but farmers such as Wagner are turning well-intentioned concepts into actionable steps with mitigative, sustainable, agricultural practices.
Two Brooks is located in Sumner and benefits from the rich, highly organic, blue gumbo clay soil or ‘terroir’ of the Mississippi Delta. His family can count an unbroken line of ten generations of farmers back to 1742. Their prodigious, consistent labor has produced a whopping 281 consecutive harvests of rice and other crops.
Wagner says, “While ours is primarily a rice farm, we also grow Non-GMO soybeans and manage several acres of woodlands, lakes, bayou, and river frontage for the benefit of wildlife and plants growing there. Our main goal is to strike a balance between the long-term needs of healthy natural habitats and the daily caloric needs of consumers. It’s ingrained in me and my two children, Lawrence and Abbey, to work with and through nature to produce the highest quality food for those who rely on us.”
Two Brooks Farm has seven full-time and three part-time employees. It has grown from 400 acres at its inception to 3,100 acres currently operated, with 1,700 acres of rice yielding 140 bushels/acre and 100 acres of soybeans yielding 60 bushels/acre. Part of the rice is marketed through normal channels such as the Farmer’s Grain marketing pool and direct sales. The Rice Company buys a large amount as well. Through Two Brooks Rice, Wagner markets his on-farm milled rice directly to consumers, to food services, and through second-party channels for national distributions. The farm reserves about 80,000 pounds of milled rice for food banks annually.
The finely textured, predominately clay soil of the Delta is rich in nutrients that lend themselves to the flavor of Two Brooks Farm rice. The terroir’s physical properties and structure resist degradation, leaching, wind erosion, and depletion of the nutrients required by rice. Products from Two Brooks Farm fall into the general sizes (short, medium, and long grain) and categories of white, brown, jasmine, basmati, red, and black rice, along with a number of varieties of rice grits and rice flour. Some have distinctively colorful names like Blue Jasmoon White Mississippi Jasmine Rice, Original Mississippi Middlins White Rice Grits, and Delta Belle Rice Flour Stone Ground White Rice Flour.
Wild red rice, traditionally rejected, is one of Wagner’s favorite products. It is herbaceous with a malty aroma and firm, springy chew; very distinct, nonsticky kernels. Wagner adds, "It’s fine rice to cook and looks wonderful on a chef’s plate."
Two Brooks offers the public a wide array of products in terms of taste and nutritional value. For example, brown rice has more bran than white rice. But their scarlet rice has five times the antioxidants of their brown rice, and their Sable or black rice has eight times the antioxidants of brown rice.
Wagner first learned about low-input sustainable agriculture (LISA) as a student at Mizzou. The unique rice cultivation system at Two Brooks Farm adheres to nature’s rhythm, lending to and taking from it the means to produce whole, healthy, glycemic friendly, non-glutinous and non-GMO food. Rice yields are comparable to conventionally grown rice with fewer environmental costs and match or exceed many of the advantages of organic rice without the disadvantage of generally lower yields along with corresponding demands of land and water usage.
Wagner says regenerative is the key term in progressive agriculture, which refers to a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. For example, one-third of Two Brooks rice is produced conventionally, and two-thirds are produced on continuous rice fields (or permanent rice culture), thus requiring no insecticides or fungicides. Since the farm is in the Mississippi Flyway area, over 300 species of birds drop their natural fertilizer on the rice fields. They also consume many lost and undesirable seeds left after harvest and rogue spring seedlings.
Two Brooks Farm conservatively uses the many inputs nature allows—rich soil and a unique on-farm ecological system with a minimum of manmade inputs—to produce rice. “It’s a low-tech approach to address many highly visible problems confronting our world today,” he adds.
Recycling water on the rich, composted, perfectly flat continuous rice land reduces the need for aquifer water and the energy to pump it. Some years it requires no additional irrigation, being rainfed. Farm-emitted water is at least as clean as it was when it entered the fields, especially free of silt and fertilizer. This is accomplished through the filtering action of a connected labyrinth of continuous (up to five or six) rice fields.
Wagner explains, “Over half the land has no slope, and this land is divided according to elevation to impound water so that none accidentally escapes. These water-miserly fields act as giant bladders during Mississippi rains by storing all water for future use. So, our flat, ecologically farmed fields yield at least 50 percent more rice per unit of water used than our conventional fields and at least 70 percent more rice per unit of water than our small acreage of organically grown rice produced on flat land.”
He adds, “These types of fields and aquatic life also do a great job of filtering and recycling any excess resources, and thereby mitigate environmental pollution. The goal is to send clean water back through the meandering streams into the Gulf of Mexico after it has nourished the farm’s crops.”
Wagner summarizes his family’s approach to rice growing: “We continue to meet our goals through our unique systems of rice and soybean production by reinserting our farmland back into our local ecology. We also improve water quality, use fewer carbon inputs, and improve organism habitat on multiple linked levels that serve the environment. These practices allow for lower diesel expense through complete no-till and waterfowl activity, lower fertilizer inputs, and low water use on irrigated farmland.”
And rather than continually expanding land ownership, Wagner decided to usher in his family’s next generation of farming through the art of vertical integration. “That is,” he notes, “we decided to build our own rice mill so that our employees could not only grow but mill and market our plantation’s rice production, ensuring an extra layer of freshness and therefore flavor in the product. Most rice is stem ripened in field, enhancing grain flavor while reducing drying costs.”
The single estate rice is stored and small-batch milled on-site in a kosher-certified, highly sanitary rice facility situated among the fields from which it was harvested. This practice minimizes food miles and saves transportation costs. Wagner reflects, “We are all stewards of the land’s resources and must continually restore what we take out of it. It truly does take a village for our farm family to meet our collective social and environmental obligations.”
As to the rewards of farming, Wagner says, “I’ve been fortunate to have space in this enterprise for my children to enter and build their lives. I also cherish my employees, vendors, and customers who are an integral part of the operation.” He confirms, “Above all, there’s the unquantifiable blessing of experiencing an ever-deepening relationship with God, developed while walking, working, and praying on my farm. Stewardship over such fertile land is a gift that keeps me in awe and gratitude for the opportunity. It takes an earth and a sky full of faith, hope, and love to do what I do, and I’m richly blessed with each.”
At The Sumner Grill, Chef Norwood cooked Sable black rice (sweet, aromatic with light, springy chew) and Delta Belle white rice (a buttery, sweet, springy chew). He combined black rice with blue crabs and periwinkles and, with the white, his pièce de resistance ingredient was a Southern favorite, pork belly!