When officials at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment were looking for a good example of a family farm that was both profitable and committed to sound conservation practices, they were directed to a diverse agricultural operation in southeastern Wilkes County.
Seventeen students and a professor from the Duke University program spent most of April 23 walking around and asking questions on the 388-acre Blake family farm on Hunting Creek Road, which is this year’s Conservation Farm Family of the Year for Wilkes County and a 13-county northwest area.
B.J. Cook, U.S. Department of Agriculture district conservationist with the Wilkes Soil & Water Conservation District, summarized the Blake family’s story of planning, hard work, cooperation and faith when the Blakes were recognized Friday night at the Edwin McGee Conservation Center on Fairplains Road in North Wilkesboro.
“The Blake family has demonstrated their belief in conservation and has taken the lead” by implementing sound conservation practices, said Cook, adding the family has made their farm a model of conservation and environmental stewardship.
He described how options are carefully weighed and input is sought from different family members before important decisions are made on the farm.
“The entire family works as a team. Everyone has a job and a responsibility. You have to have cooperation…. When you put these two (family and cooperation) together, you have a long term formula for success,” Cook added.
Mike Pardue, director of the Wilkes Soil & Water Conservation District, and Dr. Bill Davis, chairman of the Wilkes Soil & Water Conservation Board of Supervisors, concurred with Cook.
Family comes first on the Blake farm, with “three generations working together as a team,” said Pardue. The farm is used to teach others about conservation farm practices and environmental issues, including through organized tours for various organizations, he added.
Pardue said the Blakes are the “quintessential farm family.”
“It’s such a blessing to me to see how each member of the farm family has a role to play and they do it in such a good way,” said Davis.
Davis noted that 2012 is the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the nation’s first soil and water conservation district, which was in Anson County.
“We think the Blake family has an excellent opportunity to be the Conservation Farm Family of the Year for North Carolina. The winner of the award this year will be very significant because of the 75th anniversary,” he said.
Judges who will pick the Conservation Farm Family of the Year for the mountain region of North Carolina, essentially for all counties west of Interstate 77, will visit the Blake farm on Friday.
The winners from the mountain, Piedmont and coastal regions of North Carolina will then compete for the state title.
The Blakes went down this path in 1984 when they were named the Wilkes, Area II and mountain region Conservation Farm Family of the Year. That same year, they were named among the top 10 nationally in competition for “Farm Family of the Year in Soil and Water Conservation.”
Judging categories include soil and water conservation practices, woodland and wildlife activities, educational activities, conservation knowledge, stewardship and community leadership.
In addition to Gary Blake and Lorene Blake, family members living and working on the farm include their son and daughter-in-law, Chad and Brenda Rash Blake. They also include Chad and Brenda Blake’s two married sons, Heath and Tyler, and their families, and their two younger sons, Seth, 11, and Luke, 8.
Heath and his wife, Kelli Church Blake, have one son, James. Tyler’s wife is Emily Welborn Blake.
The farming operation began in 1978 when Gary and Lorene Blake purchased the first 238 of the 388 acres and moved, with their two sons, Rodney and Chad (then 13 and 11 respectively), from Guilford County to North Wilkesboro. Mrs. Blake, daughter of the late Boyden and Joyce Oakley of the Windy Gap community, was originally from Wilkes.
Much of the land, including where Gary and Lorene Blake later built a home, was covered in kudzu, field pines and tall weeds.
The land was highly eroded, very rocky, highly acidic and had low fertility. The Blakes spent the first couple of years working on the land so it could be farmed. Many rocks were picked up and kudzu vines and small trees bush hogged and chopped down.
After contacting the Wilkes Soil and Water Conservation Office, the first conservation plan was implemented for the farm in 1979. Soil testing and soil erosion practices helped make the farm profitable.
The Blakes built two pullet houses and became Holly Farms contract producers in 1979. This provided a steady income as production of tobacco, corn, soybeans and hay began. The Blakes became Tyson Foods Inc. producers after Tyson acquired Holly Farms. They began a beef cattle operation two years later.
“With the use of poultry waste we were able to build nutrient levels within the soil on the farm. Environmental concerns were taken into consideration when deciding on which land to use for hay land, crop land, and tree management, and water quality concerns were in the forefront,” said Gary Blake.
Using chicken litter as fertilizer, tobacco production was increased from 1,800 to 2,000 pounds per acre at first to 2,500 to 3,000 pounds per acre. About 4 to 5 tons of hay per acre are produced.
Four more pullet houses were added, with 88,000 birds produced per cycle in the four houses combined. Eight broiler houses with a capacity of 232,000 birds per cycle were added in 2010.
Practices used to limit soil erosion on the farm include grassed waterways, field borders, strip-cropping, cover crops and critical area planting.
Small grains are produced in strips that rotated each year, providing grain and straw to sell along with fescue hay and wildlife feed. “By diversifying, we are able to be more productive,” said Blake.
The poultry operation utilizes drystacks and waste and nutrient management systems to apply chicken litter as fertilizer. Soil and waste testing are performed to protect water quality.
Brenda and her younger sons, Seth and Luke, use conservation practices on a smaller scale with their emerging truck vegetable crop operation. They sell at local farmers markets and directly to a few businesses. They also sell tobacco seedlings and other greenhouse plants.
The N.C. Forest Service developed a forest management plan on the farm. Prior to this, the Blakes had a plan of removing inferior trees. They harvested timber and replanted in 1992.
This year, pines are being planted below the newest poultry houses to improve aesthetics, ensure future timber production and provide wildlife habitat. Wildlife also benefit from field edges that are left to grow. Brush is allowed to grow in stream corridors, allowing cover for wildlife. Food plots are planted on both rented and owned land.
The 388-acre farm includes 120 acres of woodlands, 200 acres of pasture, 60 to 80 acres of soybeans, three greenhouses growing tobacco seedlings for sale, one greenhouse for vegetables, three acres of melons and cantaloupes, five acres of sweet corn, 10 acres of burley tobacco and 70 acres of corn.
The farm includes the original 238 acres in Wilkes and additional land bought in Yadkin County.
They also are members of the N.C. Tobacco Growers Association, N.C. Cattleman’s Association, Inc. and N.C. Farm Bureau Federation. Gary is a local Farm Bureau board member and Heath is on the state Farm Bureau Board and the Young Farmer and Rancher Board.
The Blakes are involved in the Communication for Agriculture and New River Alternatives in Agriculture programs.
Chad and Heath have also attended a resource conservation workshop at N.C. State University and a Philip Morris Young Tobacco Farmer workshop.
The Blakes are active members of Mount Pisgah Baptist Church.
Chad serves on the Southeast Wilkes Community Center Advisory Board and is president of the Buck Shoals fire department board. Heath and Tyler are firefighters. Brenda is on the Clingman Medical Center board and Lorene volunteers at Wilkes Regional Medical Center. Gary is on the Voluntary Agricultural District Board and the Agricultural Hall of Fame Advisory Committee.
The Blakes were Holly Farms Pullet Grower of the Year in 1981 and Tyson Pullet Grower of the Year in 2007. They won the Tyson Complex Poultry Environmental Award in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2012; the National Environmental Stewardship Award in 2003 and the Wilkes Area Poultry Association Environmental Award in 2007.