12 Jan Growing Food in Cotton Country
By Vikram Baliga
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Lubbock County
Lubbock, Texas is a city of approximately 250,000, nestled in the heart of the Southern High Plains of Texas about 30 miles west of the edge of the Caprock Escarpment. This fascinating geological formation, which sits more than 3,000 feet above sea level, stretches 200 miles from northeast to southwest, and towers as much as 1,000 feet above the rolling Texas plains to the east is home to and endless sea of prairie grasses, more than a million souls, and a robust agricultural economy. The “South Plains,” as the 24-county region surrounding Lubbock is affectionately called, harvested nearly 3.4 million acres of cotton in 2016, with an overall economic impact (including the harvested crop and related industries) of $4 billion. In fact, on good years the South Plains accounts for around 25% of the total U.S. cotton crop and is one of the top cotton-producing regions in the world.
Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) in an interesting crop for semi-arid northwest Texas. Despite being in the mallow family (think hibiscus) and biologically a perennial in some parts of the world (think Brazil), cotton is grown as a surprisingly drought tolerant annual crop, meeting its water requirements with between 25 and 30 inches of total irrigation. Part of this requirement is met by the region’s 18-20 inches of average annual rainfall, the remainder made up by irrigation water pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the most expansive on the planet. Aquifer recharge rates can be slow in the area and irrigation technologies and practices have improved by leaps and bounds in terms of efficiency over the past 25 years as part of an effort to maintain both productivity and long-term water resources.
While the good soils and open spaces of the South Plains lend themselves well to large-scale, row crop style agricultural production systems, there are an increasing number of growers and producers interested in various horticultural crops. While the climate certainly is semi-arid, the commonly held misconception that food crops won’t grow in the Lubbock area could not be farther from the truth. Everything from squash to pomegranates to grapes can be grown and grown well throughout the region. In fact, Terry County, directly south of Lubbock, was recently named the “grape capital of Texas,” with several thousand acres of wine grapes already in production and more on the way. Despite the relatively short growing season and sometimes harsh climate, both food and fiber are viable crop options for the South Plains.
One of the entry barriers to food production seems to be a lack of general knowledge and comfort throughout the region with food production practices and means of making such operations profitable. In response, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Lubbock County has been working with local and regional producers to improve productivity and efficiency, identify new, high value crops for the area, and research effective and sustainable practices. In recent years, research into high tunnel production has been a major emphasis in Lubbock. As a result of research conducted on the production of strawberries, blackberries, tomatoes, cut flowers, and other high value horticultural products, new local products are becoming available to the consumer at farmers’ markets and other local venues as more and more growers expand into new and different crops and niches.
Ultimately, the goal of AgriLife Extension is to educate everyone from the producer to the consumer about current research, science, best management practices, and ideas in agriculture, horticulture, health, and wellness. Project Feed 1010 provides a great model and opportunity to help address several of those goals. While aquaponics may not be at the forefront of production practice, it is an excellent outlet for teaching students about ecosystems, agricultural design, food production, animal husbandry, nutrition, much more. These students will be the growers, producers, and consumers of tomorrow and providing them with a high-quality education in science and an appreciation for the processes and work that go into feeding them will make them better citizens and more conscientious about the world that grows around them. Hopefully, new, sustainable, and innovative methods of production will always be at the forefront of agricultural research, with the hard-working producers and innovators on the South Plains leading the charge.
For more information on research and educational efforts in the area, visit Lubbock.tamu.edu and Lubbock.agrilife.org.