The United States’ cotton industry has been a pioneer in utilizing new technologies, enabling farmers to produce some of the most sustainable cotton in the world. In the U.S., sustainability is not only about reducing resources needed to grow cotton but also preserving fertile land for future generations that will cultivate the traditional family farm.
“Over the last 35 years, we have improved continuously in all the most important environmental factors where we measure sustainability,” said Bruce Atherley, executive director of Cotton Council International (CCI), the export promotion arm of the National Cotton Council of America.
Precision Agriculture Supports Sustainability and Profitability
The U.S. has one of the world’s highest rate of adoption of precision agriculture, which encourages less water and pesticide usage, according to the council. This approach to farming is key to sustainability as well as profitability.
“Sustainability is in U.S. farmers' best interest because reducing input costs, such as reducing the level of fertilizer and pesticides, helps their bottom line. Thus sustainability and improving a farmer's profitability go hand in hand,” Mr. Atherley said.
Technology and precision agriculture allow farmers to manage their crops and inputs on an acre-by-acre basis. Many of the advanced farmers are using drones to determine the condition of the fields and ensure that herbicides, fertilizer, water or other inputs are applied only to those fields that need it.
Moisture sensors and probes also help farmers control the amount of water used. The probes go about six inches below the surface of the soil and measure the subsurface moisture. Use of these probes have led to an 82 percent reduction in water usage in the U.S. cotton industry over the last 35 years, Mr. Atherley said.
In fact, two-thirds of all the cotton produced in the U.S. is grown in what is called “dry land,” he said. Dry land means the only water the field gets is what comes from the sky in terms of rainfall. Only one-third of the cotton produced uses supplemental irrigation. While reducing the use of this limited natural resource, it also improves profitability. “Water is money,” he added.
The Family Farm is Alive and Well
In a world where most everything has been very industrialized and digitized, there’s a strong human element underlying the U.S. cotton industry.
People tend to think that big U.S. corporations are running big cotton farms, but that’s not the case. “The vast majority – 97% of the farms in the U.S. – are owned by family farmers,” Mr. Atherley said.
Most of them are passing their land down from generation to generation. One farm in Mississippi has been in the same family for well over 120 years, he said.
It's not only heartwarming, but it's in their interest to maintain that land. “The land they have is their biggest asset,” Mr. Atherley said. “They're proud of what they do, and they're proud of the means that they're taking to sustain the land for future generations.”
What You Measure Improves
There’s a business adage that goes “what you measure improves.” Measuring all key aspects of the cotton growing process has led to substantial year-on-year improvements in U.S. cotton.
The U.S. is the only country that has set quantifiable goals for sustainability going forward, Mr. Atherley said.
CCI has also developed a U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, which is an integrated data collection, measurement and verification procedure that will document U.S. cotton production practices and their environmental impact. The data is intended to benchmark farmers’ gains toward the industry goals and will provide the global textile supply chain additional assurances that U.S. cotton is produced in a responsible manner.
Cotton farming, just like any other agricultural sector in the U.S., also falls under strict government regulations. “All our farmers have to comply with hundreds of regulations and they’re inspected,” Mr. Atherley said. “That helps make sure that there's a check and balance on the system of sustainability.”
Ultimately, when sustainability practices also contribute to a farm’s profitability, self-motivation will help drive success. “People often do what's in their best interest from a from dollar and cent standpoint. In this case, it helps both their bottom line and our sustainability bottom line,” he said.