The Controversy Over Cotton
America’s organic farmers started a revolution. Thirty years later, they’re hanging by a thread.
When it comes to organic cotton in the U.S., the numbers don’t add up. Here there is the biggest demand for the sustainable fiber and yet the lowest levels of production. It’s why your T-shirt likely comes from overseas, where experts say organic claims aren’t always legitimate. It’s more confusing, then, when you consider how perfect the climate is in certain states for growing this drought-ready plant. Few organic farmers are pulling it off, save for a small group in West Texas. Elizabeth Cline reports.
There is a natural freeze around late October or early November, just when the cotton plant begins to mature, that allows for harvesting without chemicals on the West Texas High Plains.
A moldboard plow, used by organic cotton farmers to cut, loosen, and invert soil, belonging to a farmer in the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative.
It’s late November 2019, and farmer Carl Pepper and I are rumbling across his vast, 4,000-acre West Texas cotton farm in a dusty pickup truck. Infinite stretches of the iconic white fiber surround us. There’s little in the way of buildings or light poles or even a desert shrub. There’s only cotton, and more cotton, in an otherwise empty landscape of rocky reddish soil, dirt roads, and hazy, wide-open sky.
We are 50 miles south of Lubbock, a fast-growing city built on the back of cotton. It’s the one place on earth that can truly claim the name Cotton Country: the West Texas High Plains. This area, which extends north into the Panhandle, is the world’s largest contiguous cotton patch, with almost 4 million bales, or a quarter of the U.S. cotton crop, grown every year in a single 150-mile radius. The majority of the organic cotton grown in America, over 90% in most years, is raised on the water-thirsty and windswept High Plains as well, because the climate is extraordinarily suited to organic farming. Here the air is bone-dry, keeping plant-eating pests away. And a natural freeze around early November, just when the cotton plant begins to mature, allows for harvesting without chemicals. That’s what I’ve come here to see.
But today, even though it’s smack-dab in the middle of picking season and the air is dry enough to scale skin and crack lips in a matter of minutes, the humidity is too high to harvest, says Pepper, a dry-land organic cotton farmer and one of the longest-standing members of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative (TOCMC), a tight-knit collective of growers in West Texas. Even the smallest bit of moisture in the air dampens the stalks and leaves of the plant and can stain the stark-white fibers, driving the quality and price of the cotton down.
“I know where my cotton is going, and I have to be able to look my buyers in the eyes,” says Pepper, his skin bronzed and creased from decades spent in the sun. Many farmers, most of all his conventional farming neighbors, don’t know where their crop ends up after they drop it at the gin. West Texas organic cotton, on the other hand, can be traced right back to the farmer and his field. “I need to deliver the best quality cotton.”
Mid-50s and dressed in Wrangler jeans and a ball cap, Pepper, a devout Christian, is an unlikely agricultural revolutionary. He’d sooner be farming than proselytizing about his style of farming, he says. Most of his neighbors rely heavily on costly chemicals. They are also people with whom he shares everything from a property line to a church pew. But Pepper—who lost his father, also a cotton farmer, to leukemia, which is believed to be linked to pesticide exposure, and other family members to Parkinson’s disease, which is linked to an herbicide still in use on many conventional farms—doesn’t farm like most of his peers.
We were really the odd ducks out 20 years ago. But now that we’ve made money, it’s become cool. We were that song ‘I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool’
Carl Pepper, a dry-land organic cotton farmer and one of the longest-standing members of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, and his tractor.
“My original motivation was chasing profits,” says Pepper, who left his farm in Sabinal, Texas, 60 miles west of San Antonio, to join his brother and his sister-in-law, Terry and La Rhea Pepper, on their family’s organic farm in 1992. It would be another 16 years before Terry, the family firebrand who was more outspoken about the revolution than Pepper, would die unexpectedly from cancer, leaving his more humble and practical-minded brother behind to carry the torch for the organic cotton movement.
Nowadays, Pepper fertilizes his soil with cover crops, or green manure, and replants his own seeds after each harvest instead of relying on genetically modified (GMO) seeds to get the job done. His farm employs more than 20 farmhands, men and women who plow and hoe and “make the thing fly,” he says. Add sunshine and, God willing, rain, and his cotton will grow without the use of any chemicals. “We were really the odd ducks out 20 years ago,” he says of organic farming in West Texas. “But now that we’ve made money, it’s become cool. We were that song ‘I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.’”
