Rockey Farms a blast from the past
Beneficial insects and complementary plant populations — you might call it neo-traditionalism, a recognition that past farming practices still have relevance today. During the past 20 years, that’s become the Rockey Farms methodology for potato farming in the San Luis Valley (SLV) into the 21st century.
Brendon Rockey and his brother Sheldon Rockey constitute Rockey Farms, a 500-acre farm located just north of Center, Colorado, off State Highway 285. They grow specialty seed potatoes and fresh-market tubers. Brendon oversees the farming operation and Sheldon is in charge of marketing.
“Brendon’s truly the farm operator, the growing side,” Sheldon said. “Obviously, I help with harvest, but my responsibility is to make sure the crop gets sold.”
Where most folks want to move two steps forward, Brendon Rockey is more inclined to take two steps back in his approach to growing potatoes. It’s not that he’s a contrarian, but he’s found that their SLV farming operation is more efficient and profitable when applying farming practices that date from his grandfather’s time.
“We’re a throwback,” Brendon Rockey said during the 2016 harvest. “I took the time to break it down and look at the fundamentals. The more I looked into it, these old concepts, it just made more sense. It took us quite a while to kind of piece everything back together and figure out how are we going to do this.”
It’s a shift in agricultural practices that didn’t happen overnight. They began changing their approach to farming almost 20 years ago.
“It took us 20 years to get back to 50 years. We’re progressively moving backwards,” Brendon said. “What we’re constantly having to do is work on some long-term goals for the big picture. In agriculture, all too often, it’s the short-term goals. It’s always about the crop right now.”
He continues to fine-tune and modulate his retro-evolutionary farming concepts.
“Our approach is to bring as much life as possible back into the system,” Brendon said. “So, I want to really emphasize beneficial insects. I can’t just come out and release beneficial insects if they don’t have the habitat.”
Since incorporating inter-row and multi-species plantings, he has noticed increased populations of ladybugs, green lacewings, checkered beetles, Collops beetles and several species of parasitic wasps. All are considered natural predators of aphids and a wide variety of potato pests.
“I create this environment,” Brendon said. “They start reproducing, they spread throughout my field on their own. Now I have a beneficial insect population in the field before the pest is even present, so it’s a tremendous defense mechanism, and that’s what’s allowing us to control the aphid populations in our field.”
However, Brendon avoids planting a monoculture potato crop at all costs.
“Nowhere on my farm do I have a monoculture,” Brendon said. “I’ve got diversity on every acre of the farm. Everywhere you go, even in the greenhouse, I’ve got diversity in there in some level. Monocultures, I think, are one of the most destructive things in agriculture.”
The reasoning behind the companion crops, spring forage peas, desi chick pea, chickling vetch and buckwheat, is to incorporate a diversity of plant life in his fields. The peas and vetch are for nitrogen fixation, and the buckwheat to lure beneficial insects to the plants and to mobilize phosphorous in the soil.
“I’m becoming more efficient with my inputs because of the form,” Brendon said. “Take nutrients. I’m not using any synthetic forms. I’m not using any inorganic forms. Those are very inefficient because they are so easily lost from the system. The nutrient that I’m using now, I’m just utilizing legumes, compost – it’s a lot of carbon-based fertility. Those stay within the system, so it’s a very efficient system.”
To attract even more beneficial insects, Brendon takes eight rows in the middle of a potato field out of production and plants more flowering plants: wooly pod vetch, lentils, spring forage peas, buckwheat, flax, sunflower, Persian clover, Berseem clover, crimson clover, brown mustard, white mustard, nitro radish and phacelia.
“Why do we have to wait for the rotational year to do that?” he said.“Here I am adding fertility, specifically nitrogen, to my crop during the cash crop. Then you take my rotational crop, the green manure, I have other legumes that are there in my rotation. So, I’ve got legumes on every acre of my farm every single year.”
His rotational crop consists of spring lentils, chickling vetch, yellow spring forage pea, desi chick pea, fava bean, spring oats, pearl millet, white millet, BMR grazing corn, broadleaf mustard, nitro radish, impact forage collard, buckwheat, flax and black oil sunflower. It’s designed with livestock grazing in mind.
By changing the rotational crop from barley to a cover crop, Bendon said they’ve been able to reduce the amount of water the farm uses by up to 16 inches.
“I know we’re saving water by improving our soil,” he said. “It takes 18, 20, 22 inches, somewhere in there, to grow a barley crop. We could grow a cover crop with about 6 inches of water. So, you see a tremendous initial savings in water.”
Both Brendon and Sheldon Rockey recognizethatpartoftheirsuccessis due to the size of Rockey Farms and the variety of specialty potatoes they grow.
The farm is on a two-year rotation schedule, with 250 acres of potatoes, split 50/50 between seed and table stock and 250 acres of multispecies cover crop every year.
“We have about 24 to 25 varieties,” Sheldon Rockey said. “We’re growing about five fingerlings right now.”
In 2012, the Rockeys and Paul New of White Mountain Farm bought an old high school in Mosca and converted it into a packing and shipping shed, naming it White Rock Specialties. Together, they share the facility’s machinery and operating expenses.
“Being in specialty potatoes and small acreage created the opportunity for these innovations, but this doesn’t mean that larger operations can’t apply the same soil health principles,” Brendon said.
Brendon said that critics of their operation assume that they are sacrificing production with their retro-farming practices.
“We’re not sacrificing production,” he said. “It’s really about respecting the natural system. We’re not in charge of the system. We are part of the system, and once you make that recognition then you have a different mindset moving forward. It’s about respecting the soil and the plants and the insects.”