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Kirk Martin: Young Farmer Here to Stay

Fifty-nine years and five generations later, the Martins have maintained their family namesake. They continue to be stewards of the land almost six decades after their patriarch began to farm. Since 1961, the Martin family has farmed in different areas of land in Terry County, Texas. Today, the youngest of the bunch, 25-year-old Kirk Martin, is continuing the family tradition.   

It would be really hard for me to figure out what to do if I wasn’t a farmer, because I can’t see myself doing anything else. 

Kirk Martin

What was once a past time for Martin has now become a way of life. Born into a farming family, Martin recalls some of the earliest memories as a five-year-old spending time with his dad in a tractor or in a field. 

“Sometimes, I would get bored and antsy just sitting in there,” Martin said. “So my dad would get me down, and I would sit in the middle of the field and play in the holes until he finished up.”

As he grew older, Martin said he went from riding in the tractor, to driving it alone, experiencing the long days and hard work he would encounter himself in the years to come.  

“It would be really hard for me to figure out what to do if I wasn’t a farmer,” Martin said, “because I can’t see myself doing anything else.” 

In 2016, he had the opportunity to pick up some land, so he decided to return to the farm and start producing his own crop. Through mentorship and partnership, Martin has helped grow Martin Family Farms. Five years after his first crop, Martin continues to farm alongside his father and older brother, both whom he credits for his success. Martin said he attributes his grandfather as the sole pioneer who kick-started the family farm. 

“Working with family is always hard,” Martin said, “but I greatly appreciate having my dad, my brother and my grandpa, because without them I would be no where near where I am today.” 

As a young farmer, Martin believes he is receptive of new innovations and technological advances within the farming industry. Understanding the importance and need of technology and sustainability on the farm, he stays informed on such systems that allow for farming to be more profitable and efficient. 

Martin said his father had learned about different methods of water conservation and soon after decided to take on a project with the help of both of his sons. They built a water harvest system that would filter rainwater that sat on the top of their barn roof. The system collects fallen rainwater, filters it and stores it. The Martins then use the harvested water to spray their crop. 

“We had drilled a well, and there was no water in there; barely enough water to run toilet and sink,” Martin said, “so we had to figure out a way to harvest some water.”

The Martin’s rainwater harvest system is placed along the top of their 19,000 square foot barn roof along with the filtration system running along the sides of the barn. Martin said they are able to supply up to 30,000 gallons of reusable water with only two and a half inches of rainfall. 

While he stays up to date on different farming technologies and innovations, Martin also has developed interest in agricultural policy. He acknowledges the importance of technology on the farm, and on the media, which in most instances, is politically centered. Several years back, Martin was encouraged to join the West Texas Young Farmers Association, by then-president and fellow Terry County farmer, Mason Becker. In March, Martin was elected as the association’s newest president.

“Kirk is a great young man and he has always had a passion for promoting agriculture,” Becker said. “He has been heavily involved in the West Texas Young Farmers Association for several years and I am confident that he will lead the group in a good direction.”

The West Texas Young Farmers Association works to not only inform young farmers on issues surrounding agriculture, but also to implement positive change within the farming community, whether by sharing information with non-agricultural audiences, giving scholarships to high school students, or collaborating and learning from other producers.

Over the course of several years, the association has strengthened its once loosened ties. Starting as the Terry County Young Farmers Association several decades ago, sons of those who were once members decided to start the association up again. Becker said he hopes that the new leadership understands the difference they can make in the community and across the nation.

“It is my hope that the association continues to educate as many people as possible to what it takes to become a farmer in West Texas,” Becker said. 

Martin said he was interested in joining because Becker explained to him that the only way for his voice to be heard was to get involved.

“I liked being involved from the get-go because I realized that I could be the voice of change in some way or another,” Martin said. 

The association will occasionally meet with congressmen, state representatives and other political figures, to discuss their relevant issues and address questions and concerns. Although the association’s primary goal is not focused on informing the public on policy, they still share information from time to time and stay in touch with members of the community through social media.

“Facebook has been our way to communicate with the public,” Martin said, “and on Instagram we try to share the images of others to not only promote, but also share knowledge that other people might benefit from.” 

Martin said he hopes audiences outside of agriculture will benefit from the association’s efforts on social media. 

The young farmer believes that staying involved and staying informed are ways to share and pass on knowledge and constitute change.

“If we can use our platform to inform and teach others, why wouldn’t we?” he said.

