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US Cotton Farmers Yield ‘Insane’ Productivity, Sustainability Gains from New Technologies

These aren’t your father’s cotton farms, or in the case of Mead and Marshall Hardwick, your great grandfather’s either.

The Hardwick brothers, now the fourth generation to run Hardwick Planting Company, a 20,000-acre farm in Newellton, La., manage a modern, fully automated operation that employs only five other people. Yet the farm produces 36,000 bales of cotton annually, in addition to growing corn, soybean, grain sorghum and wheat.

Technological innovations such as an $850,000 John Deere automated picker, and high-speed planters and tractors have changed the way cotton is farmed throughout the South and Southeast. According to Mead Hardwick, while his and most others in the region are still family farms, most are expanding in order to survive.

The brothers offered a tour of their farm as part of the “Farm to Fashion” event hosted by BASF’s e3 cotton seed that is engineered to drive consumption of sustainable and traceable cotton. Jennifer Gasque Crumpler, BASF Southeast Region Seed Advisor, explained on the tour, which also included visits to a cotton gin, warehouse and research facility, that the Hardwick farm and others in the Louisiana and Mississippi region use the company’s Authentic Stoneville cotton seed that can be traced from the farmer to the gin through to the mills and retailer.

“As a whole, the [U.S.] industry has several large objectives, which is to be the world leader for sustainable cotton production, be the supplier of choice for companies that want to source sustainably grown cotton and also just make a difference, and make the world and our farms a better place,” Mead said.

Located about two miles from the Mississippi River in northeast Louisiana, Hardwick farm has made concerted efforts to preserve the natural resources that make the land so lush and contribute to its success as a farm.

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For example, it has stopped farming near the bayous that work their way through the land from a combination of underground aquifers fed by the Mississippi River and irrigation runoff and are susceptible to flooding. Instead, Hardwick participates in a government-funded program called the Conservation Reserve Program to take such land out of production and return it to its natural habitat, which, as Mead pointed out during the tour, is now an area abundant with trees and grasslands, and teeming with local wildlife.

Discussing changes in farm machine technology, Mead played a video of his planter, which seeds 16 rows of cotton at a time at eight miles per hour. “That probably seems like nothing to you, but that is like driving 100 miles an hour to me,” he said, noting the speed and size of the equipment has doubled over the past five years.

“The productivity we get from the modern equipment is absolutely insane,” Mead said. “Our productivity has quadrupled over the years. We use advanced technologies all controlled by GPS that allow us to operate 24 hours a day if necessary. This reduces our team, but it also reduces overlap and saves money. We’re miles and miles ahead of how past generations worked a farm.”

Marshall, who oversees sustainability efforts on the farm, noted that in the past 35 years, the U.S. cotton industry has achieved key environmental gains, including 31 percent reduction in land use, a 44 percent decline in soil loss, an 82 percent improvement in water usage, 38 percent less energy usage and a 30 percent decline in greenhouse gas emissions, according to Cotton USA.

Now the industry has established 2025 goals targeting a 50 percent reduction in soil loss, a 39 percent decline in greenhouse gas emissions and a 30 percent increase in carbon absorption.

Marshall noted that Hardwick farm believes in and plants cover crops in the off season to maintain the ecosystem and introduce nitrogen into the soil to improve seasonal crop growth and reduce fertilizer use. The farm also uses moisture sensors in the ground to monitor the soil to properly manage irrigation and control water use.

“We also keep about 20 acres of soybean uncultivated during the winter months as a food source for the wildlife in the area, particularly birds and deer,” he added.