Measure of Success

Cotton takes the lead on agricultural sustainability as producers continue to rise to new challenges.

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Ted Schneider says the cotton industry is taking a leadership position in sustainability, knowing it will help protect against future production challenges, Image by Debra Ferguson

Imagine the America of the 1870s. The Civil War has ended. The first light bulb is about to flicker to life. And blue jeans are invented. Made of 100% cotton, they are designed for the harsh conditions of California’s Gold Rush fields. They are as welcome as a gold strike.

Since then, denim and cotton have traveled some rough roads together, not to mention more than a few fashion runways and plenty of turn rows. Technology, genetics and cutting-edge management have continued to revitalize the industry through the years, but it’s a bold, new set of goals that are about to make this heritage crop a model for other commodities.

Getting Specific. Developed by cotton researchers and producers, six quantifiable goals have been publicly released by the U.S. cotton industry, all with a deadline of 2025. It’s a step that makes a strong statement, at a time when sustainability is still often defined broadly.

The cotton industry’s goals anticipate producers will reduce the amount of land needed to produce the crop by 13%, decrease soil loss by 50%, increase water use efficiency by 18%, cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 39%, raise soil carbon in fields by 30% and reduce energy used to produce seed cotton and ginned lint by 15%. It’s a tall order--one Louisiana cotton producer Ted Schneider believes is achievable. With 34 years of experience, this producer isn’t afraid of challenges.

Schneider’s operation is 3,600 acres of diversified crop production in Lake Providence. It includes cotton, corn, rice, wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum, sesame seed and canning green beans. He’s chairman of the industry’s sustainability task force and current president of Cotton Council International (CCI).

The producer believes it’s critical that cotton takes a leadership position on the sustainability front. Just as importantly, he says working toward this set of goals will build a buffer for producers against future risks. He sees sustainability as another name for an evolution in farming that began more than 30 years ago.

“The 1980s really set us on the road to sustainability. We didn’t call it that at the time, but it was,” says Schneider. “Agriculture was in an economic depression. To survive, farmers had to become more efficient. We also had the first farm bill with a major conservation initiative, the Conservation Reserve Program.”

Some may say the cotton industry has taken a considerable leap of faith, but Schneider contends recent trends have him convinced success is on the horizon.

“It’s an exciting time to be in cotton production,” he says. “We are seeing rapid testing of new varieties, and there’s constant improvement. Over the last five years, I’ve seen 20% higher yields, while reducing inputs. We used to hope for 1,000 pounds of lint per acre. Now we expect 1,200 pounds.”

Agricultural Revolution. That yield gain is a positive trend that’s far from over. Roy Cantrell says this is just the beginning of what is ahead for the cotton industry. He says there is about to be an all-out revolution in agriculture. A data revolution.

“Farmers aren’t just going to get a bag of seed in the future, but a bag of seed with huge amounts of data attached to it. It will work with all the other applications on that farm. We will have the ability to manage that data and use it in day-to-day decision making,” he says. “Genetics is exciting, but data is going to be a big piece of the future. And that is just as exciting.”

Cantrell, a long-time researcher and leader in cotton breeding and genetics, served as ag research vice president for Cotton Incorporated (CI), and later took a post at Monsanto as Molecular Breeding Technology lead. Today he is plant breeding consultant for Wheelertex Consulting.

He believes about 60% of the improvement cotton producers have seen in yield has been management-driven. Going forward, genetics will hold the key to continued yield increases and land use efficiency.

“As a breeder, I’m interested in how much better the genetics will be in a bag of cottonseed in 2050,” he says. “I believe we will see a lot of the sustainability in cotton acres over the next 30 years driven by genetic gain. Conservatively I expect annual yield growth of 6 pounds more lint per year, per acre, across the [Cotton] Belt. I know what’s in the pipeline and what future technologies will impact cotton five, 10 and more years out. I’ve never been more excited.”

To put it into context, Cantrell says in the 1930s, 31 million acres of cotton were planted, producing 13 million bales. Looking at an average over the last decade, cotton area of 10 million acres now generates 16 to 17 million bales. Those gains will continue, says the researcher, noting it takes about 50 square feet of production ground to produce a pound of lint cotton today, and projections are this will drop to 44 square feet by 2025.

There is a challenge, however. Cantrell stresses it will be hard to meet the industry’s sustainability goals without improving the refresh rate of cotton varieties on the farm.

