American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
Jamie Blythe stands atop a red-clay knob one August afternoon. As this is Alabama, the humidity and the temperature blend into the 90s. Even the cicadas buzzing in the background are hot. Corn and soybeans trace the roll of the hill down past a finger of hardwoods and onto a flat bottom. It's a pretty view of Blythe Cotton Co.–3,600 acres of red clay and sandy loams, where no plow has touched its soils in more than two decades. "It is home, a family member," Jamie says of this place where she grew up. "It takes care of us, just as we take care of it."
A day with Jamie Blythe is a day spent constantly losing her. Consider the trail she blazes around on her John Deere 4730 as she prepares a formulation of the growth regulator Pix to treat a cotton field several miles away. At one moment, she steps across the rig's upper walkway. A videographer looks away, looks back. She's gone, only to find her at ground level clipping a water line onto the sprayer's bulk tank. She yanks to life a pump with a pull of its rope on her way to a ladder that carries her up into the sprayer cab. There's not a usable, unblurred frame of video taken during that entire ballet.
Jamie is everywhere at once. But, she wasn't always here. After graduating from The University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1999 with a natural resources degree, she found the family farm could not support another salary. She moved west to California and Colorado, where, as an emergency medical technician, she performed vertical rescues roped to the sides of sheer cliffs.
She came home to help with planting or harvest. The commutes became much longer when she moved to Alaska, and those "every-once-in-awhile" trips evolved into an Alaska-to-Alabama commute every two or three weeks. By 2012, she was home for good.
"I traveled all over the United States, trying to find a place that felt like home. But, none of it could quite duplicate the feeling of living here," Jamie says.
Blythe Cotton Co. lives a long stone's throw from the Tennessee River, in northwest Alabama, near Town Creek. For 100 years, it produced only cotton. "The land responded accordingly to monocrop farming and plowing," Jamie says. Organic matter levels tumbled in soils deteriorated by erosion.
Jamie and her father, James, are business partners. She gives credit to him for putting the farm back onto a sustainable track with no-till. "The land can withstand drought 10 days to two weeks longer than when it was plowed, she claims. "This land under no-till is more forgiving."
When timely rains fell over these soils in 2017, magic happened. Blythe Cotton Co. averaged 223-bushel corn. "For this part of the world, that's great," Jamie says. The cotton crop yielded 2Â¼ bales per acre. Full-season soybeans hit 72 bushels per acre. Winter wheat topped 100 bushels.
Jamie manages soils under a three-year rotation of corn followed by cotton, then wheat and double-crop soybeans. She puts out cover crops, too. "We try to maintain a healthy ecosystem, to have something growing on our soils 12 months out of the year," she says.
Cattle are the most suitable crop produced on some of Blythe Cotton's Co.'s less-crop-worthy soils. These pastures support one cow to 2 acres. After a difficult struggle with anaplasmosis, Jamie is rebuilding her herd–Angus-Holstein heifers with horned Hereford bulls–to about 60 to 70 animals.
"We put our row crops where it is appropriate and put the rest of the ground into pastureland," she says. "We haven't maximized the per-acre return on that land. We'd like to open more of our fields to fall and winter grazing."
Jamie's crop-management practices stand atop a progressive precision-technology platform. "It's [been] a massive journey of trial and error since we first jumped into the precision-technology ocean [in 2007]."
In the decade since, Blythe Cotton Co. has incorporated RTK (Real-Time Kinematic), variable-rate fertilizer and seeding, and, more recently, variable-rate application of growth regulators for cotton into her zone-management practices. She added a hydraulic downforce system to one planter to control seeding depth. She also purchased satellite images and drone time to help her write prescriptions for cotton growth regulator, cotton defoliant and wheat sidedress applications.
Jamie expects satellite and drone imagery will become increasingly central to her agronomic management strategies. Both are actionable–she can identify an issue and address it.
"[Zone management is] the hallmark of our operation," Jamie says. "We have so much diversity within our fields due to soil type, topography, a lot of microenvironments. We manage a field not just as one entity but several entities across changing ground."
Zone management is cutting input costs–Jamie uses the word, "slashed"–while maintaining a net profit on even less productive ground. "If we can maximize how we put out our inputs, maximize our inputs and our labor force, that's what is going to keep us in business."
Zone management does not replace, what her father calls, "boots on the ground." It is ground-truthing data.
"If I don't get over every field, every acre, every year, I don't have as good an idea with what's going on in my crop," Jamie says. That boots-on-the-ground approach is timeless. "If you're not out there on that ground, you don't know for sure if the data you are getting are accurate."
In all disclosure, Jamie also puts "running shoes" onto the ground. A passerby might see Jamie scouting her fields from the lanes and roads of her farm at a full run, little clouds of red dust rising behind her.