It’s early October in Tiptonville, Tenn., and John Lindamood’s farm office is bustling. Gin preparations are underway, defoliation applications and the movement of harvest equipment is being coordinated. Everyone is busy, with the exception of a Chesapeake Bay Retriever napping by the window.
Despite the hectic pace, Lindamood obliges our interview request because we’re discussing a topic about which he feels strongly — promoting cotton sustainability.
“Sustainability is really what we do and who we are,” said Lindamood, “There’s no question U.S. farmers have the most sustainable practices in the world, but I think we share the common misconception that the truth always comes out, and it just doesn’t. People are painting a picture of agriculture that is just wrong.”
Our conversation takes place in what’s already been a trying year for cotton production. Now looming regulations on textiles sold in the European Union could place more responsibility on cotton producers to prove the sustainability of their practices.
We spoke to Lindamood about the sustainable practices he’s implemented in nearly 40 years of farming and why he thinks the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol will help his cotton operation.
Technology improves conservation
For Lindamood, technology has always played a key role in improving efficiency and, thus sustainability. His family farm and the family gin, Phoenix Gin Company, were running Apple computers back in 1984. Prior to the development of GPS technologies, he was using soil maps to do variable rate applications of lime and potash.
Since then Lindamood has experimented with many precision ag platforms to improve crop yields and better manage inputs. Most recently he’s implemented a new farm management software called Granular. All employees can see their daily work assignments through an app. Lindamood can see when tasks are initiated and completed.
“It’s helped us be better organized,” said Daniel Arant, farm foreman. “We know where we are and what we’re doing each step of the way.”
However, Lindamood cautions that the data generated by this technology is only useful if you use it.
“You can generate all the pretty maps, and all the information, but if it just stacks up and you don’t have time to review it and incorporate it into your workplan, it’s useless. It still comes down to having someone process the data, analyze it and determine what to do with it.”
Using the data
Lindamood views yield maps as the proofing process to determine which management decisions pay off and which don’t. There are two practices where he’s seen big results — cover crops and variable rate application.
“We’ve seen very dramatic payoffs in cover crops on certain soil types in cotton,” said Lindamood, who mostly uses a blend of cereal rye and hairy vetch before cotton. “There’s less impact in other crops and other soil types, but in our sandy loam soils we’ve increased our yields by 30 to 40%. That’s largely attributed to cover crops.
“We’re also finding that because of the variable rate application of nutrients we’ve done over the years, our fields seem to be leveling out. We’ve amended our soils to apply more where we needed it and cutting out applications where we didn’t. Now we have much less need for variable rate fertilizers and variable rate defoliation and plant growth regulators.”
But, Lindamood and Arant caution, variable rate applications and cover crops are not necessarily cost savings measures, but rather allocation tools.
“Those practices have allowed us to allocate our resources where they’ll best be used by the crops, diminish run-off of nutrients and also decrease herbicide use rates," Arant said.
“It’s an exciting time to be farming. It’s a lot of fun using the technology. Seeing how we can do things more efficiently, push our yields, while at the same time protect the environment.”
Cotton Trust Protocol
For Lindamood, that’s the very definition of sustainability — finding those practices that are economically beneficial while also reducing the environmental footprint. In addition to variable rate applications and cover crops, he no-tills 90% of his fields. He works closely with NRCS on several conservation programs. He has installed flow meters and soil moisture sensors to monitor irrigation use.
And he’s not alone. Combinations and variations of these practices are in use on farms across the nation. The story of the improved sustainability of U.S. cotton farms is a great one, but the story alone may not be enough.
For some time, environmental sustainability has been a growing concern to consumers. According to a survey done by the National Cotton Council, those concerns have become amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the potential for new textile regulation in the European Union could put more pressure on brands to only source products that are verified sustainable.
“We know the U.S. cotton industry has a 35-year record of improving cotton sustainability, but many of our brands truly value the data behind that story. While U.S. cotton is recognized for its quality, we’ve never had the data to support our sustainability credentials,” said Ken Burton, executive director of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.
The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is a new standard for verifying the progress of cotton sustainability in the U.S. Participating growers will anonymously document their production practices in an online form. Responses will be compiled to create a transparent picture of cotton production practices that will be shared with participating brands and retailers.
Leaders of the protocol see two major benefits of the initiative. First, by providing verified data, it will help grow demand for U.S. cotton, and second, it will give growers a good picture of their own sustainability performance that can be compared to state and national benchmarks. As it says on the Trust Protocol website, you can’t improve what you don’t measure. Sort of like those pretty maps that Lindamood recalled.
“This program allows you to prove your sustainability to the world, as well as provide insights that will help you continuously improve,” said Burton.
In September, the National Cotton Council opened enrollment for the Trust Protocol. They’re hoping to get 1,000 growers to sign up this season. Lindamood plans to be one of them.
“So many companies want cotton that is verified sustainable. We know we’re sustainable, but the day-to-day cotton farmer just doesn’t have time to get that story out there. We don’t want to be shut out, simply because we’re not considered sustainable,” said Lindamood.
“Something like the Trust Protocol is going to help us compete. I know it takes a little time to sit down at your computer and fill out the forms, but it’s where we’re going in the U.S. cotton industry in order to be able to sell our cotton and make it the preferred cotton.”
For more information on the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol or to enroll, visit trustUScotton.org.