“Right now it takes up to 5 years for a new variety to reach maximum acreage,” he notes. “As fast as we are making genetic gain, that may be the life cycle of a variety. So we need more rapid adoption of new varieties. To do that we have to make more data available to producers, and seed companies have to get better at managing seed inventory.

“There are two parts to genetic gain,” he adds. “There’s what comes in the bag of seed, and there’s the adoption rate. We need both to succeed.”

Early Adopters. Jerry Allen Newby would agree management and the adoption of new technology have carried his family’s farm business a long way. Based at Athens, Alabama, the Newby family farm is seven generations strong. They shifted to conservation tillage and rotation over 25 years ago. Today, along with Jerry Newby, partners in the operation include Jimmy Newby, John Newby, James Newby, Jerry Allen Newby, Justin Crow and Elizabeth Newby Crow.

Jerry Allen is part of that seventh generation, and he says the practices just make good sense on the rolling land they farm. No one called them a sustainable operation 25 years ago, but the goals they’ve been working toward have helped maximize efficiency on the 8,000-acre operation, with farms in both Alabama and Tennessee.

Today the Newbys average about 3,000 acres of cotton, in rotation with wheat, beans and corn. They grow hay and raise cattle. A wheat and rye mix cover crop is standard across most acres.

“We’ve been growing cotton here for a long time, and it’s been really good to us,” says Jerry Allen. “Our soils and climate are suited to the crop, and it works well in our rotation. It’s true there was a time when we had a monoculture of cotton, but for more than two decades that’s not been our reality. We want people to know how real cotton farmers produce a crop today. We want to show them that as an industry we are sustainable. We were sustainable before anyone used that phrase. If we hadn’t been, we probably wouldn’t be farming today.”

Building Bridges. Recently a program from Wrangler began to shine a spotlight on families like the Newbys, and their sustainable methods of production.

The brand, owned by VF Corporation, began a pilot project last year to source cotton that met certain sustainability parameters. The goal was to buy from growers who utilize three soil-health practices: conservation tillage, cover crops and a rotation of at least 3 different crops in a 5-year period, on the same field.

Those three practices have an incredible ability to drive carbon back into soils,” explains Roain Atwood, director of sustainability at Wrangler in Greensboro, North Carolina. In addition, he notes these practices build nutrients, thereby requiring fewer inputs from farmers. They also create soils better able to maintain moisture, due to improved infiltration to the water table.

“From our perspective, cotton growers using these three practices define what sustainable cotton looks like in the most impactful way,” he says.

Having defined those practices, the challenge, says Atwood, was finding some means of traceability that showed certain bales of cotton were produced under those parameters. Last year that led the company to Bayer CropScience’s e3 sustainably grown cotton program.

The Newbys participated in the e3 program on a portion of their 2017 cotton acreage. Because e3 offered traceability, along with records of management practices used on those fields, it was a way to source cotton Wrangler could authenticate as “sustainable”.

Five operations were chosen by Wrangler to participate in the project last year. In addition to the Newby farm, they included Georgia’s Adam McLendon; North Carolina’s Donny Lassiter; Tennessee’s Eugene Pugh; and Texas’ Smith Family Farm. All produced either Stoneville or FiberMax varieties. A line of denim using their cotton will be released later this year under Wrangler’s “Land Stewardship Cotton” program.

Atwood says the company’s ultimate brand goal is for all of the cotton they use to be considered sustainable. To date, a total of 70,000 pounds of sustainable lint have been purchased from those five operations through Wrangler’s program. To put that into perspective, Atwood says roughly 2 pounds of cotton go into a single product, a pair of denim jeans for example. Their goal this year is to double their purchase of pounds of sustainable cotton.

Raising The Ante. Given that sourcing sustainable cotton is a goal of a growing number of brands in the U.S. and abroad, many producers want to know what premium will be attached. Expectations here should be low.

To date, sustainability programs across all commodities and livestock, have not committed to the idea of premiums. In the Wrangler program, both Jerry Allen and Roain Atwood say there is not a premium associated with the project.

Atwood adds that for brands like Wrangler, sustainable cotton is not a ticket to a higher price at the consumer level either.

