Photos courtesy of Two Brooks Farm
SUMNER, MISS. — Having figured out how to grow rice in an ecologically-sensitive manner, the Wagner family, owner of Two Brooks Farm, has begun to market the rice to retail and food service outlets.
The company’s bags promoting “rice ecologically grown for our world” appear in a few dozen retail outlets in Mississippi and Memphis, Tenn. They also are sold on Amazon, and the company is working with US Foods in food service. Such rice varieties as basmati, whole grain brown and white rice are offered as are blends.
“We like to say that we serve mankind and nature, not just mankind,” said owner and founder Mike Wagner. “Our system serves both in equal fashion.”
No fungicides or insecticides are involved in the growing of the rice. Geese and ducks deposit a great deal of the fertilizer, and remaining nitrogen needs are met with specified nitrogen sources, calibrated to the needs of each field. Yields are on par with conventionally grown rice.
Two Brooks Farm also highlights the Wagner family farming history when promoting the rice, said Lawrence Wagner, manager and Mike’s son. The family’s roots in U.S. farming date to 1742.
“You can have a product, but you need to have a great story behind it, and that’s what we can do,” said Lawrence Wagner, an 11th-generation farmer.
While Lawrence Wagner handles the food service side of the business, his sister, Abbey Wagner, takes care of retail accounts as marketing manager. Lawrence has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business from Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. Abbey has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. Mike Wagner received a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo.
“All of this has been kind of a learning experience for us,” Lawrence Wagner said of marketing the rice, which the company began to do about three years ago.
Most of the rice at Two Brooks Farm does not qualify as organic because of the use of synthetic nitrogen. The rice that is not organic gets twice the yield of the company’s organic rice, Mike Wagner said. Labor costs are lower with the ecologically grown rice, and the flat land owned by Two Brooks Farm cuts down on water runoff.
“We use about 25% of the water that a lot of rice farms do,” Mike Wagner said.
Waterfowl come to feed on the bugs, mollusks and mussels in the rice fields and then leave fertilizer.
Other rice farmers could practice the same type of farming, but they may not have the advantage of the flat land.
“They can capture some of the advantages we have, but they would not enjoy it to the degree we do,” Mike Wagner said.
If other farms wish to replicate the farming methods, Two Brooks Farms has not yet developed an extensive set of guidelines for growing the rice, Mike Wagner said. He began growing the rice in an ecological manner in the Mississippi Delta in the 1990s. Weeds, late planting and ruts from late harvest were some of the problems he faced initially.
“I thought I was going to go broke,” he said. “It got a little thin for a while.”
Then he began noticing more lifeforms like worms, mollusks and snails in the field. Birds came to feed on them. The birds deposited fertilizer, which allows Two Brooks Farm to reduce nitrogen inputs. The geese and ducks stomp down the straws in the mud.
“We rely on them to do a lot of our tillage,” Mike Wagner said of the birds.
Two Brooks Farm follows a strategy of volume over price for its gourmet rice.
The company bought a mill about five years ago and now mills its own rice. The mill plays a role in Two Brooks Farm being able to sell its rice at a lower price than other gourmet rice, Lawrence Wagner said. When Two Brooks Farm began marketing the rice, the company focused on volume over price, Lawrence Wagner said.
“We just placed product out, and it started moving,” Mike Wagner said.
Now, Two Brooks Farm would love to secure a place for its rice in Whole Foods Market or Sprouts outlets, Lawrence Wagner said. The company in the future also might sell the rice as an ingredient to food manufacturers.
Media, including an article in Ducks Unlimited, have focused on the farming methods, Lawrence Wagner said. Representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have visited the farm, too.“I think this is the wave of the future,” Lawrence Wagner said of farming in an ecological manner.