Skip to main content

Cotton Grower Larkin Martin: ‘It Ain’t Your Granddaddy’s Farm’

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 sat down with farmer Larkin Martin, whose Martin Farms in Alabama is a seventh-generation operation that grows cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat and which has found 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 technologically advanced AgriApp on her smartphone that keeps track of what has been planted and how it is growing from above, she discussed how cotton farming has changed in recent years and how scientific advancements help her get maximum yields. As she put it: “It ain’t your granddaddy’s farm anymore.”

Cotton farmer Larkin Martin discusses modern cotton growing techniques.
Larkin Martin Rivet

Rivet: What is your background?

Larkin Martin: I manage a farm in North Alabama. Our farm is a seventh generation, it has been around a while. And the traditional largest crop over the course of that has been cotton. Today, it is about 28 percent of the acres. We now have a mix of cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat and we try other things periodically. We are low till and in the last four years we have begun an intensive use of cover crops in our operations. And the cover crops work best in our multiple crop rotation.

Related Story

Rivet: How long do the cover crops stay put?

LM: In our case we typically plant them in August or early September. That is the middle and end of our corn harvest, so the corn is harvested and we spread the seeds for the cover crop and then we plant cotton in early May.

So it’s not even a year but about six months and if we plant early enough we can germinate cover crops. Then we terminate that and plant the cotton crop right in the residue from the cut from the cover crop. That provides a mulching effect for weeds and a mulching effect for moisture retention so we don’t have a lot of irrigation. And that’s very helpful. The cotton crop will be harvested in the fall of the subsequent year probably in October [or] November.

Rivet: What’s your capacity for cotton?

LM: Well that depends on what percent of our acres we raised but last year we raised 7,000 bales. This year I heard a similar number for total production.

Rivet: Have you worked with any mills directly?

LM: We have and we continue to have conversations. It’s been very interesting. All of our crops that we raise are commodities. So they’re typically sold as margins and based off of some posted price and a basis. There’s a whole lot of technical opportunity to trace the product run through the garment if the supply chain develops a record that’s uniquely available to cotton today. Cotton can’t be sold by a farmer until it’s ginned and processed into a bale. Bales in the U.S. are given a unique bale identifier. If that bale can be tracked, blockchain can be tracked by spinning mills. There’s a new interest in understanding where cotton came from right in the garments. We have had several conversations with brands and they’re ongoing.

It’s very interesting. The brands are having to learn about parts of the supply chain they’ve never been focused on as a producer and we’re having to learn about the needs of the brands and how to best make a match. And we’re all hopeful that we can sort of link together in that process and eliminate some steps that had been standard in the industry.

Rivet: What brands you have talked to?

LM: At this point, I just will say several.

Rivet: What do mills and brands need to learn from farmers?

LM: Cotton is a variable product. One year our crop may be long and strong and perfectly clean. And the next year we may have had a drought that makes it short and stubby. We may have had a hurricane and it may be rained on and have degraded somewhat from that exposure and the brand has never had that kind of variability that they’re going to contract with any given farm. That variability is the norm. So volume guarantees and quality guarantees have to be understood to be imperfect. No farmer can guarantee that.

Rivet: How has the harvest been this year?

LM: We are hopeful for an average harvest this year. We did have a pretty serious hot dry spell that damaged our crops, especially our corn crop. Our cotton crop survived it and hopefully recovered with recent rains. We will probably have an indication of yields when we first start harvesting but we won’t have final numbers till December or January.

Rivet: Do you do anything with organic cotton?

LM: No. The organic definition is very prescribed, allowing for certain things to be used and certain things not to be used. If we limited ourselves to the eliminated inputs in both the herbicides and pesticides that would be organic. We grow cotton in the humid, rainy Southeast. Where humidity is like 80 percent on a good summer day, where every fungus and every insect and every weed loves to grow and they would compete successfully with our cotton.  

A bird’s eye view of Martin Farms via a smartphone app

Rivet: What would you say is the greatest advance that you’ve seen in cotton farming?

LM: I’ve been doing this since 1990. There are several areas that are that are difficult to quantify in their relative importance. For a cotton farmer in the Southeast, the opportunity to buy the genetically modified seeds to prevent certain very difficult pests from harming your crop or to eliminate the need to plow in the case of herbicides have been profoundly helpful from an eco and from an environmental point of view.

And some of the GIS technologies that allowed us to do things very precisely such as seed placement. We still have cabs that require a driver to turn around at the end but the implements that are crossing the field–the planters followed by sprayers–have a great deal of precision and minimizing influence. We can turn the sprayers on and off in zones where they need to spray. We’re doing a lot of soil testing. So we know exactly where we need to put product and where we don’t.

So the technical ability to precisely place things has been a big change in our environmental footprint. And imagery from the sky and imagery from sensors on the plane and drones and then diagnosing and framing things spatially. They’re really, really big, big changes.

Rivet: How many people do you employ you and how much of that has been overtaken by automation?

LM: [Around] 12 or 13 people. For us it has changed and it has gone down over time. Machinery has replaced labor. Take a cotton harvester. Initially it harvests two rows or four rows of cotton, and then five rows of cotton. And now our harvester harvests six rows of cotton. So if you’re harvesting two rows of cotton, that’s one driver for every two rows across the field. Now we’re having one driver for five fields. But the machines are enormously expensive. Cotton harvesters cost a million dollars.

Rivet: Finally, as a cotton farmer, do you have a particular favorite jeans brand?

LM: Well, I should say right here today, you can buy Wrangler with my name in it–the Wrangler Rooted collection. But in the future it can be any brand.

I’ve got to credit Wrangler though. They really have been in the forefront of some of the regenerative production movement.