“A few years ago a company would have asked if a consumer was willing to pay more for a product with sustainable attributes,” he says. “Then the question evolved to whether sustainable attributes would influence consumers to buy one product over another. Today there’s a growing expectation companies will do the right thing and act as good global citizens. If consumers find that isn’t the case it jeopardizes your brand’s marketability.”

Jerry Allen, who says they sold Wrangler 40,000 pounds of cotton last year, isn’t discouraged by the premium debate. He says as long as programs like Wranglers’ don’t require him to alter management, he’s more interested in seeing if they will help build demand.

“The way I see it, the premium we receive is publicity for the cotton industry. From that, we hope demand goes up. That helps everyone. But if the parameters changed and we had to spend more money on our crop to stay within a set of sustainability guidelines, then I think we’d expect a premium.”

The idea of a national brand like Wrangler helping to bridge the way between producers and consumers, adds Jerry Allen, is valuable. He says it’s disheartening to hear the level of misinformation consumers still have about agriculture, and specifically cotton.

“There’s a huge disconnect we really need to bridge. To show you the degree to which that exists, I have people approach me and ask if we still pick cotton by hand. That’s how far away from reality some of our consumers are. We need to leverage programs like Wrangler’s to show people what agriculture looks like in 2018.”

He notes their typical acre of cotton production is no-till, and where irrigated relies on probes to conserve water. The Newby farm applies variable rate fertilizer and relies on GPS to avoid overlap with tractors and conserve fuel. Planters and sprayers have swath control. Seed genetics help take management to its highest possible level.

Sourcing Challenges. An ongoing obstacle to the growth of sustainably-sourced products at the consumer level is lack of a system of traceability back to the farm. At this point, two projects provide a connection between those producers, or groups, who want to market fiber as sustainable, and those who want to purchase it.

Bayer CropScience launched its e3 sustainable cotton program in 2013. Farmers growing either FiberMax or Stoneville cotton varieties volunteer to participate, and self-evaluate farm performance using the Fieldprint Platform designed by Field to Market. Third-party in-season or post-harvest verification is performed, and bales are entered into a database where companies like Wrangler can source the fiber.

Jon Mixson is lead on the e3 program. He says in 2017, 209 growers participated in the program, representing about 93 million pounds of lint. This equaled more than 97,500 acres. He notes the idea for the program started with FiberMax, a brand mills wanted for its spinnability.

“Mills were telling us the FiberMax cotton had more spinnable value than the HVI [High Volume Instrument system] data indicated on the bale tag. They were looking for a certification process for FiberMax, to be sure that when they asked for FiberMax, they got it. That’s where it began. Because of that, we have a program with both certification and a traceability component.”

This year Mixson says the goal is to have third-party verification on 20% of e3 bales certified.

Another program, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), is more globally based. To date it’s the largest cotton sustainability program in the world, accounting for 12% of global cotton production. U.S.-based members of BCI include Calcot Ltd., Quarterway Cotton Growers, Staple Cotton Cooperative Association and Supima.

On its own initiative, the cotton industry is working toward a 2019 goal of rolling out a protocol for an independent program to source fiber that meets sustainability and traceability standards. This would include all U.S. cotton, not specific varieties or programs. Louisiana cotton grower Schneider says to be successful, producer participation is going to be critical.

“Our goal is to make this easy to participate in,” he says. “We want to set up third-party verification, and ultimately show that all U.S. cotton is produced using sustainable methods. We are receiving a lot of positive support from brands looking to source sustainable fiber. This isn’t a fad, and we want to be proactive.”

He stresses a major goal of the program is to be as unobtrusive as possible about questionnaires and verifications.

“If we don’t have the producers involved, we don’t have a program,” he says. “We are encouraging input and participation in every way possible from our growers. We really believe this is key to our future.”

Cotton Takes a Stand:

Sustainability has been a growing part of the discussion around U.S. agriculture for more than a decade. As momentum gains within the crop and livestock segments, the cotton industry is the first national production entity to establish specific goals and a deadline.

The National Cotton Council’s (NCC) Bill Norman, vice president of technical services for the Cordova, Tennessee, organization, says the industry is one of the founder commodity groups for Field to Market. It’s the collaboration between NCC, Cotton Incorporated, Cotton Council International and the industry’s best researchers and scientists, that has helped cotton set specific sustainability goals, all with a deadline of 2025.

“True sustainability is more than the environment,” says Norman. “Sustainability is like a three-legged stool. It’s environment, but it’s also economic and social. We tend to grab onto the environmental side of this, but if we don’t make strides on the social and economic side as well we haven’t accomplished anything.”

