Larkin Martin had left her family's cotton farming behind and was creating her own path when her father's illness brought her back to the fields. Now, two decades later, she embraces the farming life as the managing partner of the Martin Farm, in Courtland, Alabama, a small town in the Tennessee Valley region of northern Alabama.
Martin's story is especially notable as Women's History Month approaches, for she's something of an anomaly – a woman in a traditionally male-dominated profession. A woman as a cotton producer is a modern development, and one that's bringing modern changes to the industry. Not only are women like Martin looking to balance family and farm, they're also balancing farming and eco-consciousness.
Women's History Month celebrates the diverse and significant historical accomplishments of women. As female farmers like Martin adopt environmentally-friendly techniques and technology, they are becoming part of the exciting new chapters being added to U.S. cotton's enduring story.
Martin’s road back to the farm was winding. She graduated in 1985 from Vanderbilt University with a degree in European history. Post graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C., a fun city for a young, single adult. For a couple of years, she worked in the Treasury Department as a scheduler for James Baker. Then, an acquaintance left his job as a commercial real estate appraiser, and Martin was hired to replace him. That's what she was doing when she got a life-altering call: her father was terminally ill.
"There was no one here to sign the payroll checks, so I gave notice at my job and was back here in two weeks," Martin relates. "For the four or five days before my father went into the hospital, I went over all the basics with him. And what was supposed to be a temporary, emergency situation became permanent when her father passed away three years later."
The idea of a woman managing a cotton farm is a modern innovation and not the only thing that has changed about cotton farming in recent years. Growers like Martin are melding time-honored agricultural processes with technology in eco-conscious moves that benefit the industry and the environment.
For example, Martin uses precision agriculture techniques that detail soil conditions in exact areas of the field. This way, she can vary the application rate for fertilizers, herbicides and water, resulting in significant reductions in their usage. Genetically-engineered cotton seeds further reduce the frequency of herbicides and pesticides.
The changes mean that compared to just 25 years ago, Martin's modern farm requires 45 percent less irrigation to grow a pound of cotton. In the past 15 years, the number of pest control applications has been cut in half.
Martin is part of a movement that has allowed modern cotton fields to produce 18 million bales of cotton on just 14 million acres. That level of harvest required 44 million acres needed in the 1920s. Cotton farmers that work cleaner and greener have also contributed to a significant reduction in carbon emissions – comparable to the permanent removal of more than 27,000 cars from the road.
By shepherding such substantive change, women farmers like Martin are rewriting history in this centuries-old agrarian business.
Martin recognizes that social and cultural expectations still can work to discourage women farmers. But she has no regrets.
"Even though female farmers are still a very small portion of the total number of people involved in the occupation, I think women can definitely be good farmers," she says. "It’s still unusual, but it's a very viable career choice."
Cotton Incorporated, funded by U.S. growers of upland cotton and importers of cotton and cotton textile products, is the research and marketing company representing upland cotton. The Program is designed and operated to improve the demand for and profitability of cotton.