Being More Sustainable

Sheldong and Brendon Rockey of Center, Colo.

Published in the September 2013 Issue Published online: Sep 23, 2013 Tyler J. Baum
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If we were to stand back and allow Mother Nature to run unchecked, there would be so many pests, diseases and weeds in every crop that many Americans would starve to death.

However, there is wisdom in understanding what Mother Nature does best, and allowing her the flexibility to do it-all while guiding and tempering her progress (and nipping in the bud what she doesn't do well) with human ingenuity.

A grower who really understands the complexity of micro- and plant microbiology can take farming to a new place.

The Rockeys of Center, Colo., have been doing that a step at a time, creating an award-winning seed operation in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado.

Rockey-Mountain Agreement

Sheldon Rockey, 38, part owner in Rockey Farm in Center, Colo., is a third-generation grower, following in the footsteps of his father, Warren, and grandfather, Floyd. Sheldon and his brother, Brendon, both attended Colorado State University. Sheldon graduated in 1998 with a bachelor's degree in agriculture engineering, and Brendon graduated in 1999 with his bachelor's in horticulture.

Sheldon says he and his brother were fortunate enough that when they returned to the farm, they didn't just work for their father and uncle-they were both given decision-making responsibilities that threw the two of them into the middle of it.

And there was plenty of work to jump into.

Unbeknownst to Sheldon, his father and uncle were approached by White Mountain Farm, who had discovered a new kind of potato called a "fingerling," to become their partner in growing and packing the new kind of tuber. While mainstream in Europe, the only available fingerlings in the U.S. in the mid-1990s were non-certified seed.

White Mountain Farm and Rockey Farm subsequently brought over fingerling test tubes from Europe in 1995, and became a part of U.S. potato history.

Sheldon attended CSU with the mindset that he wanted to return to the farm, but because their operation only grew 250 acres of potatoes, he wasn't sure there was room for all of the families who wanted to get involved.

Then Warren called him his junior year with a prospect.

"I can even remember what I was studying," he says. "I was sitting at my desk when he called me, and said, `We're going to build a warehouse, but we don't want to make the commitment-financial commitment and time commitment-to do it unless we know you're going to come back and help us.'"

Sheldon returned to the farm and became involved in seed sales as well as packing fingerlings.

White Mountain singled out Rockey Farm for a unique reason-since the early 1980s, Rockey Farm has had their own lab and greenhouse to produce their own seed.

"We do tissue culture all the way up to mini-tuber production," Sheldon says. "Just for our own farm; we don't sell any of it."
White Mountain Farm and Rockey Farm have a joint fingerling packing venture, started in 2012, called White Rock Specialties. Fingerlings are packed and shipped out of the old Sangre De Cristo High School in Mosca, Colo.

Rockey vs. Pests

While Rockey Farm has always tried to improve on their operations-being sustainable before sustainability was "cool," so to speak-the ball really started rolling from their 100-sow hog operation, which they had from the 1970s until about 1998.

One day a salesman showed up, explaining to the Rockeys why they needed to have ozone machines for their hog operation-which was in an enclosed building-to control the odors.

But Sheldon's uncle, Verlin, took the machines a step further, injecting ozone into the water the animals were drinking.

"We saw amazing results from what was happening in the manure pits," Sheldon says. The manure changed consistency and color. The Rockeys had it analyzed and discovered that it was in a better stage for applying to the soil-changing from an anaerobic environment to aerobic.

That's when Sheldon's uncle's interest was piqued, and Brendon's was piqued even more. From there, their ongoing research began.

Rockey Farm subsequently started pumping ozone into irrigation water, and noticed that their barley-which they were growing at the time for Coors-no longer needed fungicides to keep molds and fungus at bay. The next step became potatoes.

"Ever since we started using ozone, we've hardly put fungicides on our crops," he says. "It's not the best control, but we get better control than if we'd never used ozone."

Through further research, they discovered that the straw from the barley stubble was causing more instances of Rhizoctonia in the soil, it being a host. The Rockeys subsequently dropped barley from their rotation, and now they stick strictly to green manure cover crops in an every-other-year rotation with their potatoes.

Their green manure cover crop contains a wide variety of seeds, including buckwheat, purple top turnip, nitro radish, lentils, pearl millet and more. These fall under four categories of plants: 1) cool-season grass; 2) cool-season broadleafs; 3) warm-season grass; and 4) warm-season broadleafs.

Brendon says one of the biggest problems with conventional agriculture is monocultures-having only one plant species.

"[Growers in general are] getting away from having diversity out there," Brendon says. "What we're trying to do is get different species growing all at the same time."

The result of having different plant species growing in the field is that different roots feed different components of the soil biology.

"By getting all those different roots out there, they release different exudates, amino acids and proteins and all these good things. You're actually allowing the soil to heal itself."

Rather than spraying insecticides on the potatoes to kill bugs, such as green peach aphids, they let other bugs such as ladybugs and predatory wasps do the work for them.

"What we do is try to create an ideal environment for predatory insects to come into the field. They actually control the aphid for us. What's really nice about that is, as the aphid populations increase our predatory populations increase. That's the trouble with insecticides. You kill the aphid, but you're also killing off all the predators."

At first Sheldon was worried that giving up half of their potato acreage to a non-cash crop would cause problems, but Brendon wasn't worried at all.

"My brother kept saying, `No, it'll pay off in the long run.' He was right, because we've reduced our inputs so drastically that we really haven't noticed the loss of not growing the cash crop off the other acreage."

When they do grow potatoes, they use a customized Grimme II planter to plant peas alongside the potatoes-something called "companion cropping." The peas produce more nitrogen in the soil for the potatoes. Any volunteer peas that pop up the following season do so as part of the green manure cover crop. They also plant chickling vetch and buckwheat as companion crops.

Rockey Farm has been using green manure cover crops for the past 10-11 years. Even though they discontinued their hog operation, they still use composted manure over commercial fertilizers.

One thing they've noticed is they don't need to add as much compost as they used to.

"We're using a third of what we used to use in compost," Sheldon says. "And our soil is in a stage where our plants seem to be able to withstand some of the pressures of blights."

And when they irrigate, they use less water every time and irrigate less frequently.

Rockey Farm isn't certified organic, but they're very close.

"We're so close to being organic growers, but we're not concentrating on being organic. We want to have the ability to use some of the chemicals that are available," Sheldon says.

While they don't use herbicides, rather than mechanically chop their vines they use sulfuric acid for vine kill. If early blight becomes too much of a problem, or if late blight returns to the valley, they want the flexibility of using chemicals.

"Our options are open," he says. "We don't have to use it."

Rockey Rewards

Some of the recent awards the farm has received include the 2011 Conservationist of the Year (Farming Division) award from the Rio Grande Watershed Association of Conservation Districts and the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts, and the 2012 Soil and Water Conservation Society Merit Award.

Sheldon doesn't mind people knowing about all the things their operation does-not for the purpose of tooting their own horn, but sharing with growers how they can improve their own operations and become more sustainable. Earning awards isn't their focus.

To them, the most rewarding part of farming is family. Sheldon's wife, Nicole, is a preschool teacher director for the local school district. They have two daughters, 9 and 7. Brendon and his wife, Heather, also have two daughters.