As part of NYC Climate Week last week, agricultural science and technology company Indigo Ag brought three sustainable farmers to New York to discuss their regenerative practices with the media.
Rivet spoke with farmer Larkin Martin, whose Martin Farms in Alabama is a seventh-generation operation that grows cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat and has seen great success with its use of cover crops such as legumes, turnips and radishes to regenerate the soil.
Sharing the view of her farm from her state-of-the-art AgriApp on her smartphone which keeps track of what has been planted and how it grows from above, she explained how cotton farming has changed in recent years and how scientific advances are helping him achieve maximum yields. As she said, “It’s not your grandfather’s farm anymore.”
Rivet: What is your background?
Larkin Martin: I run a farm in northern Alabama. Our farm is a seventh generation, it has been around for quite some time. And the biggest traditional crop during this period was cotton. Today it’s about 28 percent of the acres. We now have a mix of cotton, corn, soy and wheat and periodically try other things. We practice minimal tillage and over the past four years have begun extensive use of cover crops in our operations. And cover crops work best in our multiple crop rotation.
Rivet: How long do cover crops stay in place?
LM: In our case, we usually plant them in August or early September. This is the middle and end of our maize harvest, so the maize is harvested and we scatter the seeds for the cover crop, then we plant cotton in early May.
So it’s not even a year but about six months and if you plant early enough you can germinate cover crops. Then we end that and plant the cotton crop directly into the residue from the cover crop cutting. This provides a mulching effect for weeds and a mulching effect for moisture retention, so we don’t have a lot of irrigation. And it is very useful. The cotton crop will be harvested in the fall of the following year probably in October [or] November.
Rivet: What is your capacity for cotton?
LM: Well, it depends on what percentage of our acres we lifted, but last year we lifted 7,000 bales. This year I heard a similar figure for total production.
Rivet: Have you worked directly with factories?
LM: We have and continue to have conversations. It was very interesting. All of our crops that we raise are commodities. They are therefore generally sold as margins and based on a list price and a basis. There are many technical opportunities to trace the product through the garment if the supply chain develops a record that is only available for cotton today. Cotton cannot be sold by a farmer until it has been ginned and baled. In the United States, bullets are given a unique bullet ID. If this bullet can be tracked, the blockchain can be tracked by the spinning mills. There is a new interest in understanding where cotton comes from directly in clothing. We’ve had several conversations with brands and they’re ongoing.
It’s very interesting. Brands need to learn about parts of the supply chain that they have never focused on as a producer and we need to learn about brands’ needs and how best to match. And we’re all hoping that we can somehow tie ourselves together in this process and eliminate some steps that were standard in the industry.
Rivet: What brands did you talk to?
LM: At this point, I will only say several.
Rivet: What should mills and brands learn from farmers?
LM: Cotton is a variable product. One year our harvest can be long and strong and perfectly clean. And the next year we may have had a drought that makes her short and stumpy. We may have had a hurricane and it may have rained and gotten a little rough from that exposure and the brand has never had that kind of variability that it’s going to get with any given farm. This variability is the norm. Volume guarantees and quality guarantees must therefore be understood as imperfect. No farmer can guarantee that.
Rivet: How was the harvest this year?
LM: We hope for an average harvest this year. We had quite a severe drought and heat that damaged our crops, especially our maize crop. Our cotton crop survived and hopefully recovered thanks to recent rains. We’ll probably have an indication of yields when we start harvesting, but we won’t have the final numbers until December or January.
Rivet: Do you do anything with organic cotton?
LM: No. The organic definition is very prescribed, allowing certain things to be used and certain things not to be used. If we were limited to eliminated inputs in both herbicides and pesticides, it would be organic. We grow cotton in the humid and rainy southeast. Where the humidity is around 80% on a nice summer day, where every fungus, every insect and every weed loves to grow and compete with our cotton successfully.
Rivet: What do you think is the biggest advancement you’ve seen in cotton farming?
LM: I’ve been doing this since 1990. There are several areas that are difficult to quantify in their relative importance. For a Southeast cotton farmer, the ability to purchase genetically modified seed to prevent some very difficult pests from harming your crop or to eliminate the need for plowing in the case of herbicides has been profoundly helpful in a from an ecological and environmental point of view. of sight.
And some of the GIS technologies that allowed us to do things very precisely like seed placement. We still have cabs that require a driver to turn around at the end, but the implements that cross the field – seeders followed by sprayers – have high precision and minimal influence. We can turn sprayers on and off in areas where they need to spray. We do a lot of soil testing. So we know exactly where we have to put the product and where we don’t.
So the technical ability to place things precisely has been a big change in our environmental footprint. And images of the sky and images of sensors in the plane and drones, and then to diagnose and frame things in space. These are really, really big changes.
Rivet: How many people do you employ and what proportion has been overtaken by automation?
ML: [Around] 12 or 13 people. For us, that has changed and diminished over time. Machines have replaced work. Take a cotton picker. Initially, he harvests two or four rows of cotton, then five rows of cotton. And now our harvester harvests six rows of cotton. So if you harvest two rows of cotton, that’s one driver for every two rows in the field. Now we have a driver for five fields. But the machines are extremely expensive. Cotton pickers cost a million dollars.
Rivet: Finally, as a cotton producer, do you have a particular favorite brand of jeans?
LM: Well, I have to say right here today, you can buy Wrangler with my name on it – the Wrangler Rooted Collection. But in the future it can be any brand.
I have to credit Wrangler though. They’ve really been at the forefront of part of the regenerative production movement.