Collaboration in Cotton

Cotton is an industry backed by research, funded by producers.

Heading northwest on the Texas portion of U.S. Highway 84 takes you to the land where the Earth stretches for miles until it disappears into a blurred horizon, uninterrupted by the typical tree cover and rolling hills of the eastern parts of the state.

In the early summer, the land is covered by a thin screen of green that upon closer inspection, takes the form of small seedlings. The end of summer brings the Friday night lights of high school football and bursts of white and pink flowers in this otherwise sea of green. As a chill begins to creep into the West Texas air, the seas of green are replaced by white bolls of cotton.

Here there is no denying that cotton is king and has been since 1900, when the first cotton crop was grown on the Texas High Plains. That year, 15 bales of cotton were harvested from 20 acres of land.

Traveling into the heart of Lubbock brings you to Texas Tech University, an institution, like many generations of West Texans, grew  alongside the cotton industry. Twenty-three years after the first cotton crop, Texas Technological College was established by Senate Bill 103 which specifically outlined cotton fiber research as  a main objective of the institution.

Now in its centennial year, Texas Tech has delivered on its promise to be a leader in cotton research. From seed to shirts, Texas Tech researchers collaborate across every step of the cotton life cycle.

Roads lined with cotton

As you venture toward Texas Tech’s Student Union Building, your path is intersected by what is lovingly referred to as “Ag Row.” As the name suggests, the road is lined with the buildings of the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Its cornerstone building is home to research in agricultural economics.

Darren Hudson, Ph.D., is a professor and director of the International Center for Agricultural Competitiveness, housed in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. The center was originally the Cotton Economics Research Institute. Though the name has changed, cotton is still a main research focus of the center due to its large economic impact on the Texas High Plains.

“Anywhere from 10 to 15% of the regional economic activity total is directly attributable to cotton,” Hudson said. “That is not just the farms, but the seed dealerships and equipment dealerships and what goes beyond the farm gate: gins, warehouses, oil mills.”

For places where cotton lines the edges of roads like a West Texas snow long after harvest, these numbers are even higher. In rural communities, Hudson explained, there are fewer non-agriculture industries to buffer the local economy, so more of the local economy centers around agriculture. For many of these rural areas, agriculture means cotton.

“Rural communities live or die by what happens in the field,” Hudson said.

Hudson said Texas Tech’s balanced cotton research portfolio focuses on all sides of the industry, including the manufacturing, production and consumer sides of cotton.

“The research here at Texas Tech is aimed at improving yields, genetics, water conservation, profitability, and more,” he said. “When you improve the viability of those farms, you’re impacting those rural communities because they live off whether those farms are successful or not.”

According to Hudson, thanks to Texas Tech’s research, the cotton industry produces higher yields with less inputs and labor.

We know if we can solve the problems related to the main crop here, it’s going to boost the local economy; it’s going to help farmers.

Oluwatola Adedeji, doctoral student

Water, the lifeblood of cotton

Down the street, in the main hallway of the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech, you are surrounded by images of cotton plants featured on a photo mural. If you were questioning what the department studies, the thin stalks and soft white bolls of the cotton plant answer.

The fields of cotton that illustrate the background of life on the Texas High Plains are solely dependent on the rains that fall from the often too dry West Texas skies. It is cotton’s hardy nature that keeps it in the field season after season.

Resiliency in cotton comes from the plant’s long fruiting period. Glen Ritchie, Ph.D., professor and chair of PSS, explained cotton fruit at the bottom of the plant is older than the fruit at the top of the plant. The difference in age makes parts of the same plant react differently to stressors.

“Cotton is more resilient and more sensitive at the same time,” Ritchie said. “Like if you get a water stress event, it’s going to affect a part of the plant, but not the entire plant. That’s part of the reason cotton does well in dryland environments.”

Water is the lifeblood of farming, so cotton’s resiliency allows it to continue to thrive as a major crop in the characteristically dry climate. Researchers like Ritchie who specialize in water use are key to helping farmers better allocate their water while still producing a high-quality crop.

“Cotton production in Texas is perhaps the most water efficient cotton production in the world,” Ritchie said. “We have an environment that requires us to be very efficient and we have technology that allows us to be very efficient.”

Ritchie studies water efficiency in the field and water’s impact on the end-product of cotton. He said his work finds how water, weeds, insects and fertility impacts fiber quality.

