Monday, January 17, 2022

The 7th Generation

Alabama Farmer Shares Insights With Arizona Agriculture

• By Julie Murphree,
Arizona Farm Bureau •

larkin and sykes martin
In the early 1990s, Larkin Martin joined her father, Sykes Martin, to help manage Martin Farm near Courtland, Alabama, before he passed away in 1993 — photos courtesy the Martin Family

A graduate of Vanderbilt University, Larkin Martin is managing partner of Martin Farm, a family farming operation in northern Alabama. The farm’s principal crops are corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton.

In recent years, they have also raised canola, sesame, peanuts and sorghum. The operation covers about 7,000 acres of owned and rented land. She’s also vice president of the Albemarle Corp. — another family business — and has held both positions since 1990.

Because of Martin Farm’s tradition over the generations to continually improve, Martin has been at the forefront of using RTK guidance on their equipment, GPS mapping and precision technologies for soil sampling, prescription fertilizer applications and business recordkeeping.

I recently discovered her business insights and acumen listening to her speak on a panel during the 2021 Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Agricultural Symposium.

People who know Martin will tell you she is the daughter who tagged along with her dad, the late Sykes Martin. She went everywhere with him, which gave her a sense of what it takes to run a family business.

Perhaps this experience also resulted in industry recognition as one of its most innovative young cotton producers and advanced her understanding of the grand scheme of things when it comes to American agriculture. So, to me, it made sense to interview Martin for our ongoing “conversation series.”

Arizona Agriculture: Tell us about your farm.

Martin: Our farm has been in continuous operation through multiple generations, and I am the seventh. Over the generations, it has changed with the times. Today, Martin Farm is a row-crop operation, raising primarily corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat, but we will try other crops.

Recently, that list has included canola, peanuts, sorghum and sesame. We farm land we own, and then we rent additional land on both cash and share leases.

Arizona Agriculture: What inspired you to get into farming?

Share a bit about your family’s farming history in Alabama.

Martin:

I got into farming by generational chance. I am the oldest of four daughters. My father was diagnosed with cancer in 1990 when he was in his 50s and I was in my 20s working in Washington, D.C.

I moved home to help while he underwent treatment and have been here ever since. My father’s family has roots in our community dating back to the early 1800s. Some of the land we farm has been in continuous crops since that time.

Arizona Agriculture:

Regarding your company, what have you brought to the farming operation that’s different from past generations, specifically as it relates to management and the whole scope of your day-to-day?

Martin:

I think the biggest changes that have occurred during my tenure have been brought by the technology that has become available over the past 30 years and our ability to adopt the ones that best fit our farm.

cover crops
In the past few years, a cover crop has been grown on most of the cotton acres at Martin Farm.

When I began managing the farm in 1990, landlines were the only kind of phone and fax machines were modern. We had a desktop computer, which was still a little unusual in a farm office. I used measuring wheels in the fields and a planimeter on large maps to measure acres.

Saving seed and moldboard plowing every year was the norm. Revolutions in digitization, communication, automation, genetics, telematics, soil health awareness and more have all happened since then and dramatically changed how we farm and the cost structures for raising the same crops.

Arizona Agriculture:

Obviously, farming in Alabama is quite different than in Arizona. Highlight the biggest difference as well as the commonalities.

Martin:

The biggest difference is climate and availability and necessity of irrigation. We average 55-60 inches of rain a year, but it does not come when we order it. Less than 10% of our cropland is irrigated.

The commonalities are many. We all try to farm keeping an eye out for the best options for our operations and putting together the puzzle of economics, people and natural resources.

Arizona Agriculture:

You’ve been keen to advance your farm’s recordkeeping management. Talk about this.

Martin: I inherited a focus on farm recordkeeping from my father. It was important for him to know how the business was doing and a way to be careful and accurate in paying participating share rents.

We still have those same two areas of focus. Over my tenure, computer and digital technology has made it easier in many ways but more complex in others.

Arizona Agriculture:

We all talk about technology advances in agriculture and on-the-farm application. But what’s the biggest challenge for us on the farm as it relates to data gathering and management? Maybe a better question, what’s holding us back?

Martin:

The sources of data for farms to use to improve farm financial and operational records, as well as field operations and machine efficiency, are exploding — as is the complexity of organizing and managing it all.

pickers baling cottonAgriculture suffers from a lack of data interoperability. Pieces of software are often special purpose. File formats are not standardized, often proprietary and often incompatible across different pieces of software.

Software that is marketed for helping farm offices with recordkeeping can be too narrowly focused. While designed to provide a service, it’s also designed primarily to quietly gather information from the farmer rather than assisting the farmer with private business decisions.

Arizona Agriculture: On regulation, what concerns you?
Martin:

I believe there are good regulations, especially in areas of product safety, worker safety and environmental matters. However, I become concerned when the atmosphere around regulation is excessively aggressive or uninformed and misses the mark on what is workable or reasonable for achieving a stated goal.

Arizona Agriculture: Where are we a decade from now in American agriculture?
Martin:

I certainly don’t know, but I see continuing trends toward consolidation of farming operations and corporate investment in farmland in some regions. At the same time, I see an increase in “non-traditional” agriculture, things like vertical and urban farming. I believe the use of biologicals and robotics will grow quickly.

Plus, the recognition and valuation of the carbon sequestration done by growing crops becoming an economic consideration for farmers in the next 10 years is a big win.

Arizona Agriculture: Global markets:

Especially for cotton and other global crops, what opportunities are you hoping to see develop in the next few months?

Martin:

I believe recent supply chain strains — brought on by geopolitical struggles and COVID-19 — and production and shipping disruptions are redirecting U.S. sourcing executives toward U.S. production. That should be good for U.S. farmers.

Arizona Agriculture: What encourages you about the future of agriculture in America?
Martin:

The general productivity of the land and the spirit of innovation among U.S. farmers and the U.S. business community.

Arizona Agriculture: You have a passion for agriculture. Why?
Martin:

I enjoy growing things.

Julie Murphree is the Arizona Farm Bureau outreach director.

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