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How Cotton Farming is Becoming Smarter & More Sustainable

Sustainability is a constantly moving target, particularly as consumers’ and brands’ environmental demands continue to grow. For cotton farmers, digitalization, technology, data and improved machinery are combining with eco-minded practices to help further reduce the impact of cultivating this crop.

On day one of the Supima Harvest Symposium last fall, attendees got an inside look at these sustainability efforts. Attendees saw how one California farm grows and harvests cotton with an eye toward reducing its carbon impact, and listened to farmers discuss their methods for optimizing cotton production to get the best results.

For cotton farmers, the focus is on plant yield and quality, which ties in directly to growers’ livelihoods. “If the farmer does not make a profit, it’s not sustainable for us,” said Ted Sheely, owner and president of family-run farm Azcal Management Company.

Producing the most abundant crops begins with soil health. By rotating crops and planting different seeds—such as wheat, almonds, onions, tomatoes or garbanzo beans—in subsequent years, growers are able to naturally fertilize the soil. Cycling crops also helps with pest and weed prevention.

After cotton bolls have been harvested, cover crops are planted for the winter. As Jake Sheely, Azcal’s farm manager, explained, “Growing something on a piece of ground is actually the best thing you can do to make that ground sustainable and put the most nutrients on it. One of the worst things you can do is let a field just sit fallow and not have anything on it. The ground dries up and the nutrients go away.”

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Water management is another piece of the sustainability puzzle. Rather than flood irrigation, Azcal Management Co. and fellow California farm A-Bar Ag Enterprises have switched to drip irrigation. This subterranean system feeds drops of water to the crop roots. Since this delivery happens about 15 inches below ground, water isn’t lost to evaporation that would occur above the surface.

A-bar partner Aaron Barcellos noted that water availability in California—an arid state—factors into which crops go into rotation for a particular growing season. Water management also has a financial incentive. “We’re all trying to control our input costs…to increase our profitability and make sure that we’re sustainable long-term,” he said.

Farmers are also upgrading their machinery to lower greenhouse gas impact. For instance, Azcal has purchased a new tractor through the California Air Resources Board that boasts reduced emissions. It also replaced two different tilling tools with the Wilcox Eliminator, accomplishing the same processes with a single pass. The farm also has solar panels that supply a megawatt of sustainable power to its pumps and filter stations.

Digging into data

As farmers look to perfect their growing practices, one newer tool in their arsenal is technology.

Azcal uses satellites to keep tabs on its fields. These can capture images down to a square meter, providing an alternative to flying airplanes for aerial farm views. Getting above the field also helps farmers see more of their acres faster than if they were trying to monitor crops on foot.

To meet reporting regulations, the water pipes are metered, but Azcal has gone a step further and installed automation in its water system. This tracks and records the water pressure and the gallons of water leaving the well per minute, eliminating the need for manual data gathering and entry into spreadsheets. The system also enables real-time, 24/7 monitoring of the water, and sends out alerts if something is wrong.

Other data collection methods include soil and tissue samples, soil moisture probes and sensors on plants, all of which leads to more information at farmers’ fingertips.

“What people often don’t realize about farmers in general—and particularly in the United States—is that we’re not really data poor; we’ve got lots of data coming in,” said Zach Sheely, manager research and technology at Azcal. “What we’re trying to do is make the best use of that data and our land so that we can produce the highest quality crop with the most efficient use of resources.”

Click here to learn more about Supima. And for more on cotton’s sustainable innovations, watch the Supima Harvest Symposium on demand here.