Smartly Growing the Family Farm
Smartly Growing the Family Farm
There's no gate or arched, wrought-iron sign announcing the entrance to the Blythe Cotton Company, a 3,800-acre farm in Town Creek, Alabama. The voice on the GPS instructs you to turn right onto an unassuming dirt and gravel driveway. Otherwise, you might just miss it.
Traveling up the slightly hilly driveway, you pass lush green fields brimming with soybean plants, black cattle grazing in the distance, and eventually, around a curve, you see the Blythe family house, sitting up on a small hill keeping watch over the farmland around it.
Equally modest is the proprietor of this farm, Jamie Blythe, Hutchison Class of 1995, who lives here with her husband, Kenny Paul Arnold, and their two children, Gracie, 4, and Canaan, 1. Blythe’s father, James, who ran the farm previously, is her business partner, and Jamie is the fifth generation in her family to work the farm, something of which she is very proud.
You might wonder how a girl from a farm in rural Alabama came to study at Hutchison, almost three hours away in Memphis. “I started Hutchison in the fourth grade,” Blythe said. “We grew up here on the farm, but my oldest sister wanted to play sports. There weren’t very many opportunities here for girls playing sports and wanting a college scholarship.”
Blythe’s sister attended Briarcrest and went on to play Division I SEC volleyball. But Blythe’s parents recognized that Jamie was shy and lacked confidence. They thought Hutchison’s environment would suit her needs better.
“Our family rented an apartment, and we stayed in Memphis during the week and came home to the farm every weekend,” Blythe explained. (She fondly recalled stopping for french fries and iced tea in Corinth, Mississippi, the halfway point on their commute.) “There was an interesting dichotomy between the farm and Memphis and a girl’s school. I grew up with a bunch of little boys around here. It was two entirely different worlds between the weekday and the weekends.”
The year Blythe graduated from Hutchison, her family’s farm experienced total crop failure. Blythe, who had her heart set on studying agriculture at Auburn University, was guided by Leonard Frey, then associate headmaster and college counselor at Hutchison, to consider Sewanee. The timing was perfect, as Blythe was awarded a full scholarship to Sewanee where she studied natural resources. “It was the closest degree they had to agriculture. It was a combination of forestry and geology and quite a bit of biology thrown in there, too.” Sewanee also was only two hours from the farm, so she could go home and help when needed.
When she finished college in 1999, she wasn’t quite ready to head home, and it wasn’t financially feasible for her to work on the farm. In college, she had taken up climbing, so she took the opportunity to head to California to work as a search-and-rescue EMT at Yosemite National Park and as an instructor for Outward Bound. She also spent time in New Zealand and eventually ended up living in Alaska.
“I am grateful to have seen all those places, to travel, and to learn a little bit more about the world,” Blythe said. “I got to see that there’s a lot of different ways to live and think in this world. I’m glad my dad didn’t just open up the doors for me here and tell me to come home. I think that turned out to be a very fortunate thing.”
In 2006, Blythe’s father started to ease into retirement, and she found herself making long commutes from Alaska to Alabama.
Although she wasn’t fully invested in the farm, she could see that farming was changing. “When I was a little girl, we had 15 people out here helping with planting and harvesting,” she said. “The community had changed, and I looked around and there was nobody to help. I knew that if I didn’t decide to do it myself, we were probably going to go out of business. That was a humbling realization. We had to drastically change our approach to farming, to take a more Midwestern approach. It became more of a family affair.”
By 2011, she was home to stay. “This farm is like your child, your parent, and your grandparent all rolled into one,” Blythe reflected. “You take care of it like it’s your child, it raises you like a parent, and you respect it like a grandparent. “It’s a family member, and I think that’s the reason I came home. Not coming back would have been like turning my back on my child.”
It was trial by fire, though. Commodity prices were tanking at the time, so she had to find new approaches to farming and use technology to do more with less. Additionally, Blythe knew how to drive a tractor or run a bush hog, but she didn’t know how to fix them when they were broken.
“Even though I’d grown up on the farm, there’s so much that I still didn’t know.”
I think I've learned more and philosophized more while sitting under a cotton picker.
GROWING BEYOND A NAME
Although it’s called Blythe Cotton Company, there’s more than cotton being grown on the farm these days. Back in 1993, Blythe’s father recognized that being a mono-crop cotton farm, which required plowing every year, was not sustainable. The soil did not have time to rest and was being depleted of nutrients and organic matter, making it less fertile. The Blythe farm land had been plowed consistently for more than 100 years.
No-till farming is considered a sustainable practice. Although not a new idea, it has taken time for farmers to adopt the practice. No-till farming leaves the crop residue on fields after harvest. This residue acts as a mulch for the undisturbed soil underneath, fosters soil productivity, and prevents soil erosion. When it’s time to plant a new crop, special seeders help penetrate the residue to the soil below.
