By Alvaro Moreira, Senior Manager, Large Farm Programmes and Partnerships at Better Cotton

Photo credit: Dennis Bouman/Better Cotton. Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2023. Description: Alvaro Moreira, Better Cotton.

On 11 October, we hosted the Better Cotton Large Farm Symposium, bringing together growers and partners from six continents to hear success stories from the field and discuss what’s needed to bring about real change.

The symposium kicked off with a keynote address from John Kempf, Founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture and the host of the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, who discussed his work studying crop nutrition and collaborating with regenerative cotton growers and researchers.

This was followed by a series of case studies from around the world. Adam Kay, CEO of Cotton Australia; Dr John Bradley, Owner and Operator at Spring Valley Farms in Tennessee; and Ilkhom Khaydarov, Chairman of the Uzbekistan Textile and Garment Industry Association, shared their experiences in key topics such as water use, tillage and supply chain transparency.

We closed out the event with interactive breakout sessions, where participants got to share and discuss obstacles to the adoption of sustainable farming practices, and ways to meet these challenges.

The event was full of useful insights, and it was great to hear a huge range of perspectives from farmers around the world. Here are my top three takeaways from the sessions:

Optimise plant health and yield will follow

Credit: John Kempf, Advancing Eco Agriculture. Description: Key points from John’s presentation during the Better Cotton Large Farm Symposium.

Discussing his experiences across various agricultural sectors including cotton, John Kempf called for a shift in farmers’ mindsets when it comes to plant health. He stressed that farmers should not make yield their primary focus, but instead prioritise plant health first. As he explained, when you prioritise nutrition, yield increases will automatically follow.

In his experience, understanding plant nutrient needs during different phases of growth and introducing nutrition controls can lead to significant and rapid yield responses; in the first year of experimenting with sap analysis in cotton plants, he witnessed a 40-70% overall yield increase. This also led to a significant decrease in the use of fertilisers and pesticides.

Despite differing contexts, key challenges are universal

Across the case studies and breakout discussions, it became clear that while specific cotton-growing contexts may differ, there are many common issues shared across countries.

  • When discussing the barriers to introducing new sustainable practices, a number of key challenges came up again and again, including:
  • The need to minimise risk and the fear of the unknown
  • A lack of financial incentives and human resources available to adopt new technologies and techniques
  • Limited access to technical support, even where the technology is available

With limited resources, farmers need to understand and prioritise barriers in order to overcome them.

Bringing farmers together to drive the adoption of sustainable practices

To overcome these challenges, demonstrating and sharing results at large-scale is key. Networks, partnerships and collaborations, including stronger connections to markets, drive new and innovative sustainable farming practices.

In many cases, farmers are doing the right things, but maybe at the wrong time or with inefficient equipment. Small changes can make significant yield impacts, and it can sometimes be easier for third parties, including their peers, to uncover new insights on how to improve agronomic management.

The active participation we saw during the symposium shows that there’s a lot of interest in this convening approach. By uniting farmers with experts who are immersed in efforts to improve cotton farming practices and improve environmental outcomes, we hope to support growers in overcoming the obstacles they face so that cotton communities can survive and thrive.

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