Where the Grass Grows Greener

The researchers will utilize a drone, equip with various sensors, in hopes of identifying the optimum sensor to detect drought stress on turfgrass. Golf courses in the Lubbock area provide economic benefit to the region according to the projects lead researcher, Joey Young Ph. D.

A situation is playing out in the Texas Panhandle and local golf courses are feeling the heat. During the end of 2017 and into early 2018, the region has gone through an extreme drought, and the main source of groundwater has been in rapid decline for over a decade. Two Texas Tech University faculty members are gearing up to tackle the water issue.

Although an afternoon on the golf course sounds like a fun way to spend the day, for Joey Young, Ph.D. and Wenxuan Guo, Ph.D., two assistant professors in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, it is an opportunity to solve overwatering of recreational turfgrass.

With the region in an extreme drought and the Ogallala Aquifer at risk of total depletion, golf courses like the Rawls Course at Texas Tech are under pressure, said course superintendent, Rodnie Bermea.

“Golf courses use a lot of water,” Bermea said. “In times of drought, it’s especially hard to water all areas of the properly and efficiently. We can end up using more water than we need to, which costs us money and hurts our water supply.”

According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, turf requires an average of 25 to 60 inches of water annually, depending on climate, to maintain a healthy appearance. This is one reason some argue golf courses are wasteful. However, Young, an assistant professor of turfgrass science, sees it differently.

It’s more than a tee time

“There’s definitely a perception that golf courses and turfgrass are something that’s basically a waste of a lot of water, and therefore unnecessary,” Young said. “But that’s just not the case. Courses provide a big economic benefit for cities like Lubbock.”

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[Left to Right] Joey Young Ph. D., and Wenxuan Guo Ph. D., discuss plans for their turfgrass research at the Rawls Golf Course as the drone waits, ready for takeoff.
Young argues tournaments and other events hosted at courses like the Rawls impact the local economy by bringing people into the city who utilize local businesses. A sentiment echoed by Bermea.

“Tournaments aren’t only beneficial to the Rawls course, ” Bermea said. “They help everyone. There are the obvious businesses that benefit directly from visitors to the golf course, like hotels, restaurants and all that. But there’s a trickle-down effect on the economy that just can’t be understated.”

While it is apparent golf courses use a lot of water, Young and Guo have devised a plan that could help not only the drought-stricken Lubbock area, but could impact courses around the country and the world.

“Water is our No. 1 limiting resource,” said Guo, an assistant professor of crop ecophysiology and precision agriculture. “Everyone knows the Ogallala Aquifer is depleting at a rapid rate. So, we need to figure out how to save the water or use the water more wisely, more efficiently. This is important from both an economic and social perspective.”

Driving with the drone

Guo said it is not only important to save water for the next generation, but also to conserve water for conventional agriculture production. With a grant provided by the United States Golf Association, the two researchers have developed an experiment with the potential to allow more accurate water allocation on golf courses.

Courses provide a big economic benefit for cities like Lubbock.

“Our goal is to utilize drones and different sensors that will be attached to the drones to collect imagery that could basically determine areas of drought stress on a golf course,” Young said. “The overall purpose would be to utilize various sensors that may give us different information.”

Once these optimal sensors are identified, they could be utilized by golf courses to identify drought stress, potentially before it is even visible to the human eye, Young said. This technology would be used by course managers to adjust irrigation from areas that stay wetter to areas that tend to dry out more. This will ultimately help lower water usage on the golf course and achieve more balanced playing conditions.

“If this technology could allow us to see an area that’s dryer or an area that’s wetter we would be able to water those areas more efficiently,” Bermea said. “We could create a more sustainable irrigation program that would be environmentally beneficial and save us money.”

Simply lowering the golf courses irrigation by 10 to 15 percent would be a huge financial saving for the Rawls, Bermea said.

The research is being conducted at the Rawls Golf Course as well as the Amarillo Country Club, which use different kinds of turfgrass. The varying sensors will give a broader picture of how cool season and warm season turfgrasses handle drought stress.

Young says ultimately he hopes to identify sensors to address specific issues on golf courses and would then like to share that information with course managers around the country. But, it is not just golf courses that may be reaping the benefit of his research.

A put for all mankind

In tandem with the research being conducted on Lubbock and Amarillo golf courses, Guo will also be utilizing the drone and sensor technology to look at lowering water usage in conventional agriculture.

