Nestled within a series of forking dirt roads in Leflore County, Miss., sits Two Brooks Farm, 4,000 acres of well-loved land that has spent the last 23 years in the care of the Wagner family.
Mike Wagner is a 10th generation farmer, tracing his lineage back to a group of immigrants who landed in Boston in 1650 eager for the promise of a new world. His two children, Abbey and Lawrence, now also work on the farm. This makes them an 11th generation farming family, a rare find in the world today, especially in a country as young as the United States.
Two Brooks Farm’s main crop is rice. The heavy clay soil that makes up the property holds water, yet remains breathable enough to sustain crops, making it the perfect environment to grow rice. The majority of the farm is flatland, but there are a few sloped fields where they rotate the rice out with soybeans.
With nine different species of rice grown on the property, Two Brooks is interested in giving people options on what they can consume. Wagner likes growing healthier options and has even been working with a strain of rice that’s known for helping the body regulate glucose levels. Some varieties market better than others and, it’s a hard job, but Wagner said it’s all worth it.
He couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“This is what I was meant to do,” he said. “I had an office job for six months and was nearly suicidal. I just enjoy farming. I enjoy smelling the fresh air every day. I enjoy the solitude of it, the responsibility. But what I enjoy most about it is knowing that this farm right here feeds about 30 million people their full range of calories for one day. That’s how many calories we’re able to produce here. That’s a lot of folks, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”
Rice fields stretch on for literal miles at Two Brooks, divided by thin embankments that serve as makeshift roads for Wagner and his crew to navigate the land via pickup or four-wheeler.
The paddies are bustling with crawfish; hundreds of thousands can be seen splashing in the shallows at the edges of the fields where the water has accumulated.
Wagner makes a conscious effort to welcome native wildlife to the farm. Woodlands surrounding the property allow deer populations to thrive on the edges of the land. The vast acreage of the rice fields almost perfectly mimics the environment that was the Delta floodplain before human modernity took over. The paddies are home to numerous species of mollusks, crustaceans, migratory birds, insects and so much more.
“It’s a sign that I’m doing my job,” Wagner said of the wildlife thriving on his farm. “The way I’ve developed my farming philosophy is that if we’re holding on to these natural resources, maintaining these woods, keeping the straw out here, allowing the deer and duck populations to run wild — if we’re not making room for all that, we’re leaving something out. I’m trying to reinsert the farm as much as I can so that it’s serving nature.”
These creatures take care of the land. The ducks that fly in will stamp down the reeds left behind by a previous season’s crop of rice. The stalks then compost back into the soil, replacing depleted nutrients and making it all the more fertile. Wagner’s crew often goes years without tilling a field in order to help preserve the carbon that’s being put into the soil. Everything has its place within the natural order, and Two Brooks does its best not to disturb that order, while still maintaining a successful commercial operation.
“Yes, it has to make money and produce calories or we go broke and the world goes hungry, but I like to think we’re at the forefront of this,” Wagner said. “If I don’t see all these animals coming in, I have to go back and look at what I failed to provide for them. There’s room for them out here. I want anything that has a chance to make a home out here, to make a home.”
The irrigation system for the farm is, as an understatement, unconventional. Using a system of dikes, levees and transport systems installed gradually over the last couple decades, the entirety of the farm is serviced by surface water. There are two oxbow lakes on the property, and the Quiver River runs on the west side of the property. What isn’t accomplished by rainfall is made up for by these water sources.
Wagner and his team figured out a method to grow soybeans that allows them to mature faster than others. Because of this, they’ll require less water because they don’t have to spend as much time in the field.
In reality, this whole system developed out of practical needs. Wagner was looking for a way to make sure the fields yielded as many calories as possible, while still being cost effective and not depleting the natural fertility of the land.
“We wanted to treat our pocket book better,” he said. “We also wanted to save water. We were having aquifer issues, so we developed our current system a little by accident. It was more economical for us to flat grade the land and then about the time we’d finished that, we’d learned that the aquifer was being depleted.”
Being able to develop the water system using the surrounding body of water was the cheapest way to do it, while also keeping in line with this mentality of aligning the farm with nature. Wagner is interested in making a living and treating the land right. He doesn’t have a landlord to answer to or aesthetics of top crops to worry about. He just wants to continue being a steward of the land, and supporting his family.
“God put me here for this reason, and I’m hell-bent to honor it.”