Glen Ritchie, Ph.D., chair and professor, Plant and Soil Sciences.

“In cotton research, our goal is to produce the longest, strongest, most consistent fiber that we can, which then can be shipped overseas,” Ritchie said. “Then it can be produced into high quality, high thread count materials that are going to produce the highest quality material.”

Ritchie said as they work to create higher quality cotton, West Texas is fortunate to have an active community of farmers willing to work with industry professionals and researchers to help guide the direction of research.

“At Texas Tech, one of the real advantages we have is we have a lot stronger ties to both the growers and the industry [than other universities],” Ritchie said, “and we’re working hand in hand toward some of the same common issues.”

Ritchie estimates nearly a quarter of the research completed in PSS has a direct connection to industry. In his experience, that is higher than normal. Whether the research is directly funded by industry organizations or university facilities are used by industry partners, research at PSS is directly impacting the cotton industry at the grower level.

Traditions meet technologies

Across the PSS building, drones, weathervanes and other precision agriculture equipment fill the lab of Wenxuan Guo, Ph.D., assistant professor at PSS. Geospatial maps paper the walls and computers line the room’s perimeter.

In this lab, Guo and his graduate students study cutting-edge technologies essential to precision agriculture. He said precision agriculture implements these technologies to ultimately increase yield and lower the number of inputs required.

“Precision agriculture is about site specific management of a crop or soil,” Guo said. “That means we will determine the field variability or the variation in terms of the soil and the crop growth conditions.”

The technologies Guo works with look very different from the traditional tractor technologies found on the Texas High Plains. Drones, weathervanes and other technologies utilized by precision agriculturists are used to collect data on different fields and growing areas. This data can then determine patterns and help farmers make more informed decisions on how they manage their crops. In his research, Guo said the data component is often where farmers can receive the most support.

“For precision agriculture to be applicable on the farm level, you need to collect a lot of data,” Guo said. “Farmers really know the patterns and situations in the field, but when it comes to the application, the adoption, they probably need some help on the data side from professionals like crop consultants.”

Guo explained support given to farmers needs to be personalized to each individual farmer and their farm. Some farmers excel in collecting data from their fields but need help analyzing what is collected. Other farmers need support with the technology for data collection and like to take the lead on analyzing the data. Guo said when he works with industry partners or growers on research, each case looks different to provide the most effective support.

Dr. Guo’s students come to Texas Tech from across the globe, and use cotton as a launchpad for research in precision agriculture.

As Guo casually leans back, sharing his research, the sound of a door opening brings a smile to his face. In walk four students, all graduate students in Guo’s lab. From Nepal, Sudan and Nigeria, these students are using cotton as a launchpad for their research in precision agriculture. Many of the students choose to study cotton because of its impact on the local region.

“We know if we can solve the problems related to the main crop here, it’s going to boost the local economy; it’s going to help farmers,” said Oluwatola Adedeji, a doctoral student in PSS.

For many of these international students, cotton provides a platform to build a research interest and apply their findings across a multitude of crops and regions, opening the door for international collaboration and application. 

“The good thing is this technology, once you understand it, you can apply it to different crops,” Adedeji said. “So even though we’re using it here for cotton, we can still use the same principle for different crops. If I go home to Nigeria, I can still adopt use of these technologies.”

This same global research perspective is apparent across cotton research, especially in bioplastic research.

Cotton looks that could sell

Driving directly east of the Texas Tech campus, bustling college life fades into a sleepy downtown. Farther from campus, the area becomes industrial, with cotton gins and warehouses towering into the sky against the flat landscape. Passing Loop 289, a research institute dropped in the middle of a cotton field greets you.

The facility is Texas Tech’s Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute. Its overall goal is to add value to Texas-grown natural fibers by studying the products made from these natural fibers. Two major research areas are studied in the institute to serve this mission: biopolymers and cotton phenomics.

According to Julia Shamshina, Ph.D., an assistant professor in PSS who is based out of FBRI, cotton is nearly 95% cellulose, a biopolymer most often found in plant walls. When cellulose is extracted from cotton, products beyond textiles can be made, including wound care materials, medical delivery devices and bioplastic films. These products offer an environmentally friendly alternative to plastics and a new use for short, low-quality fibers.

Julia Shamshina, Ph.D., assistant professor, Plant and Soil Science.

