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Field Work: Can Cotton Drive Sustainability In U.S. Ag?

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If you’re not from one of the 17 cotton-producing states, you might not realize that the United States is the world’s biggest exporter of cotton. It’s a $7 billion a year industry that’s becoming more sustainable every year. Increasingly, retailers and brands want to know how the cotton they buy is produced. That’s because their  customers are asking whether their jeans and t-shirts come from sustainable sources.

The U.S. Trust Cotton Protocol is a new way to address those concerns. It rewards farmers and others in the supply chain by tracking every bale from field through gin to manufacturer and retailer. It launched in 2020 with about 500 farmers who agreed to measure things like greenhouse gas emissions and water use on 10 percent of their acreage, and to work towards improving those metrics.

Dr. Andy Jordan helped develop the new standards. He grew up picking cotton on his dad’s farm in Georgia, then built an engineering career at AT & T and Lockheed, where he supervised a team that built the nation’s largest military aircraft.  But agriculture was his true calling. His father had been an early conservationist, and Andy Jordan decided to devote his own latest chapter to helping crop farmers become more sustainable.

On this episode of Field Work, Andy Jordan told hosts Zach Johnson and Mitchell Hora how the new protocol works. Listen here:

Here are five takeaways.

Q. Why should a farmer join the protocol?

The new standards help a producer see their way forward. Data collection allows farmers to do scenario planning, with the help of the NRCS, and that can lead to savings on inputs, financial incentives to adopt conservation practices and increased profitability. Because brands and retailers are getting pickier about who they buy from, a farmer who can demonstrate they care about conservation is going to get more market share. “Our export customers are extremely important,” Andy Jordan told Zach and Mitchell. “If you have a brand or retailer in Europe and they say we want farmers only from approved sources, our farmers and US cotton were not on the list because we didn’t have a program.”

Q. What does the protocol measure? 

Using the Fieldprint Calculator, cotton farmers establish a baseline on six metrics: land use, soil carbon, water management, soil loss, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy efficiency. They commit to continuous improvement, accessing resources made available by the protocol. Every year, they measure the six sustainability metrics on the 10 percent acreage which is representative of their farm. The protocol’s goals are ambitious: By 2025, it’s promising big reductions in soil loss, water use and greenhouse gas emissions, land use and energy use; a soil carbon increase of 30 percent. 

Q. How are the metrics calculated and verified?

The Trust Protocol uses self-assessments to measure producer practices according to individual producers’ resources and needs. Control Union Certifications are issued to participating farmers who enroll as participants and submit data through the Protocol portal. About 25 percent of them will be assigned to a second-party verifier, who will attest to the accuracy of the information and about 10% will be selected for a random 3rd party visit.  

Q. Who runs the protocol?

Agribusiness, manufacturers, conservation and consumer groups and farmers are all represented on the Protocol’s governing board. Their common interest is driving change toward best practices and promoting the U.S. cotton industry. 

Q. How many cotton farmers are participating?

The protocol launched in 2020 with about 600 cotton growers. So far 25 have completed Control Union verification. Producers began enrolling their 2021 crop in April. Andy Jordan told Field Work the Protocol aims to enroll 10 percent of the nation’s cotton by the end of this year, and 50 percent by 2025. “The more involvement there is, the easier it will be to get it done,” he said.

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