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Holistic Approach to US Cotton-Growing Yielding Benefits for Flora, Fauna and Farmer

As consumers demand that brands and retailers provide more sustainable products and ask for transparency, companies understand that these need to start at the very beginning — in the dirt, so to speak.

A quiet revolution has been happening across US cotton farms. It is a revolution whose soundtrack is the gentle flutter of butterfly wings, the buzzing of bees, and a symphony of other wildlife, scented and colored by an abundant, pollinating floral tribute. It is a philosophical revolution that promotes plant, animal and microorganism interaction above and below ground. It is the revolution of the inexorable march of whole-farm practices that are spreading across US cotton farms to the benefit of flora, fauna and farmer alike.

Taking a whole-farm approach means thinking about biodiversity and cotton farming inclusively and together, rather than as mutually exclusive or even competing approaches. As Sledge Taylor, a cotton grower in Mississippi put it, “It’s better to take a holistic approach on a farm, as there are many benefits that we may not even understand yet. That’s why we’re incorporating biodiversity into a whole model.”

That model includes setting aside in-field corridors and buffer zones bordering cotton fields that are allowed to grow back wild with native plants. These create natural habitats and food sources not just for bees, butterflies and small birds such as quail, but also for larger species including deer. Implementing field borders with perennial grasses allows pollinator species to thrive and improves the habitat quality for adjoining cotton-farmed areas, which is beneficial for the crop itself. Typically, farmers will set aside land that is less efficient, or with more challenging terrain, which in turn allows them to focus more efficiently on the most appropriate land for cotton production.

Minimum-tilling and cover crops

In addition to setting aside land to promote natural habitats, US cotton farmers are increasingly adopting minimum- and no-till practices, and the use of cover crops — both of which also are incredibly beneficial to biodiversity and soil health. Minimum and no-till systems improve soil structure by leaving it intact; and not turning the soil over also improves its carbon retention, reducing the GHG impact of cotton farming. Combined with minimum- and no-tilling practices, the use of cover crops also enhances carbon sequestration.

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As well as reducing other inputs, cover crops are hugely beneficial to biodiversity and soil health in other ways. As one Louisiana cotton farmer explained: “We see the difference, for example, in the heat of the summer between land with cover crops and those without — the land with cover crops will be significantly cooler and also have greater moisture retention.”

The roots of cover crops such as radishes help break through compacted soils, and the earthworms that abound because cover crops provide them with shade and food also loosen and naturally aerate the soil. This in turn allows for better water absorption and much less run-off. Species such as hairy vetch contribute important nutrients for the following season’s cotton crop, and the spring-flowering crops are a boon for pollinators that proliferate wherever cover crops are routinely used. Cover crops also provide a natural barrier to harmful insects, weeds and diseases, reducing the need for phytosanitary products.

Tailoring efforts to farmers’ needs

Cognizant that every farmer’s needs are different, increasing biodiversity on US cotton farms can only be done in full conversation with individual farmers. It cannot be achieved through a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach. That’s why the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is working with growers to help understand where they can improve upon their operation when it comes to sustainability.

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is a farm-level, science-based program that is setting a new standard for more sustainably grown cotton. In order to enroll, growers must complete a 120-question self-assessment that asks about soil health, nutrient management, biodiversity and more. Upon completion, producers can anonymously see how sustainability on their farm compares with region, state and national benchmarks. Trust Protocol growers are able to see where they need to improve and are given insights on how to do so, including in regard to biodiversity.

Improving the biodiversity on a farming operation is an important part of the sustainability journey. The Trust Protocol allows growers to measure the impact of different practices that improve biodiversity and the resulting metrics as the program tracks information on soil health, soil carbon, land use and more. The initiative recognizes the importance of biodiversity in our sustainability journey and asks specific questions of growers when they enroll related to cover crops, minimum or no-till and other practices meant to improve biodiversity.

Not only can members understand how they anonymously compare to their peers, they will have the ability to understand their progress year over year. US cotton growers’ efforts towards continuous improvement are central to the Trust Protocol and the US cotton industry.

Reaping the rich rewards

Farmers who promote biodiversity report that wildlife is abounding — not only bees and butterflies, but rabbits and deer, turkey and quail, and “even Canada geese we’d never before seen this far south and many species returning that I hadn’t seen as a child,” said one Mississippi farmer. Those include black bears, panthers, coyotes and bobcats.

These rich rewards in biodiversity are motivating ever more US cotton farmers, as stewards of the land for the next generations, to take on a whole-farm approach. And there are also some welcome knock-on economic benefits, too — not only in terms of fewer inputs such as irrigation or pesticides, saving precious resources and money; but also higher productivity, with farmers reporting how better soil health achieved through biodiversity-conscious practices has resulted in higher yields.

Producers recognize the importance of improving biodiversity on their operations, and programs such as the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol give them the necessary information to do so. As consumers demand that brands and retailers provide more sustainable products and ask for transparency, companies understand that this transparency and sustainability needs to start at the very beginning — in the dirt, so to speak.

To learn more about the Trust Protocol and join, visit trustuscotton.org.

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