Arizona Agriculture Talks to a Female Farmer about the Future of American Agriculture
A graduate of Vanderbilt University, Larkin Martin is managing partner of a family farming operation in northern Alabama, Martin Farm. The farm’s principal crops are corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton. In recent years they have also raised canola, sesame, peanuts and sorghum. The operation covers around 7,000 acres of owned and rented land. She’s also Vice President of The Albemarle Corporation, another family business, and both positions she’s held since 1990.
Beyond the farming operation, Martin’s business resume in agriculture is nothing less than impressive. Larkin is a past Chairman of The Cotton Board and the Farm Foundation and a current Farm Foundation Trustee. On the board of several other companies, she previously was Chairman for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Associate at Arthur Andersen LLP and is currently a Director of Rayonier Inc., (RYN), a timberland REIT headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida.
Wait, there’s more. Martin is also a member of the board of directors of the Public Research Affairs Council of Alabama and Africa Harvest, a Kenyan-based NGO helping to improve the lives of smallholder farmers and rural communities across Africa and the Soil Health Institute in Cary, North Carolina. She has served on the Alabama Ethics Commission and on the boards of The Alabama Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, The Vanderbilt Alumni Association, Camp Merrie-Woode and Leadership Alabama. She currently serves on the Agriculture Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Martin was named an Eisenhower Fellow in 2012.
Because of the tradition of Martin Farm over the generations to continually improve, Martin has been at the forefront of using RTK guidance on their equipment, GPS mapping and precision technologies for soil sampling, prescription fertilizer applications and business recordkeeping.
While my brother, Brent Murphree, has known her for some time, I recently discovered her business insights and acumen listening to her on a panel during the recent 2021 Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Agricultural Symposium.
People who know her will tell you she is the daughter who tagged along with her dad, the late Sykes Martin, going everywhere with him infusing in her a sense of what it takes to run a family business and perhaps what produced recognition in the industry as one of the most recent innovative young cotton producers, in addition to understanding the grand scheme of things when it comes to American agriculture. So, to me, it made sense to interview her for our ongoing “conversation series.”
Arizona Agriculture: Tell us about your farm?
Martin: Our farm has been in continuous operation through multiple generations, I am the 7th. Over the generations it has changed with the times. Today we are a row crop operation, raising primarily corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat but we will try other crops.
Recently that list has included canola, peanuts, sorghum, and sesame. Martin Farm farms land we own and then we rent additional land on both cash and share leases.
Arizona Agriculture: What inspired you to get into farming and share a bit about your family’s farming history in Alabama?
Martin: I got into farming by generational chance. I am the oldest of four daughters. My father was diagnosed with cancer in 1990 when he was in his 50s and I was in my 20s, working in Washington, DC.
I moved home to help while he underwent treatment and have been here ever since. My father’s family has roots in our community dating back to the early 1800s and some of the land we farm has been in continuous crops since that time.
Arizona Agriculture: Regarding your company, what have you brought to the farming operation that’s different from past generations, specifically as it relates to management and the whole scope of your day-to-day?
Martin: I think the biggest changes that have occurred during my tenure have been brought by the technology that has become available over the last 30 years and our ability to adopt the ones that best fit on our farm.
When I began managing the farm in 1990, landlines were the only kind of phone and fax machines that were modern. We had a desktop computer, which was still a little unusual in a farm office and I used measuring wheels in the fields and a planimeterus on large maps to measure acres. Saving seed and moldboard plowing every year was the norm. Revolutions in digitization, communication, automation, genetics, telematics, soil health awareness and more have all happened since then and dramatically changed how we farm and the cost structures for raising the same crops.
Arizona Agriculture: Farming in Alabama is quite different than in Arizona, obviously. Highlight the biggest difference but talk about the commonalities?
Martin: The biggest difference is climate and availability/necessity of irrigation; we average 55-60 inches of rain a year, but it does not come when we order it. Less than 10% of our cropland is irrigated.
The commonalities are many. We all try to farm keeping an eye out for the best options for our operations and putting together the puzzle of economics, people and natural resources.
Arizona Agriculture: You’ve been keen to advance your farm’s record-keeping management and for agriculture in general. Talk about this?
Martin: I inherited a focus on farm recordkeeping from my father. It was a focus for him to know how the business was doing and also as a way to be careful and accurate in paying participating share rents.
We still have those same two areas of focus. Over my tenure computer/digital technology has made it easier in many ways, but more complex in others.
Arizona Agriculture: We all talk about technology advances in agriculture and how on-the-farm application continues to create advances. But what’s still the biggest challenge for US on the farm as it relates to data gathering and management? Maybe a better question, what’s holding us back?
Martin: The sources of data for farms to use to improve farm financial and operational records, as well as field operations and machine efficiency, are exploding, as is the complexity of organizing and managing it all. Agriculture suffers from a lack of data interoperability. Pieces of software are often special purpose. File formats are not standardized, often proprietary, and often incompatible across different pieces of software. Software that is marketed for helping farm offices with recordkeeping can be too narrowly focused and/or while designed to provide a service, also designed primarily to quietly gather information from the farmer rather than assisting the farmer with private business decisions.
Plus, the recognition and valuation of the carbon sequestration done by growing crops becoming an economic consideration for farmers in the next 10 years is a big win.
Arizona Agriculture: On regulation, what concerns you?
Martin: I believe there are good regulations, especially in areas of product safety, worker safety and environmental matters. However, I become concerned when the atmosphere around regulation is excessively aggressive or uninformed and misses the mark on what is workable or reasonable for achieving a stated goal.
Arizona Agriculture: Where are we a decade from now in American agriculture?
Martin: I certainly don’t know, but I see continuing trends towards consolidation of farming operations and corporate investment in farmland in some regions at the same time as an increase in “non-traditional” agriculture, things like vertical and urban farming. I believe the use of biologicals and robotics will grow quickly.
Arizona Agriculture: Global markets: Especially for cotton and other global crops, what opportunities are you hoping to see develop in the next few months?
Martin: I believe recent supply chain strains brought on by geopolitical struggles and Covid production and shipping disruptions are redirecting U.S. sourcing executives towards U.S. production. That should be good for U.S. farmers.
Arizona Agriculture: What encourages you about the future of agriculture in America?
Martin: The general productivity of the land and the spirit of innovation among U.S. farmers and the U.S. business community.
Arizona Agriculture: You have a passion for agriculture. Why?
Martin: I enjoy growing things.