“My area of research is in crop ecophysiology and precision agriculture,” Guo said. “I will be using drones to identify the crop growth variability in fields, within the same season. So, before the final yield at the end of the season, we can look at how the plants are growing and adjust irrigation and other imputes to minimize resource use.”

He said even though different plants sometimes require different methods to study, all plants show drought stress in the same way.

Just like the work being done on the courses, Guo hopes to utilize drone imagery to identify areas of drought stress in crops like corn, cotton and sorghum.

“It has become increasingly important to conserve our water,” Guo said. “The water in our area has been diminishing much faster than originally expected, and we don’t know what our water supply will look like in 20 years. Our whole economy is driven by an adequate water supply, so that makes it urgent.”

This joint research endeavor to ultimately lower water usage in West Texas could have a lasting impact on the region, through improving sustainability and protecting the economic stability of golf courses and conventional agriculture practices. But Young hopes their research will have an even greater impact.

“It’s important to us that we are doing what’s right for our region,” Young said. “But bigger than that I want to communicate our findings to the scientific community in hopes that the information can be shared with course superintendents around the world. For my research to have that kind of reach and impact communities around the world would be the ultimate reward.”

Understanding Agricultural Water Use and Conservation

Johnson, Evan (Photographer). (2018). A center-pivot sprinkler system at sunset in West Texas irrigates a cotton field. [photograph].

Water in Texas 

Water is undoubtedly one of the most important resources in Texas. The state of Texas has attempted to solve water shortages for over fifty years with many different water plans. Though many Texans know water preservation is critical, the methods to conserve water are hotly debated. However, farmers cannot produce the food and fiber you need to eat and wear without access to sufficient water.

According to a report by the Texas Water Resources Institute, annual estimated water use in Texas totaled 16.2 million acre-feet in 2009, with about 57 percent used for agricultural irrigation. With a large amount of water being used in agriculture, it is important to understand individual’s attitudes on irrigation and then work to spread accurate information. It is widely believed policy measures that support water saving irrigation methods will make water more available for cities and environmental issues; however, little has been done to test these ideas.

Pivot
A center-pivot sprinkler system at sunset in West Texas irrigates a cotton field. Photo Credit: Evan Johnson

Water Conservation

As standards of living continue to increase, water consumption also rises and available water diminishes. As a society, it is important to understand that we must also take responsibility and action in conserving water. In addition to farmers, many cities and power plants must think about conservation in industrial uses.

Water planners hope the drought of 2011 is enough initiative to make changes in the lack of major investment in water infrastructure. The public’s support, your support, is imperative to creating proposals, and getting constituents involved in resolving water shortages while allowing farmers to have access to the water they need.

Aspects including water supply regulations, changes in climate, and increased population growth have intensified the search for methods to help conserve water in irrigated agriculture, as agriculture is the world’s largest user of water. Texas requires an effective water plan for reasons like recent droughts and predictions that the number of people living in the state in 2060 would reach 46 million.

Field
Bones and debris rest among dead grass in a field. Photo Credit: Evan Johnson

What You Can Do

Though the drought has served as the push companies needed to innovate, lawmakers’ involvement is essential in obtaining funds and encouraging conservation. However, there are many issues in water resource development and regulation in Texas, and pressure for progress is growing.

Society is beginning to understand that we also must take responsibility and action in conserving water. So, it is extremely important to communicate information on water use and preservation to consumers that may be uninformed. Educating the consumers will hopefully result in personal water conservation and an interest in Texas water policy and legislation.

Pump rig
Johnson, Evan (Photographer). (2017). A pump rig replaces a submersible well. [photograph].

Why Water is Important for Agriculture

According to the United Nations, the world population is anticipated to grow from 8.3 billion in 2030 and to 9.1 billion in 2050. By 2030, food demand is predicted to increase by 50 percent, and 70 percent by 2050.

Every living creature needs water and food to survive and thrive. Water is necessary to producing food. A farmer’s role is to produce food while actively working to preserve water. The public’s role is to become educated and involved in pressuring lawmakers to work toward a solution that will allow farmers to have access to plenty of water while planning for future water security.

So today, educate yourself about agricultural water use then share why it is so important for farmers to not be cut off from this critical resource with someone who might not know.