And yet despite widespread acceptance of organic products around the world—and the ever-growing demand for this particular fiber here at home in the States—there are troubling forces American farmers are trying to keep at bay.
By all accounts, it should be a great time to be in organic agriculture, which uses no synthetic pesticides or GMO seeds. The sustainable fashion movement is forcing sweeping changes to a powerful industry, and consumer demand for fairly made clothes is at an all-time high. Research shows the majority of American and British consumers now expect fashion brands to be sustainable. And among brands themselves, sustainable sourcing is considered the top priority across the industry, according to research by the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
It should also be a great time to be in organic cotton, especially in America, which is one of the biggest consumers of the stuff. It’s in the T-shirts and underwear at Whole Foods, and in our most intimate items, like feminine hygiene products and bedsheets. And yet of all the organic cotton grown globally, 2.8%, or 23,341 bales—an infinitesimal blip—is grown stateside. Even more eye-opening is the fact that, as of 2019, there is a grand total of 68 organic cotton farmers in the U.S., or less than 0.7% of the global cotton production industry, according to Textile Exchange.
There’s a tangle of reasons why there aren’t more organic cotton farmers in the U.S., starting with the simple fact that the world is in thrall to newer and cheaper materials, even in the sustainable fashion space. Tencel (and other wood pulp fibers made using an intensive chemical process) and recycled fabrics, like polyester made from discarded bottles, are the most popular sustainable fibers, according to the market research firm Grand View Research. Cotton makes up less than a quarter of all sustainable fibers in textile production.
Fig : 1
Farmer Chad King, 44, amongst his organic cotton, which is pristine, full-capped, and packed tightly across the field. “It blows me away that cotton isn’t number one on everyone’s list,” he says.
Fig : 2
An expansive field of cotton north of Lubbock, Texas, an area with little rainfall. While the majority of the cooperative’s organic farms don’t use irrigation, the most experienced growers yield at least 90% as much cotton as their neighboring conventional farmers.
Cotton farmers know that tastes are shifting, and they bristle at the mention of other textiles. “Well, do you like pumping oil?” asks Jimmy Wedel, 62, a farmer with white hair and a wide smile who is wearing an organic button-down shirt and jeans made by Patagonia, one of the few big brands that source cotton from him and the cooperative. “Polyester is a great fiber, but is that what you want?”
Chad King, 44, chimes in: “It blows me away that cotton isn’t number one on everyone’s list.”
I’m selling sunshine and rain.
There are other challenges, like the rising perception that organic cotton isn’t as sustainable as we once assumed. News stories have claimed that growing cotton without chemicals is too low yielding and inefficient, while a recent report questioned data showing that organic consumes less water than conventional cotton. As I would find out over the course of my trip, these accusations fall flat in West Texas, where the majority of the cooperative’s organic cotton farms don’t use irrigation and the most experienced growers yield at least 90% as much cotton as their neighboring conventional farmers.
Of all the threats to farmers, the notion that what they’re doing is somehow bad for the environment is one they mostly shrug off. “I’m selling sunshine and rain,” says Pepper, whose cotton is watered only by rainwater, of which there is relatively little in Texas.
Without much of a budget to promote themselves, and with a surprising lack of institutional support and investment in organic cotton both in the U.S. and abroad, TOCMC is simply left to the whims of what other people think is best for the planet. With the government, fashion brands, and environmentalists bickering over what sustainability should and could look like, Pepper says he and his fellow farmers are stuck in the middle without much say. “We’re the soccer ball in their game that gets bounced around.”
Modules of organic cotton form a makeshift wall at the edge of a field near Muleshoe, Texas.
Ultimately, the farmers say, shifting market forces are not a matter of taste but of cost. The cooperative, which grows Upland cotton, the medium-length fiber traditionally found in T-shirts, socks, and other everyday basics, has always maintained a very high integrity for its product. It’s fully traceable and can be verified as organic at the farm level. That’s why the cooperative charges nearly double the price of conventional cotton (or $1.25 per pound in recent years). It’s a premium Pepper and the other TOCMC members fiercely claim as the only fair price paid for cotton anywhere in the world.
The cooperative’s set price allows farmers like Pepper to protect their land, make a stable living, and escape the never-ending treadmill of chemicals and GMO seeds that comes with conventional agriculture. Besides, says Pepper, the low price of conventional cotton doesn’t reflect the cost of the environmental and social damage it has caused. Meaning organic cotton isn’t too expensive; conventional cotton is too cheap.
