Long-term Sustainability In Cotton

Building A Lasting Legacy With Regenerative Measures

⋅ BY CASSIDY NEMEC ⋅
ASSOCIATE EDITOR

Donny Lassiter of Lassiter Family Farms is no stranger to finding new ways to improve the farm’s crop every year. He, a two-time Ag Business graduate of North Carolina State University, and his brother Mark, have implemented decades of sustainability measures for their operation.

Farm Overview

Stemming back to the land their granddad sharecropped on after returning from World War II in 1944, the Lassiters now operate a roughly 10,000-acre farm in Northampton County, North Carolina, as third-generation farmers.

Lassiter brothers Mark (left) and Donny on their Northampton County farm.

“Granddad was still around when we were coming along, and we grew up at the knees of our dad working on the farm whether we wanted to or not. It’s a great way to grow up,” Donny said.

Year-to-year, cotton comprises 35% to 50% of those acres depending on the market and is noted as the linchpin of their rotation. The remaining acres consist of wheat, barley, three types of peanuts, regular and food grade soybeans, corn and pumpkins across their mainly sandy to sandy-loam soil.

Their cotton is all dryland, and they irrigate about 5% of their other crops. For cotton, they plant Deltapine, DynaGro and Stoneville varieties.

“The Liberty system has worked well for us; we haven’t used a lot of auxins. We may use them in trouble spots, but it’s not something we’re using across all of our acres. Thankfully, we have the tool,” Donny said.

Outside of the day-to-day work Donny is a part of, he is also involved in the agricultural and local community.

He is on the executive committee and currently treasurer for Cotton Incorporated, is active in North Carolina Farm Bureau, part of North Carolina Cotton Producers Association, serves on his county farm service agency and is a deacon at his church.

In any given year, Donny’s favorite part of the season comes at the beginning.

“You get to the fall and harvesting a crop, you’re supposed to be excited, and I am, but I love the spring because it could be anything. It could be the best year ever. The unknown, the challenge and the opportunity — I look at challenge and opportunity as almost the same thing.”

A Tag-Team Approach

The brothers take a divide-and-conquer technique to their farm while also working closely with 12 other employees.

“We’ve got some really great guys. They’re all local, and we’ve just got a really good group,” Mark said. “They know what it takes to be farming; they can see things and help be part of the management decisions. We are very fortunate.”

Donny said he and his brother use their different, yet compatible, strengths in maintaining and making decisions for the farm. “We kind of divide and conquer,” he said.

In the spring, Donny may be found planting cotton while Mark works on planting peanuts before swapping crops in the fall for harvest. On a big-picture level, Donny said Mark is very technical and mechanical — whether GPS, precision ag or welding-related — he is on it. Donny, on the other hand, is more management and marketing focused.

Their consultant Daniel Fowler plays a big role in making their agronomic decisions, as well as Dr. Guy Collins, Extension cotton specialist at NCSU, with all the variety trials conducted.

As for after harvest, both brothers, their father and two other families are partners with Producers Gin in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. The owners make up about half of what they gin, with the rest coming from other producers in the area, Donny said.

Sustainability Methods

The Lassiters have been working on forming good agricultural practices for decades now.

Donny’s family from left to right: son Carter, Donny Lassiter, wife Jamie and son Wallace.

“A lot of things are tied to the buzz words of ‘sustainable’ and ‘regenerative’ now that we were doing because they made sense economically years ago,” Mark said.

Over 20 years of cover crops have been planted on the farm. They started with wheat and have done some rye and mixed-species cover, with wheat and rye working the best for their area and management style. Donny said the improvement they have witnessed over the years from these cover crops is notable.

“We can really tell our soil profile is building up — keeping that residue on top and building that profile. You look after the soil, it’ll look after you,” he said. “Soil health is really at the core of what we’re trying to do.”

In addition to cover crops on 100% of their acres, the Lassiters make use of variable-rate applications as they have for over a decade now, liming and swath control to avoid overlapping in the fields. They are also 100% no-till on all crops aside from peanuts. The John Deere platform and Climate FieldView provides them with profitable returns as well.

“We went through a period where we were just collecting data; we weren’t utilizing it,” Donny said. “Now, through the Deere platform and Climate FieldView, we’re making agronomic decisions with variety and placement choices. Deere even has a program called Harvest Profit that’s more on the financial side, so you can tie all of that together and back to the field level.”

Rotation also plays a big role on Lassiter Family Farms. Most is built around the peanut rotation.

“We want at least three-to-four years between peanuts, and what’s so great about cotton is it just fits in that role. We’ve got a lot of different soil types and are right on the verge of the Coastal Plains here in North Carolina, and cotton fits well on all of them. We may do peanuts, then wheat, then soybeans, then two years of cotton with maybe a year of corn in there. Cotton is truly our linchpin when it comes to our rotation. It just fits wherever, and you can spread it around well.”

Ag Of The Future

Overall, Donny believes information is much easier to obtain now, evidenced by technology and increasing efficiencies over the years.

“It used to be hard to get information to make variety decisions, and that’s a lot easier now. The efficiency of what you can do with equipment now, whether it’s high-speed planters like we’re running now, the baler cotton picker as compared to the traditional picker, or even the grain combines — what you can do in a day’s time has really changed.”

Donny said the way data is collected and used on their farm has changed tremendously as well. “Before, we kept it all on notepads; now we keep it on iPads. You can find it when you need it most of the time instead of it being on the back of an envelope or somewhere else.”

“Even in making a marketing decision on a crop — whether it’s Twitter or networking with other people, you can make better decisions on varieties and pricing,” he said.

He noted the rising trend of consolidation in agriculture.

“When I was in college, Dad was pretty progressive in terms of size, even in his time, working about 2,000 acres of land.”

Since then, different farmers, including his father-in-law, have retired over the years and led them to acquiring more land for their operation. He said he’s witnessed the growth firsthand, and they’ve always tried to be profitable in what they were doing — not just in terms of acres.

Donny said he sees the future of ag being more data-driven and having more automated equipment, causing there to be an eventual need to not be hung up on certain varieties and look at what can be most beneficial for operations based on relevant data.

“Like it is now, a lot of the important decisions are going to be made in the office instead of on the turnrow.”

Down home, Donny is able to witness his and Mark’s families growing up on the farm with his two boys and Mark’s four.

“What better place for a kid to grow up, ride around on a golf cart, and go fishing on a little farm pond?” he said.

The challenges encountered on the farm are not few in number, but Donny has an optimism that carries him through each season.

“I look at challenge and opportunity as almost the same thing. For us, we want a great crop and do everything we can, but so much is out of our hands. I like the opportunity that any year could be the best year — my glass is always half full.”

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