To learn more about water use in Texas and how you can get involved, visit the below links:

http://www.cropsreview.com/importance-of-water.html

http://www.twdb.texas.gov/waterplanning/waterusesurvey/index.asp

https://www.texastribune.org/2017/05/30/water-update/

Underground Livestock: Reaching New Depths in Soil Health

RN Hopper showcases his healthy soils as a result of the no-till and other conservation practices he and his father have implemented since 2004.
RN Hopper showcases his healthy soils as a result of the no-till and other conservation practices he and his father have implemented since 2004.

Just north of Petersburg, in the High Plains of West Texas, lies what seems to be dry, unmanaged fields. The surface is cracked from the heat, and corn cobs from the past harvest litter the fields. But what actually lies in RN Hopper’s fields is anything but dry and unkempt. Beneath the surface is a world breaming with life and a future in sustainable agriculture.

Hopper Graduated from Texas Tech University in 2000 with a degree in agronomy. He came home to work with his dad, Ronnie Hopper, and together started Harmony Farms in 2004.

Hopper’s passion for farming and the land led to an understanding of the soil beneath the surface and how it can provide for him and the land in the future. This understanding was garnered from both his college education as well as an informative experience at a No-Till on the Plains conference in Kansas.

The main goal of Harmony Farms was to take what Hopper had learned and put no-till conservation practices into action.

“A lot of times when people start down the no-till road, they don’t seem to have success with it because they don’t have a diverse rotation,” Hopper said. “You have to have a very diverse rotation of crops; as many species as possible. For the most part, it won’t work over an extended period of time if you’re just cotton after cotton after cotton.”

Hopper’s fields cycle cotton one out of every three years. He follows cotton with wheat, wheat with corn, and corn with cotton. He said no-till practices are very much about getting a bacterial-dominant soil back to a fungal-dominant soil, which is done by ceasing tillage.

“We’re trying to return some of the structure to the soil,” Hopper said. “It’s impossible to build organic matter if you’re oxygenating the soil with tillage because it immediately gets consumed by the microflora, once it is gone, their populations crash.”

Hopper said a healthy soil has the equivalent microbial biomass of three to five beef cattle units per acre. That is a tremendous biomass that must be fed, and the currency of nature is carbon.

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RN Hopper holds the end of a 6 ft pole inserted into his no-till field. No-till fields are composed of compact, healthy fields soils that can hold 75 percent of rainwater.

“So, if you’re not cycling that carbon slowly and naturally into your soil, you don’t have anything to steadily feed that underground livestock,” Hopper said. “And if they’re not being fed, they die. And if they die, they’re not helping to make nutrients more available or doing the thousands of other things that they do.”

Hopper said these “underground livestock” are billions of microscopic organisms that live under the soil. They feed off carbon that comes from recycled organic material. In doing so, they help create healthy soil for future crop seasons.

However, cover crops and no-till are not just about returning carbon back into the soil. John Zak, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech, said he has been working with RN for three years conducting research on microbial health and manipulation.

“Really what we’re trying to understand is how soil can do certain things in terms of productivity if you manage it,” Zak said. “They have their own microbiome the same way humans do. So, the question is, how do you manage that microbiome, and what are the consequences of managing practices to the functionality of that microbiome?”

Zak said the microbiome in soil is what directly contributes to crop yield. He attributes healthy soil to a healthy microflora. One determining factor that makes soil healthy is lowering the variability in daily temperature range, or DTR, which is the difference between how hot and cold soil gets in a 24-hour period. Zak took this idea to Big Bend National Park before using it in Hopper’s fields.

“We decreased solar input (on the soils).,” Zak said. “What that does is raise the night time temperature a little bit because the soils don’t dissipate as much heat, but they don’t heat up as much during the day. You decrease DTR by about three to four degrees centigrade.”

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RN Hopper pulls back the trash from past season’s corn harvest to show the cover no-till practices provide for the soil. Using practices like no-till and cover crops keeps the daily temperature range (DTR) minimal to develop healthier soils and microflora.

What was showed from the lowering of DTR in the soil, Zak said, is that microbial activity in soils can increase without any change in soil moisture by about 30 percent. He explained that one of the reasons deserts are deserts isn’t because of lack of moisture: it’s because of DTR.

Zak said the results from these experiments meant farmers could create healthier soils and higher yields without irrigating more than they were already.

Hopper said no-till has greatly increased water infiltration and holding capacity in his fields.

“(The fields) probably catch 70-80 percent of the rain,” Hopper said. “But, if you have something that’s conventionally tilled, there’s probably some of the times of the year they’re only catching 30-35 percent to be used by the plants and the rest is going to runoff or evaporate.”