Using data dating back to the 1980s, and projecting outward, the industry’s sustainability goal-set is outcome based, not prescriptive. Norman stresses the goal is for each grower to be able to use those methods, varieties and resources that work best on their farms and for their unique soil types.

Land Use. The goal is to reduce by 13% the amount of land needed to produce a pound of cotton fiber. This will require better yields, with a pound of cotton produced on 44 square feet, compared to the current 50 square feet.

Soil Loss. In balance with new soil formation, the industry wants to decrease soil loss by 50%. This is based on the NRCS’ soil loss tolerance levels (T values). Tools to accomplish this include cover crops, conservation tillage and land forming to make irrigation more efficient and limit erosion.

Water Use Efficiency. Increasing by 18% the amount of fiber grown per gallon of irrigation water is an objective dependent on implementation of irrigation technologies and improved varieties. Many producers have made significant headway using irrigation programs to cut watering cycles.

Greenhouse Gases. A bold target of a 39% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions comes from the USDA’s target for row crops. Cover crops and reduced tillage are being used to achieve the goal.

Soil Carbon. An indicator of good soil health, soil carbon levels are expected to climb 30%. The goal is to have two-thirds of cotton fields in carbon-adding mode through the use of cover crops and no-till.

Energy Savings. It takes about 7,000 BTUs of energy to produce a pound of fiber in the ginning process. The goal is to get that down to 6,000 BTUs--a 15% reduction.

Field To Market:

The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, commonly called Field to Market (FTM), is an initiative that brings together grower organizations, environmental groups, agri-businesses, conservation advocates and private and public sector researchers to define and advance sustainability in U.S. crops.

Currently, 12 crops participate in the alliance: alfalfa, barley, corn for grain, corn for silage, cotton, peanuts, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar beets and wheat. Formed in 2011, FTM issues a report every five years, tracking land use, conservation, water use, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions on America’s croplands. The latest report was released December 2016.

Allison Thomson is FTM’s science and research director. She says by 2020 the group hopes to have 20% of U.S. production area in the program.

“Our definition of sustainability is continuous improvement,” notes Thomson. “We measure where we are and work to improve from that point. Continuous improvement means you don’t just check a box and say it’s done. You have a relationship and a long-term opportunity to work and grow with suppliers.”

FTM works with producer groups; it does not certify or designate individual farms or farmers as sustainable. The verification program includes three levels. Thomson explains level one is participation. This can be through a cooperative or a university, or any producer group. The second level is measurement, where acres are followed to track production practices and yields. The third level is impact claims, which requires five years of data and analysis. There are plans for third-party verification as part of the impact level. This would be an audit of data collection, not a farm gate verification. No group has reached level three yet, adds Thomson.

Cotton LEADS. Awareness of the cotton industry’s successes in the sustainability arena is being shared through a Cotton Foundation and Cotton Australia program, Cotton LEADS. Jesse Daystar is the group’s chief sustainability officer.

“Cotton LEADS is our megaphone, for both CI [Cotton Incorporated] domestically, and CCI [Cotton Council International] on the export side, to let brands and consumers know we are engaged and supportive of sustainability,” he says.

Daystar says FTM’s Fieldprint Platform is the best way to demonstrate, through data, how producers are farming today. “Over the years there’s been so much misinformation about cotton, and all of agriculture,” he says. “Now we have a way to present current and timely data with a forward-looking perspective.”

FTM’s Thomson stresses while the sustainability story for all crops has been positive to date the work ahead will be challenging. “When you go from 1980 to the present, the story is one of significant sustainability gains,” she says. “But as you continue, improvement becomes more challenging and it has to be more intentional.”

Indicators FTM tracks include land use, soil conservation, irrigation water use, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon levels, water quality, biodiversity and socioeconomic factors like farm financial health, profitability, generation of economic value, worker safety and labor productivity.

Thomson concludes: “Cotton has been a good story with respect to sustainability. Their work has been targeted, and not just about letting things take their natural course. Coordinated efforts and specific target areas are what it will take to succeed moving forward, and the cotton industry has set a bar for that.”

For More Information:

> Field to Market

> Bayer CropScience e3 cotton

> Cotton LEADS

> Better Cotton Initiative

> Wrangler

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