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Sustainability Buzz in the Mid-South

Sustainability is a word that cotton growers hear and see on a daily basis, but what does it really mean? It seems growers, consumers, brands and retailers each have a different definition. Respectively, the core of the issue is the same — producing more with less and preserving resources for future generations. The Mid-South cotton-growing community recently had an opportunity to get a crash course in sustainability at the National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Memphis, Tennessee.

Because U.S. cotton farmers have a long history of trying to farm sustainably, Cotton Incorporated is ready to ‘double-down’ on sustainability messaging.

For 23 years, the Cotton and Rice Conservation Systems Conference has promoted sustainable agriculture and production practices. The three-day conference, sponsored by Cotton Incorporated and the U.S. Rice Producers Association, brings together Mid-South farmers, university researchers and crop consultants to share their latest crop production research results.

This year, there were more than 100 speakers offering insights into conservation techniques that preserve natural resources, improve production efficiency and increase producer profitability.

Cotton’s Chance To Shine
Coley Bailey Jr., Mississippi cotton farmer and Cotton Incorporated board member, was one of the keynote speakers in the opening session of the conference.

“The need for brands and retailers to source sustainable cotton is only growing as consumers continue to put pressure on them to be more transparent with their supply chains,” he says. “Cotton Incorporated sees this as a unique and advantageous opportunity for cotton.”

With 35 years of reduced environmental impacts, aggressive 10-year industry sustainability goals and now the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, U.S. cotton growers have a great story to tell. With this in mind, Bailey says Cotton Incorporated is ready to “double-down” on sustainability messaging.

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Research And Real Life
One of the most unique aspects of the conference is how its sessions feature cutting-edge research reports combined with real-life experiences from producers. One session paired a “Basics of Soil Health” presentation from Dr. Bill Robertson, University of Arkansas, with a talk titled “A Different Way to Grow Cotton with Improved Soil Health,” from Arkansas cotton producer Adam Chappell.

Robertson gave practical advice on how and when to check soil health properties. Next, Chappell discussed his journey to a profitable cotton crop through the adoption of new sustainable production methods. This past season, the Arkansas farmer implemented 76-inch row spacing on cotton and experimented with adding grazing to his cropping system.

“Ten years ago, my brother and I were in the same situation that many American farmers are in today — on the verge of going out of business,” Chappell says. He knew they had to make changes and rethink their fundamental farming philosophy. Chappell credits his use of cover crops and its affect on improved soil health as the reason he’s been able to drastically reduce input costs.

During his presentation, Chappell quoted Joe Camp, saying, “Just because something has always been done a certain way does not necessarily mean it’s the best way or the correct way or the healthiest way for your horse, or your relationship with your horse or your life.”

Chappell says the use of cover crops and larger row spacing led to a dramatic decrease in overall input costs for fertilizer, herbicides and irrigation.

Doable, Successful Practices
In the past, sustainable agriculture may have seemed like a foreign concept or something that might hurt the bottom line. However, the Cotton and Rice Conference gave example after example of Mid-South cotton producers who are proving every day that sustainable agricultural practices are achievable and can be profitable.

I encourage Mid-South producers to attend next year’s Cotton and Rice Conservation Systems Conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and tap into this unique resource aimed at assisting in their efforts to grow a sustainable and profitable crop.

David Miller

David Miller is the Cotton Board’s regional communication manager for the Mid-South. Contact him at dmiller@cottonboard.org.