They only made a couple of steps into a stand of native grass when Cullen Bryant and two grandchildren, Andrew and Jesselyn, flush a young covey of quail. The sudden burst of flight brightens the kids’ faces, but it also puts a smile on their grandpa’s face.
“That makes me feel real good,” he says. “We’re looking to improve the quail population, and help make it a sustainable game bird for future generations to enjoy.”
Bryant Farms has enrolled in the USDA Quail Habitat program, setting aside an area along the perimeter of forested land where buffer strips that promote native grasses allow protection and food for quail. The strips remove low-producing areas from crop production while protecting the young quail from overhead predators.
“We’re required to till a third of the site each year after the nesting season is over in order to keep a good habitat for the birds,” Bryant says. “We also do a quail survey each year to track the success of the site.”
Boosting wildlife habitat is just one way that Bryant Farms is proving that environmental stewardship can successfully coexist alongside modern, economically driven agriculture. “Conservation practices are the foundation upon which our management plan is built,” Bryant says.
“Each element represents a separate building block, and they all work together to make a strong system that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.”
Conserving coastal plains
The farm is headquartered near Dillon, SC, just south of the North Carolina state line, and only about an hour from the famous Myrtle Beach resorts.
“We’re in the coastal plain area, so most of our fields are flat to gently sloping,” Bryant says. Local watersheds here feed the Little Pee Dee River, which in turn joins the main stem of the Pee Dee River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s an important and highly visible river system. “We’re always very concerned about water quality,” Bryant points out. “Our approach is to manage nutrients and chemicals so that they do not damage our water quality in any way.” Buffers are strategically placed around fields, not only providing a place for wildlife, but also helping to prevent runoff, and filtering any nutrients or chemicals before they can reach waterways.
His background in the fertilizer business has helped Bryant stay on the leading edge of nutrient management. After college, he worked as a fertilizer and chemical salesman until he found out that, due to a series of crop failures and some medical issues, the family farm had fallen on hard times.
“Our small farm had been in the family for generations, but it was facing foreclosure,” he recalls. So in 1985, he stepped in and took over the 100 acres of family land, assuming all indebtedness, and started to farm.
Fast-forward to today, and you’ll find that Bryant Farms has grown significantly. The operation produces primarily soybeans, cotton and peanuts on its 2,100 acres of owned and leased cropland, but also grows a few acres of sunflowers, some wildlife plots and a little corn. In addition, there are 300 acres of timber on the farm.
Soybeans typically are planted using no-till, while cotton, corn, peanuts and sunflower are seeded in a strip-till system. The strip-till system includes a shank that helps break up a hardpan that tends to develop on coastal plains soils.
“One of the key ways that we care for the environment is through variable-rate fertilizer application,” Bryant says.
“We try to prescription-feed our nutrients on an as-needed basis. We want to make good crops, but we also want to make sure that we care for the environment.”
It all starts with a solid soil-testing program. A consultant pulls soils samples each year, following either a zone or grid sampling method. “The grid method provides very localized results, which give us the capability to apply nutrients exactly where they are needed,” Bryant says. “That saves us time and money. We also use Veris technology to measure soil electrical conductivity, and develop soil maps of our entire farm.”
Results of the soil analysis and recommended nutrient application rates are filed in bulging three-ring binders that Bryant keeps at his side during the growing season while scouting. The reports also are saved to memory cards that drive the applications made with the farm’s variable-rate spreader.
“Depending on the results of the soil testing, we may apply poultry litter to the fields that show significant phosphorus and potassium deficiencies,” he says. “Once we apply litter, we minimum-till to incorporate the material to reduce any odor.” They variable-rate apply commercial fertilizer on the balance of the acreage.
Technology also helps the farm be environmentally friendly when it comes to pest management. “We recently added a programmable Case-IH boom sprayer with GPS technology for site-specific application,” Bryant says. “The boom has five sections that work independently for the most precise application of chemicals to the crop.”
The sprayer also is equipped with on-board container rinsing equipment, for proper rinsing and recycling of chemical jugs.
The farm takes extra steps to control noxious and resistant weeds. “One of our philosophies on Bryant Farms is ‘start clean, stay clean,’” he says. “We want to be sure we’ve done an adequate job with our burndown herbicide. We try to stay ahead of weeds, controlling them just before they emerge, or just afterwards. We even hand-pull any weeds that escape.”
Bryant Farms follows an integrated pest management plan with several layers of accountability to make sure that pests are controlled as early as possible. “We hire a crop consultant, use farm employees and seek the expertise of county extension agents,” Bryant adds. “The scouts look for worms, stink bugs and aphids. Catching pests early prevents over-treatment.”
A strong crop rotation plan helps in all elements of nutrient and pest management, he adds.
The farm also takes extra precautions when handling and storing chemicals and fertilizers. Pesticides are stored in an isolated, enclosed structure with a concrete floor, and an inventory is kept on all products in storage. A liquid nitrogen solution is the only fertilizer stored on the farm, in aluminum tanks, fitted with lockable valves, on concrete pads.
The farm not only keeps detailed records on all chemical applications, but also holds periodic meetings to review farm safety and chemical handling. “We also use this time to discuss problems, and brainstorm about ways we can improve,” Bryant says.
The farm is also a big believer and user of soy-based biodiesel. “We feel biodiesel has several positives,” he says. “It’s renewable, it’s environmentally friendly and it lessens our dependence on foreign oil.”
Bryant has been using biodiesel in blends ranging from B2 to B20 over the past few years. “We’ve never had any negative issues with biodiesel,” he adds. “I like biodiesel made with virgin soy oil, and that is what I specify when I order.” Biodiesel with soy oil improves lubricity and increase the life of the engine,” he says. “It has worked well for us, and we plan to continue to use soy diesel.”
Bryant Farms plays an active role in the community. “We have aided in many disaster-relief efforts, including helping a neighbor relocate after a tornado, and have allocated farm equipment to help fight forest fires,” Bryant says. The farm also has sent equipment, manpower, water, food and other necessities to hurricane victims. And the farm offers a designated “Green Wing” hunting plot for area youth to experience dove hunting with an adult role model.
Bryant Farms also helps to promote agriculture’s positive image by participating in the state’s Farm Bureau Ag in the Classroom Summer Institute farm tours; participating in career days at local high schools, promoting a career in agriculture; and participating in Farm-City Week, helping to inform the public where food and fiber comes from.
“One of the most impactful activities we’ve been a part of is our annual breakfast on the farm,” Bryant points out. “We invite legislators from across the state, community leaders and business people, to enjoy a home-cooked breakfast here on our farm. Each year, we host close to 200 people.”
In addition to those educational activities, the farm also plants a garden to support the local food bank, and also helped develop a garden used in the local community for its Master Gardener program.
At a scenic spot along the Little Pee Dee River, Cullen is joined by his son Andy, daughter-in-law Tiffany, and grandchildren Evan, Andrew, and Jesselyn for some family time. He takes a moment to reflect on his farm’s stewardship of its resources. “I’m really thankful to have the opportunity to be involved in agriculture,” Bryant says. “As a farmer, I’m concerned about the legacy we are creating. This world is not going to stop when we leave. It will continue, and we want to make sure future generations have the opportunity to enjoy all the abundance of what this earth has to offer.”