Whether it was visiting his grandparents’ farm in south Georgia or learning about the dairy industry in his hometown of Eatonton, agriculture was a tangible part of growing up for Taylor Sills (BSA – Agricultural and Applied Economics, ’11).
“Agriculture was such a big part of my community and upbringing, and even though I didn’t grow up on a farm and my parents didn’t farm, it was it was sort of all around us at the time,” he said.
That proximity ignited a spark in him — so much so that he begged his parents to transfer him from private school back to public school in order to join FFA.
“While I already was interested in agriculture, that developed into a passion and led me to ABAC (Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College) and then UGA,” Sills said.
After earning his UGA degree in agricultural economics, Sills started his career with the Georgia Federal State Inspection Service and the Georgia Farm Bureau before joining the Georgia Cotton Commission in 2017 as director of public affairs. In 2020, he took the helm as executive director after fellow CAES alumnus Richey Seaton (BSA – Agricultural Economics, ’85) retired from the position after 26 years at the commission.
Sills says his UGA connections gave him a leg up at the beginning of his career and have helped him throughout.
“Any question I may have or need in almost any sector of agriculture, there’s a phone call I can make and I have what I need,” Sills said. “Because of my time at UGA, I knew who the people were, and that’s a huge benefit the college provided me.”
Sills’ time at the commission thus far has been peppered with trials. First Hurricane Irma caused $100 million in losses to Georgia’s cotton crop in 2017, then a severe whitefly outbreak late in the 2018 growing season was followed by the devastation of Hurricane Michael, which caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to the industry in 2019.
Sills took over operations at the commission just in time for the triple whammy of 2020 — the pandemic shut down mills and retail stores, trade disputes impacted crop prices, and an outbreak of seed coat fragments caused issues in postharvest production.
“The last several years have been a roller coaster of emotions, you might say, for the cotton industry. People want 2021 to be a normal year. I hope we have good markets and harvest conditions and very few speed bumps, and that’s unfortunately become abnormal for farmers, not just in cotton but in all crops,” Sills said.
Despite the challenges, Sills keeps producers and consumers at the forefront of his mind.
“We work for the farmers — we don’t work for the industry. We work directly for the growers here,” he said. “In 2019, when we had our last referendum, we had record approval, so I hope that means we were relevant in the programs we’re doing on their behalf.”
Current programming is focused on sustainability, including the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, a membership program that sets a new standard for more sustainably grown cotton through quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurement. “Rather than ‘social’ sustainability, the cotton industry is trying to show the consumer that American cotton is the most environmentally friendly and sustainably produced textile product, period,” he said.
Georgia cotton producers pay a dollar-per-bale assessment based on their crop yield to the Georgia Cotton Commission each year to fund research, education and promotion within the industry. Cotton is Georgia’s top row crop, with more than 1.1 million acres planted, and the second largest agricultural commodity by value, so the funding approved by the commission’s board is critical to achieving success for farmers.
Georgia’s cotton farmers, through organizations like the Georgia Cotton Commission and Cotton Incorporated, are funding more than $1.4 million in research and extension projects at UGA in 2021.
“The university and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences are so instrumental in what we do here through research and Extension,” Sills said. “I had an understanding and respect for the college’s history and what it’s done over the years, but I see its importance more and more every day, especially after coming here to the commission.”
Learn more about how UGA’s cotton experts work with producers and industry members to advance the industry.