“Nobody has got a dollar value on what chemical agriculture truly costs,” says Pepper, who thinks if there were a number attached to it, more consumers and brands would go organic.
Sustainability experts such as Crispin Argento, former executive director of the Organic Cotton Accelerator, an Amsterdam-based organization that works with brands and nongovernmental organizations to invest in sustainable agriculture, agree: “That’s the real price—the healthy price—of organic cotton,” Argento says of Pepper’s price tag, citing the risks and demands that are associated with the occupation. Not only is it a much more physical style of cotton farming, calling for more hands and thus jobs than conventional agriculture (which is no small feat to accomplish at scale, considering the average conventional farm in West Texas is at least 5,000 acres), it’s mentally taxing too. There are countless inspections and associated paperwork that come along with organic. It’s not a trade you can succeed in unless the price is right, say members of TOCMC.
And while costs of farming continue to rise in the U.S., with prices for land, chemicals, and machinery skyrocketing—a tractor costs 50% more than it did 10 years ago, and yet, during that time, the price of conventional cotton has more or less stayed the same—many farmers in America are losing money and in a level of debt never before seen. “The costs are running away from them,” says Pepper of his conventional neighbors.
Pepper’s premium helps to soften the blow of rising costs, but he also bought up his land and much of his gear years ago, when everything was less expensive. To convert their already flailing farms over to organic, members of the cooperative estimate, farmers will need to see not one but two to three times the price of conventional cotton before they’ll take the plunge and change everything about the way they farm.
Fig : 1
Farmer Jimmy Wedel on his farm in Muleshoe.
Fig : 2
Wind turbines in an otherwise empty landscape of dirt roads and hazy, wide-open sky.
When I arrived in West Texas, it was months before the world would meet the disease known as COVID-19. At the time of publishing this story, the virus that causes it had spread from the port city of Wuhan, in the central Hubei province of China, to at least 210 countries and territories, killing more than 147,337 people and infecting more than 2,181,500, according to Johns Hopkins University. The pandemic had become dangerously political and devastating for the world economy, affecting virtually all markets, including conventional cotton, which had fallen from near 70 cents per pound to 48 cents.
And even though the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative is looking at a price of more than double the cost of the traditional crop, there’s a palpable fear of what will happen to the market, and what it could mean for the future of their business. “We are sitting on pins and needles worrying about whether buyers will cancel orders,” says Pepper over the phone from Texas in April.
With activity in factories from China to Bangladesh to Italy grinding to a halt, and brands pulling orders and shuttering stores, there are macroeconomic consequences that could impact the clothing sector for years to come. What gives Pepper solace is that TOCMC has long-term personal relationships with most of their buyers, and not one has cancelled yet. “I have hope that our buyers will stay loyal,” he says, though he notes that unpredictability is built into the life of a farmer. The virus, in a way, is just another of nature’s vagaries. “In any given year, a hailstorm or another weather event can knock you out of the game. This is just another unknown that’s totally beyond our control.”
In any given year, a hailstorm or another weather event can knock you out of the game. This is just another unknown that’s totally beyond our control.
Back on his farm in November, we’ve changed vehicles and are now in what I’ll call an old jalopy, some sort of dirt-caked vintage flatbed truck that Pepper keeps around to tinker with. “I’m not a truck driver, I’m just a farmer,” he says with a laugh before crunching the gears and rolling past a few stop signs. No cars or people are present to register our offense. We are carrying a mechanical lift along a dirt road over to a particularly mammoth section the size of several hundred football fields. As we lumber around, we come across a modest brick house where Pepper and his wife raised their two daughters; a cabin and a dirt pond, equipped with a deck and diving board built by his late brother; and a schoolhouse and church from the day when farms were universes unto themselves. Here, I’m told, is where a key part of the organic revolution in the West Texas High Plains unfolded many years ago.
Fig : 1
Wedel and his crew dug up an infestation of bindweeds, one of the most invasive and destructive weeds in cropland, with only a backhoe. His conventional neighbor, he says, would have just hopped in a spray rig and blitzed the noxious plant with chemicals.
Fig : 2
A boll buggy, which shuttles loads of cotton from the stripper to the module builder, in action on a farm in Muleshoe.