You take care of the farm like it’s your child, it raises you like a parent, and you respect it like a grandparent.
No-till practices require an investment in equipment, but with less plowing, it reduces labor and fuel costs.
Jamie Blythe uses no-till farming to continue what her father started and has seen a difference. “When I was in high school, a 60-bushel corn crop yield was awesome. This year I’m making over 200-bushels an acre of corn. This has been a 20-something year process, growing our soil and making it productive again.”
In addition, she has leveraged every bit of technology that she can to make the farm more efficient and profitable as a business and sustainable as an environment. Because her land varies from flat fields to rolling hills, she has divided up the 3,800 acres into zones. She regularly compiles detailed data on each zone through satellite imagery, data on crop health from her planter and combine’s computer systems, and soil samples that she sends away to be analyzed by labs at Auburn University.
Knowing the land so well, Blythe can write a “prescription” for her crops and send it to her equipment digitally. The behemoth machines, some of which cost nearly three quarters of a million dollars, can then spread the exact amount of fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide that a particular zone requires. This targeted accuracy reduces costs and waste. It is all part of the precision agriculture movement. “Each field is like an individual person, and an individual person needs certain nutrients,” she said.
She’s also begun working with IndigoAg, which specializes in technology to treat seeds that helps protect crops against drought and pests. The company will conduct on-farm research regarding carbon sequestration in soil being farmed using no-till practices. The hope is to quantify the benefits of no-till in terms of removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Now Blythe rotates between winter wheat, soybeans, corn, and cotton. Some of the rotation feeds on one another; for instance, corn follows soybeans, because soybeans leave nitrogen in the soil, which corn thrives on. Cotton comes after corn, because corn is a non-host to certain insects that harm cotton. The result is a bump in the yield on cotton.
She’s also raising cattle, which are an Angus-Holstein cross breed, on pastures that are more suitable for grazing than farming, and she’s built on-site grain storage that allows her more control in choosing the best time to sell her product.
“My belief is that conserving the land and being as sustainable as possible will make us our profit and keep the land healthy.”
PHILOSOPHY UNDER A COTTON PICKER
“If a woman can be a farmer in a small town, you can pretty much be anything you want,” Blythe said when asked what she’d say to a current Hutchison girl. “Something that Hutchison taught me is that it was up to me what I wanted to do. It was also up to me to take the responsibility and the steps to make it happen.”
She credits Alice Franceschetti, her biology teacher at Hutchison, for inspiring her. “She was probably one of my biggest influences as far as my approach to science and my work ethic in terms of trying to discover answers and to be curious about the world. I owe so much to her. I grew up being excited about the natural world, but she just stepped that up a notch.”
Blythe didn’t go back to school to study business when she started running the farm. She doesn’t have a degree in technology. Much of what she’s learned comes from dayto-day experience, asking questions, and guidance from her father, who visits regularly to walk the farm and see his grandchildren.
“There have been mornings when I knew I was going to have to argue with a bunch of guys who are a lot bigger than I am and tell them what to do,” Blythe said. “I sometimes have to get underneath the belly of a cotton picker with the mechanic and tell him to show me how it works and how to fix it and not be afraid to look stupid. Every person has something to teach. I think I’ve learned more and philosophized more while sitting under a cotton picker. That is something I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
Because they live on the farm, Blythe has finally gotten to a point where she can stay at home with Gracie and Canaan and still get involved when needed. Gracie has cerebral palsy, so requires extra help. “Having a child with special needs put things into perspective. I need to be home and be a mom, and I want to enjoy every day that I can because it’s so much fun, even when they’re having tantrums. It’s been kind of a hard go of things, and I feel like I’m finally able to take a break and get a rest. Being exhausted as a mom instead of being on a tractor for 12 hours a day, that’s a whole different deal. I want to expose them to the farm and teach them a work ethic and understanding that the farm takes care of us, so we have to take care of it.”
Whenever the tractors plowed our cotton fields, Daddy and I would be out there the next day looking for Indian arrowheads. He would take my hand and shorten his long strides to match my own. We would slowly pace across the fields, our eyes scanning the furrows in front of our boots. Daddy would always seem instinctively to know where the arrowheads were. His sharp eyes would pick out the pieces of flint rock that my own eager, unobservant ones would have passed right over. The frogs and crickets down by the creek would sing more loudly and the shadows would get longer, but we always lost all sense of time. If I found a piece of rock that even remotely resembled an arrowhead, Daddy would kneel down beside me and look it over and confidently tell me that I had discovered something of real value. After a while, we’d realize that it was time to go home and would head back to the truck. I would grasp my treasure in one hand and slip my other hand into Daddy’s. I’ll be going to college in a few months and Daddy won’t be there, but in my mind, I know he’ll always be holding my hand.