Hopper said he and his father did not start irrigating last season’s cotton crop until the first week of August.

“I think we’re barely tapping the potential of what we already have,” Hopper said. “Most people argue no-till is worth 5 inches of water. I would argue that it’s considerably more than that. We have the ability to get to a point, hopefully, where we can consistently capture 75-85 percent of the rainfall and get it to the root zone. And in the worst conditions, the 35 percent zone. In my opinion, it’s usually a 5- to 8-inch advantage.”

Hopper said that cover crops or residue from the past season act as armor for the soil surface. and trash from past seasons acts as a barrier to the soil. When rain falls, the impact is busted on the cover crop and then drains into the soil.

“If it rains in permanent grass, the water doesn’t run out,” Hopper said. “It all goes into the ground. You’ve got mulch cover and grass to deflect the impact of the raindrops. You only see soil uncovered in two cases, shifting landscapes or a desert. But, you won’t see any other natural landscape that’s not covered in plants. You won’t ever find anything clean tilled in nature. If there’s nothing above ground, there’s nothing to feed what’s below ground. Most, if not all, of the benefits of no-till come from that mulch cover.”

I can see a future in farming without irrigation, but I can’t see a future without a healthy soil. RN Hopper

However, Hopper said this whole process has been a challenge and a good learning curve.

“By 2006, we were committed to continuous no-till. There was a lot of steep learning curves, and there’s not a lot of people out here that do it,” Hopper said. “And so, we made plenty of mistakes and continued to make mistakes, but we’ve never had enough trouble with it to deter us from staying on the path.”

Hopper said he believes that the future of agriculture in the United States and West Texas lies in no-till practices.

“I can see a future in farming with no irrigation, but I can’t see a future without a healthy soil,” Hopper said. “I don’t know everything, and I’m definitely not right about everything, but I know there’s not a best way to do anything, but only better ways, and that’s the very definition of progress.”

At the end of the day, all Hopper does for his fields is because of his love and passion for farming and the land, he said.

“People refer to crop production as yield: it’s what you get at the end of the day, but, really, it’s what nature has yielded to you,” Hopper said. “So, I guess what I love most about being a farmer is trying to be the best steward of what God has given us that I can be. And that’s the challenge and that’s what keeps me excited about each coming year, and that’s what gets me up in the morning — just the hope of what might be yielded to us at the end.”

Texas Alliance for Water Conservation Reaches out to Farmers

TAWC President Glenn Schur and his son Layton Schur on their farm located in Plainview Texas.
TAWC President Glenn Schur and his son Layton Schur on their farm located in Plainview Texas.

The Texas Alliance for Water Conservation is working to help farmers utilize technology to conserve underground water. The TAWC project was made possible through a grant received by Texas Tech University from the Texas Water Development Board.

According to Rick Kellison, Texas Tech alumnus and TAWC project director, TAWC members are gaining recognition and raising awareness by holding meetings and field walks throughout the year. These events cater to producers but also involve many agricultural companies who help extend their reach.

“When we were trying to find a location for the Water College,” Kellison said, “we asked ourselves, ‘Where do we need to take people to help them most?’ In Lubbock, we could entice a larger audience from a larger area.”

On Jan. 18, the TAWC held their third annual meeting at the Lubbock Civic Center and attracted around 200 area farmers.

Kellison said the organization’s goal for these outreach efforts is to put technology in growers’ hands, do their best to support them through training and answering questions, and let them evaluate the value of these efforts to their farming operation. He said the producers keep detailed records for the TAWC and, in turn, they compile an economic analysis on each site involved in the project for the farmer.

“Helping doesn’t cost us anything,” Kellison said. “Just a little sweat. It’s a situation where there is no silver bullet and no one size fits all. Different producers have different comfort levels with technology.”

Glenn Schur, TAWC president, said they have some of the best raw data from different crop varieties.

“We’ve never gone in as a board and told the farmers they need to plant this or this,” Schur said. “Whatever they want to plant, we will look at it.”

Kellison said he believes the organization is making a significant impact and producers view the TAWC as an unbiased source of information.

“We are not pushing one technology over another one,” Kellison said. “We tell growers the difference in technologies, but we don’t tell them which one we think they should use or which we think is better. All we are trying to do is make producers aware that there are different technology’s there, and we believe regardless of what the farmer uses, as simple or as complicated as it can be, as long as they are using something to help them manage their water, it’s better than using nothing.”

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