Cotton is an environmentally sustainable crop. Most growers use conservation tillage practices to protect their soil. They only irrigate their fields as needed to conserve water. Their farms are home to wildlife.
Consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable, environmentally friendly products. Companies need sustainably grown cotton to make these products. That’s why the U.S. cotton industry created the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol – to collect the farm production data manufacturers and retailers need to validate their product claims regarding cotton’s sustainability.
The voluntary Trust Protocol program, coordinated by the National Cotton Council, is recruiting growers nationwide to document their production practices so the program can secure verifiable, sustainable cotton for manufacturers and retailers.
"U.S. cotton has a great sustainability story to tell, and the Trust Protocol provides an excellent opportunity to tell that story," said Matt Coley, a Dooly County cotton grower serving on the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol Board of Directors. "As consumers become more aware of how the products they buy are grown and produced, the Trust Protocol validates that our cotton is grown in a sustainable manner."
More than 300 growers nationwide participated in the program for the 2020 crop enrolling about 950,000 bales, 6% of the total U.S. crop, said Ken Burton, the program’s enrollment manager. The program aims to have more than half of all U.S. grown cotton enrolled by the 2025 crop year.
About 550 mills and manufacturers worldwide have joined the program to buy the verifiable cotton enrolled in the program. Brands and retailers participating include Target, Levi’s, J. Crew, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap Inc., Old Navy, Banana Republic, Athleta, and U.K. retailers Tesco, Byford and Next.
How to participate
The program is currently wrapping up enrollment for its second crop year. April 30 is the new deadline to enroll for the 2021 crop. It has been extended from March 31. 2020 participants must re-enroll for the 2021 crop.
Growers interested in enrolling in the free program should visit www.trustuscotton.org & click “Join Now.”
The first 750 growers to complete the self-assessment questionnaire and fieldprint analysis will receive a $250 gift card. All enrolled growers will receive a trust protocol t-shirt and member certificate.
To aid with enrollment, the Trust Protocol has rolled out two additional avenues to streamline the process. First, growers can authorize their crop consultant to help ensure that necessary information is entered and accurate. Second, if growers utilize the John Deere Operations Center, they can pre-populate up to 40% of the data needed to complete their Fieldprint analysis through the platform.
Growers with questions or who would like help with enrollment may reach out to Burton at email@example.com or contact the Grower Help Desk at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Farmers who enroll in the program will be asked to complete a self-assessment questionnaire of about 120 questions that cover topics such as soil health, water & nutrient management, crop protection practices, harvest preparation, fiber quality & traceability, worker well-being and wildlife biodiversity. Participants select an answer from provided choices indicating the degree to which they implement a production practice on their farm.
“It takes most first-time enrollers two and a half hours to complete the online enrollment, so the gift card is a thank you for their time,” Burton said.
Growers will also complete a fieldprint analysis on 10% of their cotton acreage to record how they managed that acreage for the last crop. Participants will answer questions about the seeding rate used, number of trips made across the acreage with equipment to plant, spray crop protectants and harvest. They’ll also answer questions about their crop nutrient, disease/pesticide management and tillage practices.
“In answering the questions, I found it gave me an opportunity to consider practices that could possibly benefit my farm and the environment,” Coley said.
In the future, growers using other farm management software programs to record their farm data may be able to transfer their data from the program they use into the fieldprint analysis, Burton said.
“We want to stress to growers that their data doesn’t leave the program. All data is aggregated so growers won’t be identified individually,” Burton said.
To verify the data the protocol program collects, about 1/3 of trust protocol enrollees will be randomly selected from each cotton belt region for desktop verification and 5-10% of enrollees from each region will be randomly chosen for on-site verification. A third-party company will conduct both types of verifications.
“The purpose of both types of verifications is to certify the growers’ answers,” Burton said. “If a grower is found to have incorrectly answered a question, he will be allowed a chance to correct his answers to reflect the farm’s practices.”
Burton says the desktop verification process takes one hour while on-site farm verification take three to four hours. Growers selected for a verification will not be selected again for two years.
A participant’s experience
Pierce County cotton grower Daniel Johnson enrolled his 2020 and 2021 cotton crop in the Trust Protocol program.
“We have a Good Agricultural Practices program in tobacco. When this program came along, I said, ‘This will be basically the same thing,’ ” said Johnson. “For growers who are already keeping records on your farming practices, this program is a way to tell your story of how you’re growing a sustainable crop.”
Johnson said he’s confident the data will be kept confidential and didn’t find the questions the program asked him about his cotton production to be different from those he answers with the tobacco GAP program.
“Georgia is the second largest cotton producing state in the U.S. If this will help promote my cotton so we can sell it and get a better price for it, I’m willing to participate,” Johnson said. “I think it’s going to be the future of how we sell our crop.”