Shamshina specializes in a renewable biopolymer named chitin, found in the outside shell of organisms like shrimp. Chitin and cellulose are very similar molecularly and are both used to create alternatives to synthetic plastics, a research interest for which Shamshina has won international awards.

“We produced 490 million metric tons of synthetic plastic in 2020,” Shamshina said. “Of that amount, 20% remains in the in the environment. This amount of plastic is expected to double by 2050 and quadruple by 2100 if we do nothing about it.”

For Shamshina, collaboration is a key component in contributing to incremental research. With a background in startups and private research, Shamshina said she sees the value of collaboration between these entities and public institutions like Texas Tech. Though she is new to the university, Shamshina looks forward to collaborating with graduate students, her peers at FBRI and outside entities like the USDA to contribute to biopolymer research.

At FBRI, one passes shelves of miniature cotton bales, cotton publications and industry artifacts. Through a set of double doors and a series of hallways, FBRI visitors enter a lab of a different style. Instead of microscopes, pipets and lab coats, various pieces of machinery tower overhead. As you walk through the Cotton Phenomics Laboratory, a micro gin, spinning machines and classing room, where cotton is tested for strength and quality, test cotton against the realities of manufacturing.

Brendan Kelly, Ph.D., assistant professor, Plant and Soil Science.

A phenotype is the set of observable characteristics from genes. For cotton, researching phenotypes includes studying fiber length, strength, color and thickness. Brendan Kelly, Ph.D., assistant professor at PSS and FBRI, is the director of the lab. For Kelly, who has a joint appointment with Texas Tech and Texas AgriLife Extension Service, collaboration is imperative.

“When we talk about my research in cotton,” he said, “we cannot talk about it without talking about the people and organizations who collaborate with me and make my research possible.”

Kelly is the first to give recognition to the researchers, students and technicians who make cotton phenomics research possible at FBRI. He said technicians who manage the lab spaces have specialized technical knowledge and skills essential to delivering high quality research.

“Our technicians can usually detect something faster than our statistics can,” Kelly said. “Every one of our technicians are 100% dedicated to getting these projects done and done well.”

Technicians at the FBRI specialize in how to use and maintain multiple pieces of machinery to prepare cotton for the spinning process.

Kelly and his team recognize cotton farmers’ roles in their research. They work to ensure their research remains relevant to farmers and the collaborative nature of their research is known.

“All of my research is funded by producers,” Kelly said. “I want to brag about it. I want everybody to know what the producers are investing in.”

One of the funding agents investing in the research completed in Kelly’s lab is Plains Cotton Grower’s Plains Cotton Improvement Project, a grower-funded project aimed to improve Texas High Plains cotton for upcoming generations. Without industry collaboration like PCIP, Texas Tech’s cotton research would lack the relationships that keep its research rooted in the field.

A cotton growing connection

On the other side of Lubbock, at 82nd Street and Aberdeen Avenue, sits Plains Cotton Growers. The organization is one of nine grower organizations in the state and serves cotton farmers or producers in the Texas High Plains.

Most days visitors find the office quiet. Instead of in the office, the staff at PCG have their boots on the ground, providing services to their members in the field, laboratory and event spaces.

For over 30 years, Shawn Wade has served growers through multiple roles at PCG. Currently, he is director of policy analysis and research.

“Our mission is to promote and protect the interests of our producers on the Texas High Plains, whether it be through legislative advocacy, service, promotion or research,” Wade said.

PCG acts as a conduit through which cotton producers’ needs are met, especially in research. As a funding agent for cotton research, the PCIP, facilitated by PCG, ensures research remains accessible to farmers who need applicable industry solutions.

Shawn Wade, director of policy analysis and research.

Through their own funding and funds from PCIP, PCG allocates nearly $1 million annually to fund local cotton research benefitting the industry at every level. Many of these dollars support research directly at Texas Tech. Wade said the research supported today is following the example of innovation and research set by the local cotton industry.

“We’re fortunate that High Plains cotton producers have always been innovative,” Wade said. “You have to be pretty cutting edge to want to grow crops out here.”

For a long time, growers have seen the importance of managing resources responsibly, which requires collaboration and innovation. PCG and the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District were both formed in 1956 by members of the agriculture industry seeking viable farming for future generations.

“The industry was wired for innovation,” Wade said. “They already knew they needed to have something in place to manage those resources.”

