Texas A&M AgriLife is gaining new ground to conduct research in the South Plains, thanks to the generosity of Dolle Barker.
Barker, born in Lubbock and raised near the new research farm, said she moved away and spent over 35 years as an agronomist. She also served as the owner of an ag input company in Colorado that provided both ground and aerial custom chemical and fertilizer applications. When she returned to her family land, she knew one thing: there had been such a change in everything, especially the quality of the soil and the available water. And she is determined to change that.
Through a multiyear agreement, Barker has granted Texas A&M AgriLife personnel access to the Cochran County property, to be known as the Barker Research Farm, to conduct regenerative research on irrigated and nonirrigated cropland.
“We’re excited and thankful to Dolle for allowing us to take our research from the lab to the field and being able to engage with our stakeholders and continue to develop relationships within the community,” Stephen Cisneros, Texas A&M AgriLife Research associate director of operations and development, Bryan-College Station, said.
The project will involve both AgriLife Research and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service personnel from the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Lubbock, according to Kerry Siders, AgriLife Extension integrated pest management agent in Hockley, Cochran and Lamb counties.
New research acreage
Siders said Barker contacted him about allowing Texas A&M AgriLife to conduct long-term research and educational programs on an approximately 200-acre farm just east of Morton. The farm currently has 156 acres under center pivot irrigation, 34 acres in subsurface drip irrigation, and about 40 acres of nonirrigated corners.
A group of Texas A&M AgriLife experts has already met to discuss research possibilities for the farm. They included Jane Dever, Ph.D., associate center director and AgriLife Research cotton breeder; Katie Lewis, Ph.D., AgriLife Research soil chemistry and fertility researcher; Wayne Keeling, Ph.D., AgriLife Research cropping systems and weed specialist; Terry Wheeler, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension plant pathologist; and Will Keeling, AgriLife Extension risk management program specialist, all from Lubbock, and Craig Bednarz, Ph.D., a crop physiologist who has a dual appointment with AgriLife Research and West Texas A&M University in Canyon.
After the current cotton crop is harvested, Texas A&M AgriLife personnel will begin conducting field projects. A weather station has already been put in place. The High Plains Water District will measure and log the current wells on the property, and preliminary soil sampling has been conducted to evaluate the health of the farm.
“Our research scientists’ primary goal is to determine and communicate solutions to key issues producers are facing across the South Plains region before the problem results in a profitability decline,” Cisneros said.
“The Barker Research Farm will provide us an opportunity to develop regionally specific management practices aimed at optimizing production, conserving nonrenewable natural resources, and improving the longevity of farming operations,” Siders said.
Cotton farming needs to change
Upon returning to the South Plains, Barker invested with her business partner, Curtis Griffith, in Willingham Southwest Cotton Gin, purchased Module Truck Systems, and built her company, Grey Hare Analytics. Barker said she decided she wanted to do some research because she knew the conventional tillage farming practices utilized for years were not beneficial to the ecosystem or the farmer.
“If we are going to remain cotton farmers and retain the ability to maintain that way of life, we have to do something different,” she said. “There are so many practices producers would like to look at, but they can’t forego profits for an experiment in any year. I am fortunate that I don’t have to depend on the income off of this land, so I thought if I donated it, we could allow the Texas A&M AgriLife scientists to create restorative projects out here to discover how to farm today within this ecosystem.”
Barker said that won’t be all organic, it won’t be a monoculture, and it will be regenerative.
“It will be focused on cotton because that is what we do best,” she said. “But there will be other practices that we can use to improve the soil. We can take what Mother Nature provides and feed it with new nutrients through alternate rotational cropping systems, including livestock rotation.”
Cotton today has so many different genetic traits stacked. Every time another one is stacked, some plant vigor is lost, Barker said, causing a yield drag.
“Maybe there are some chemical resistance traits we can pull off and make it a stronger plant with greater drought tolerance. We have irrigation, but you can’t grow a crop solely on irrigation. We have to make the best use of every drop of water, whether irrigation or rainfall. Maybe we need to include mob grazing. Maybe we only water in the mornings. We want to look at a wide variety of practices to see what benefits they provide.”
Barker said they will “take everything we’ve learned from no-till, minimum till, organics and put them all together. We’ll look at carbon sequestration credits and other things we can incorporate with these cropping systems. We can do a lot of things here that can make a difference.”
After several meetings, the research team has determined goals for the property:
•Demonstrate and quantify the impact of regenerative farming practices on carbon capture, greenhouse gas emissions, soil health, and water use and availability.
•Test the performance of commercially available cotton varieties in large, replicated trials.
•Evaluate strategies to overcome weed, disease and insect pests.
•Determine variety performance in a challenging environment.
•Determine the production efficiency of cropping systems to maintain economic sustainability.
Steve Harris, the farm manager employed by Barker, will do the large tractor work, while researchers will conduct small-plot planting and harvesting. Most of the research work will be planting large plot systems and rotation efforts, though, Siders said.
There will be a local steering committee composed of Siders, Barker and Harris, who also represents Lone Star Module Hauling and is a local farmer; Scotty Simpson with Frontier Valley, Todd Willingham with Willingham Southwest Cotton Gin; David Holland, AgriLife Extension agriculture and natural resources agent in Cochran County; and additional producers.
Planning for the long-term future
In addition to an advisory board of farmers, other agricultural industries will invest time and effort into Barker Research Farm, including Capital Farm Credit, High Plains Water District, Plains Cotton Growers, Horizon Builders, Frontier Valley Inc., and Semi-Arid Agricultural Systems Institute.
Barker said all the research projects will be written about and posted at the gin office so that any producer can pick up the information to see what is going on and learn as things are happening.
“It’s brought a lot of hope and excitement to Cochran County,” Barker said. “We will learn a lot not only here locally, but maybe learn things that can help other places that have a similar ecosystem.”
She said her family has agreed that they are committed to allowing the land to be utilized for research for the next 30 or more years, so the projects can continue to evolve, and the learning will be long-term.