Trust Protocol Growers Strive for Continuous Improvement Every Day

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Growers are stewards of the land. Their passion, livelihood and being depends on caring for our planet—whether that be the soil, air, or water—they know that their actions make a difference for the planet we all call home. We’re highlighting two Trust Protocol growers from opposite regions of the Cotton Belt to learn more about how they strive for continuous improvement for more sustainable cotton production. 

*Photo credit The Decatur Daily, Jeronimo Nisa. 

Lamont Bridgeforth, U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol Grower, Alabama 

Lamont Bridgeforth has operated Bridgeforth Farms in Alabama full-time for more than two decades, working alongside his father, uncle, and cousins. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in business management from Auburn University in 2001, Lamont immediately returned to the farm bringing with him an understanding of business that helps him operate all aspects. Lamont has a drive for continuous improvement and a love for farming. These attributes are shared among the Bridgeforths—as they work to ensure their learnings can be passed to future generations. 

*Photo credit Ted Sheely family.

Ted Sheely, U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol Grower, California 

Ted Sheely is a widely recognized farmer, businessman, and leader in the agriculture industry. He’s known for his ability to keep his eyes on the future, carefully plan and meticulously manage his farm’s resources. He has a passion for continual learning, and after graduating from the University of Arizona, he participated in the California Agricultural Leadership Program. He then became president of Azcal Management Company in Lemoore. To further feed his desire for learning, Ted has been active in both Cotton Council International and the National Cotton Council. He received the 2021 Cotton Grower Cotton Achievement Award for his service, impact, and contributions to cotton production and marketing in California and across the country. 

Q1. How do you utilize the data you receive as a member of the Trust Protocol in your farming decisions? 

Lamont: Farming is becoming increasingly data-driven as the industry has shifted to using verified information to drive sustainable decision making. We use the data we receive from the Trust Protocol to track measurable sustainability outcomes and constantly improve. We take the feedback from the Trust Protocol, along with historical analytics we compile with meteorological data, that allows us to make more informed crop management decisions. For example, we combine this data with our drip irrigation plan to prevent overwatering—so we make the most of every drop. From this, we’ve seen an 80% reduction in our water usage compared to conventional irrigation. We take pride in our innovative approach to adopting the latest technology, such as precision agriculture systems, irrigation monitoring and GPS mapping to maximize the efficiency and sustainability of our operations.  

Ted: One of the primary reasons I joined the Trust Protocol is because of the data we receive as growers. This data empowers us to continuously identify areas for improvement and focus our efforts accordingly. The more sustainable we are—the healthier our soils are, our inputs are reduced, our energy efficiency improves, which results in more sustainably grown cotton. We are always working to be forward-thinking and considering how we can improve our growing practices. I may be known to drive around with a shovel and soil probe in my vehicle because I’m constantly checking our soil. I’m in my fields every day keeping track of our plants, soil, moisture levels, insect activity, to help ensure our crops are healthy, productive, and only receiving what they need when they need it. 

Q2. As a cotton grower, in what ways has technology helped you improve your environmental stewardship practices?  

Lamont: We are continually using technology and science-based methods to increase the productivity of our farm. We work to use our natural resources as efficiently as possible, and I think this has helped our farm survive what Mother Nature sends our way—everything from drought to tornadoes. For example, we use drip irrigation and monitor soil moisture levels to conserve water that would have evaporated if applied on the soil surface. We also use analytics to compile historical and meteorological data to prevent overwatering. As the agriculture industry continues to change based on available technology, farming will become even more of a data-driven science, and we’ll continue to incorporate this into our practices. 

Ted: We use technology to increase efficiency, boost production, and maximize productivity for greater sustainability. Part of striving for continuous improvement is being open to learning from my peers about how to best use available technologies and strategies. I had the opportunity to meet another cotton grower from Mississippi, who many considered a pioneer in our industry. I learned about a project he was working on with the Department of Agriculture and NASA, known as the USDA/NASA Ag 20/20 Program. The goal of the program was to accelerate the use of remote sensing and geospatial technology on-farm to help increase agriculture’s productivity, reduce crop production risks, and improve environmental stewardship tools for agricultural production. For me it made sense to try these technologies in California where it’s sunny for most of the summer to prove how effective these technologies are. We have also used monitoring equipment placed strategically in our fields to evaluate our water usage. We found that we were not over or underwatering; however, the duration between waterings was too long to maximize the value of our system. To address this, we added another piece of technology to help control the irrigation valves and pumps. This reduced variability, increased our yield, and reduced our costs.  

Q3. What growing practices have you adopted on your farm to be more sustainable? 

Lamont: Our farm is managed with strip-tillage and uses a subsurface drip irrigation system and soil moisture monitoring equipment. Strip-tillage is a form of conservation tillage that helps slow wind and water movement, which reduces erosion and helps retain moisture within the soil. We use drip irrigation and carefully monitor soil moisture levels to conserve as much water as possible. We also grow cover crops to boost soil health and manage weeds. 

Ted: In an environment where water impacts almost every decision we make, it’s important to use our water as efficiently as possible. All our acres are drip irrigated and we can put on as little as an inch of water and spread it around quickly. With the accuracy of our drip irrigation system, we are able to increase our yields—meaning we are growing more cotton on the same amount of land. We also use cover crops to protect the soil. Cover crops are beneficial because they help reduce soil erosion, improve soil fertility, and soil quality. They also help manage water, weeds, pests, and disease, and promote biodiversity. 

Q4. What do you view as keys to your success as a sustainable grower? 

Lamont: My family’s cooperation, perseverance, and passion are key to our success. We are always working to be more creative and adaptable in order to continue responding to challenges. We are passionate about sustainability, our community, the agriculture industry, and the planet. We will pass down what we’ve learned to the next generation and will teach them the importance of continuous improvement because we want to leave not only our farm, but the planet, in better shape for future generations. 

Ted: I think that my willingness to learn, adapt, and cooperate is a key to success. In agriculture, we are affected by a myriad of issues from inflation to weather conditions—so it is crucial to continuously learn and grow. I always urge growers, especially younger generations, to get involved in the industry. I’ve met so many wonderful people this way. Many of us in the industry have similar goals and concerns. My involvement allows me to share my knowledge with other growers and learn from them to implement more sustainable practices. I pass down my practices and what I’ve learned to my children, who are all landowners and part of our operation. I am learning from my children too–one of my sons runs the technology side of our operation. I’m big on planning and want to make sure that the younger generations can take over the farm someday if they want to. 

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Deepika Mishra

Sustainability Consultant

Deepika Mishra is a passionate, innovative, enthusiastic scientist with demonstrated ability to lead and collaborate worldwide in the development of novel life sciences technologies and techniques to enhance sustainable agriculture to have a true impact that addresses challenges of climate change. She works as a sustainability consultant for the National Cotton Council and Cotton Council International.