Today, the PCIP maintains the same grassroots approach when choosing how to allocate research funds with PCG’s help. PCG hosts advisory meetings year-round for industry professionals, extension personnel, cotton growers and researchers to meet and discuss all things cotton: prices, market trends, diseases, pests, politics and other industry topics.

Wade said these meetings provide regular opportunities for communication and collaboration between all stakeholders in the regional cotton industry. When they bring different industry perspectives together, PCG has a well-rounded, accurate picture of the industry.

“In any room of producers, you can find a guy who will talk to you about the problem he’s having today,” Wade said. “You can also go five feet to your left and find a guy that’s worried about what’s going to happen in 10 years because he already sees the handwriting on the wall for an upcoming issue.”

PCG, Wade said, prioritizes the grower perspective and believes industry feedback should come from the growers. They use a similar ground up, grower-first approach in their research strategy.

 “When you can get input from the grower level, that helps you focus on grower needs,” Wade said. “It helps us, from a research perspective, stay grounded, to make sure we’re still relevant and working on those issues producers need answers for.”

Not only does PCG get their guidance directly from producers, but they use the unique cotton grading system to guide their research allocation. Because of the variety of uses for cotton, it is graded by its quality: color, trash content and staple length. Their cotton’s grade determines the price of their crop. PCG invests in research that directly improves each of these areas to help farmers receive the best prices on their cotton.

“Because those end users demand a certain level of performance and certain criteria,” Wade said, “that’s how we measure the effectiveness of the research projects PCIP funds.”

Rooted in research

Any main highway out of Lubbock takes you to one of the many rural towns scattering the Texas High Plains connected by small town pride and agriculture. Here lies the true test of research effectiveness.

One of these West Texas towns is Plainview, Texas, the home of Glen Schur, local farmer and active member of the Texas Tech research community. In his eyes, cotton is a unique crop in the way it is grown, defoliated and harvested and is similar to the livestock he has raised.

“Cotton in West Texas is like raising sheep,” he said. “Sheep were born into the world to try and find a place to die. Cotton is planted and is trying to die. You’re trying everything to get it to live. Then, after it gets so big, we spend all our money try to keep it killed.”

Similarly, Schur said cotton is graded like cattle, on a standardized grading system measuring quality. Even under very similar conditions, there is much variability in cotton grades.

“Cotton is just like steers,” he said. “You can feed them exactly the same thing and they’ll hang completely different grades.”

Schur understands the importance of research in the cotton industry to combat challenges like these. He said he is willing to help give a grower’s perspective to ensure research remains relevant to agriculture.

“I’m a cotton producer,” Schur said. “If you want to come to my farm, I don’t have anything I’m ashamed to show you. I will show you everything you want, and you can do anything you want to within reason.”

From a producer’s perspective, Schur said he sees value in innovation and research. Throughout his farming career, research has brought specific innovations like genetically modified, Roundup resistant and Dicamba resistant varieties. Most importantly, these innovations improved farmers’ yields.

“From the time I started farming until about the last 10 years,” Schur said, “every time we planted a crop, we were always increasing our yield. I mean, we were advancing. We were keeping up with the cost of production.”

Most importantly, Schur said management decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. When research is being implemented, farmers should look to the research and choose the findings that are most applicable to their operation by taking location, crop rotations and other factors into consideration.

“Some will tell me, ‘You just need to no-till [farm],’” Schur said. “It may be applicable on their farm, but they don’t always know what my story is to be giving that advice.”

Schur’s operation and the cotton farming operations across the Texas High Plains are reminders of who cotton research at Texas Tech serves and where it should be conducted and applied. 

Heading back to Lubbock from Plainview, the West Texas sun sinks low, painting the plains with a golden swath. The warm light highlights fields of cotton bringing life to the region. Cotton – the livelihood of the Texas High Plains – is what research at Texas Tech is supporting.

Cotton research is a discipline funded by producers to protect the viability of farming on the Texas High Plains. As a main contributor to the region’s economy, it is vital we invest in cotton research to sustain this industry’s future in the region. 

As it has for the last century, cotton will remain an integral part of Texas Tech and the Texas High Plains. Looking to the next 100 years, it is the duty of researchers, industry and producers to continue the tradition of collaboration and uphold the spirit of innovation in Texas-grown cotton. From here, the future of cotton is possible.