STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

North Alabama farmers, scientists working to save cotton’s future

Scientists in Huntsville are ready to teach this old plant some new tricks.

Posted: Mar 16, 2020 8:13 PM
Updated: Mar 17, 2020 1:15 PM

Cotton.

It’s been called “the fabric of our lives.”

Cotton

It’s also the lifeblood of many growers in Alabama.

It’s been cultivated for thousands of years.

But now, scientists in Huntsville are ready to teach this old plant some new tricks.

“I think the quality of what we’re growing now is the best we’ve ever done,” said Mark Yeager, owner of cotton-growing Red Land Farms.

Yeager is just a little biased when he talks about his cotton. His Red Land Farms in Lawrence County grows hundreds of acres of it every year.

“We’re a small gin,” he said. “I just gin my own cotton. We normally do between 7,000 and 8,000 bales.”

When this gin is jumping, it cranks out 2,000 tons of fluffy white fiber every season.

At Red Land, they literally “sew what they reap” into high-end sheets and towels that they sell at their store in Moulton and online.

As proud as Yeager is of his crop, researchers at the Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology are “picking his cotton” apart on a molecular level.

They’re worried about it.

“We are reaching sort of the end of what can be done with the current version of cotton,” said Jeremy Schmutz, faculty investigator.

His team is convinced cotton’s days are numbered.

That would be bad for a lot of reasons. According to the Alabama Farmers Federation, cotton is a $60 billion a year business in this country, creating 340, 000jobs.

It’s in almost everything we touch: Clothes, of course. And sheets, towels, drapes, furniture, window shades, book bindings, medical supplies, money.

Like a lot of crop plants in the US, we’ve optimized cotton for higher production.

But that has come at a price. It can’t protect itself.

“So we have these diseases that are getting introduced in cotton in this country,” said Schmutz. “And our cotton plants have never seen those diseases before.

“These plants, if we want to keep using them for agriculture and for production, we have to keep changing them over time.”

The cotton plant is hungry and it’s thirsty. It needs a lot of fertilizer. It needs a lot of water. There are a variety of fungi and pests that need to be managed.

But scientists say, inside each cell of this plant are the answers to all its problems.

It just doesn’t know it yet.”

“One of the ways of doing that is to be able to go into cotton plants, and make tiny modifications to their DNA to change the way genes function,” said Schmutz.

That could mean turning on a gene that makes cotton a better disease fighter or less attractive to insects. Cotton could be bred with natural fire retardant or anti-bacterial properties to make anti-microbial sheets and bandages for hospitals.

“We can really adapt and expand the choice that’s available for farmers and consumers by applying these kinds of tools and technologies,” said Schmutz.

In fact, your new blue jeans could one day be made from cotton with new blue genes of its own.

“blue, red, orange, yellow, whatever color you like,” said Schmutz.

In the lab, they’re creating new cotton at the genetic level, sequencing the genome and adding or taking away pieces of DNA to produce the cotton of tomorrow.

“The world is ready to start thinking about how do we reduce our impact of our farming operations,” said Schmutz.

And all of these traits - a plant that uses less fertilizer, fewer pesticides, is disease-resistant - is already in cotton.

"Understanding the underlying genetic variation that’s part of those plants, so that we can stack traits that do new things for us in these plants,” said Schmutz.

At Red Land Farms, business is good. And Yeager wants to keep it that way. He’s eager to see how scientists adapt his cash crop to be more sustainable and profitable in the future.

“I’m all for whatever anybody can do to make it better,” he said.

Huntsville
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 49° Lo: 30°
Feels Like: 41°
Florence
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 50° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 40°
Fayetteville
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 49° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 42°
Decatur
Overcast
45° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 30°
Feels Like: 39°
Scottsboro
Overcast
52° wxIcon
Hi: 52° Lo: 31°
Feels Like: 52°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 260359

Reported Deaths: 3776
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson34716513
Mobile20452370
Madison14215153
Tuscaloosa13755173
Montgomery12731243
Shelby1110278
Baldwin9341137
Lee801566
Morgan722855
Etowah692170
Calhoun6809121
Marshall675058
Houston552739
DeKalb512940
Cullman480246
St. Clair460357
Limestone455046
Lauderdale443357
Elmore432567
Walker3861112
Talladega381157
Jackson361623
Colbert341546
Blount315845
Autauga289342
Franklin262634
Coffee257717
Dale244454
Dallas234932
Chilton233641
Covington232434
Russell23153
Escambia206932
Tallapoosa190291
Chambers187551
Clarke164120
Pike163814
Marion148236
Winston144725
Lawrence137336
Pickens129720
Geneva12818
Marengo126724
Bibb125238
Barbour121429
Butler120042
Randolph107022
Cherokee106724
Hale101432
Fayette99916
Clay94825
Washington93921
Henry8996
Monroe84611
Lowndes82629
Cleburne80714
Macon77122
Crenshaw73330
Conecuh72914
Lamar7258
Bullock70919
Perry6987
Wilcox65518
Sumter59522
Greene44518
Choctaw43519
Coosa3824
Out of AL00
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 388252

Reported Deaths: 4781
CountyCasesDeaths
Shelby49731687
Davidson44813429
Knox20269159
Rutherford18968169
Hamilton18210162
Williamson1209086
Sumner10566142
Out of TN900254
Wilson801684
Montgomery717286
Sullivan6979111
Washington6572116
Maury636472
Putnam614284
Blount608963
Bradley571637
Madison5602114
Sevier528735
Unassigned519025
Robertson404356
Tipton385839
Hamblen372462
Gibson339372
Greene335574
Dyer332652
Anderson323931
Coffee306043
Dickson305037
Carter298361
Bedford295734
Lawrence290237
McMinn281056
Obion278053
Cumberland272937
Roane255731
Warren251919
Jefferson245435
Loudon244320
Fayette236940
Monroe234146
Hardeman229538
Weakley227136
Franklin224538
Lauderdale213123
Hawkins213035
Wayne197610
Henderson195934
Trousdale192612
Macon190829
White188619
Rhea187836
Hardin186027
Carroll185336
Marshall185322
Lincoln177520
Cocke172030
Cheatham169617
Haywood168830
Campbell165324
Henry163321
Overton157736
Giles157649
Smith150920
Johnson147523
McNairy143734
Fentress126824
DeKalb124624
Hickman124619
Bledsoe12245
Lake11936
Marion118719
Crockett118428
Scott11737
Grainger108818
Chester106322
Decatur97413
Claiborne96410
Unicoi96026
Benton88016
Lewis81516
Cannon8104
Grundy80614
Morgan7996
Union7665
Humphreys7648
Jackson72510
Polk70915
Stewart63317
Houston60520
Sequatchie5845
Clay57119
Meigs52512
Perry50922
Moore4202
Pickett39814
Van Buren3872
Hancock1964

Community Events