In the late 1980s, the organic farming movement swept the world just as the farm crisis was pushing historic numbers of American farmers, including Pepper’s family west of San Antonio, into debt. Fresh approaches to agriculture, such as cutting out costly pesticides, rotating crops, building up soil fertility and—just as crucial—asking for a premium on yields were all part of the formula for reinvention. And although organic farming was practiced in a number of countries at the time, the United States was among the first to codify the techniques into law. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the Organic Foods Production Act for Food and Fiber, which mandated regular farm inspections and a ban on certain terminology used for the marketing of noncertified products. Texas farmers grew most of the country’s first certified cotton crop the following year, and in 1993 the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative formed to find brands to buy up their shared crop.
A year later, as Earth Day turned a quarter of a century old and the kids who grew up in the environmental movement were clamoring for change, everything was coming together to make it organic cotton’s breakout year in the U.S. In a foreshadowing of 2019, sustainable fashion and saving the planet were all the rage. A who’s who of ’90s clothing brands rushed to bring the U.S.-grown organic cotton collections to market, including Levi’s, Banana Republic, Lands’ End, and The Gap. A wave of farmers across the country, from California and Arizona to the Carolinas and the High Plains, put down their chemicals and gave organic cotton farming a try.
Two years later the eco-fashion boom died on the vine. “Organic cotton? Forget it,” wrote The New York Times in the winter of 1997. Consumers simply weren’t buying high-priced organic clothes, and the “fledgling organic-cotton industry” was facing ruin. Most of the big brands pulled out their big orders, and a number of farmers went bankrupt. TOCMC was left holding cotton it couldn’t sell and had to dump it on the commodity market, at a loss. Several farmers were forced to turn part of their land back to conventional while they waited for the U.S. market to bounce back, leaving a majority of organic cotton to come from elsewhere, and for less. Now 47% of the international crop comes from India, 21% from China, and the rest from a handful of other countries such as Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Tanzania.
The American consumers want to feel good about things, but they don’t want to pay for it. They want something for nothing.
An empty shop in Muleshoe.
Meanwhile, there was a darker narrative unfolding: Fashion was going the way of conventional farming. Local, human-scaled clothing production was disappearing. After the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, America’s textile mills fell into rapid decline. Huge, global brands took over the apparel industry, and they were keen to lower costs. The big companies moved production overseas and chased cheaper cotton. The fair price of a crop like Pepper’s was much too high, especially considering its mark up as it moves through the supply chain, with prices multiplying from the farm to the spinning mill to the cut-and-sew factory and finally to the retailer.
Overseas, the organic cotton movement also struggled to recruit farmers. There, they do not get much of a pay bump to grow organically, says Argento. “That [extra] money is not making its way down to the farmer level.” What’s more, farmers in developing countries such as India have struggled to keep their fields free of GMO contamination, and Argento says that falsifying organic certifications has become common around the world. “There’s a lot of conventional cotton being sold as organic at both the supply chain and retail level,” he says. Though the U.S. is not immune to contamination of fields by GMO seeds (and TOCMC’s members complain of “cheaters” found in the States too), it’s one of the few countries in the world where a certifier goes field by field testing plants and gathering paperwork to verify farmers’ organic claims. It’s also why the Texas growers certify their cotton with the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), which is considered to have one of the more rigorous regulatory programs, and sell it to certified cotton gins; they want to assure buyers they’re getting the real deal. “The American farmers are a shining example of what organic cotton should be,” Argento says.
And yet “the American consumers want to feel good about things, but they don’t want to pay for it,” Pepper says in a fleeting moment of darkness as we stand around a coffee maker in the farm’s break room. “They want something for nothing.”
The West Texas landscape is surreal and the farms gargantuan, but the organic farms I visit over three days feel familiar in that it’s farming as most of us imagine it: There are tractors, plows, and people. Organic farming is usually described in terms of asceticism, a style of opting-out farming that eschews synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or GMO seeds. But farming prior to the use of modern synthetic pesticides, which encompasses the entire history of agriculture prior to the 1940s, could be seen as its own world-shaking technological revolution. And today’s American organic farmers take that millennia-old knowledge—how to rotate crops and care for the soil—and combine it with modern technology such as harvesting machines, GPS, and even social media.
It’s midmorning when I find five crew members, immigrants from Mexico and South Africa who’ve worked with Pepper for years, waiting for the humidity to drop so they can harvest. Also present is Pepper’s daughter Kayla, 25, who returned to the farm after college to help run the cooperative’s social media accounts. Her hope is that her posts about early freezes and high humidity and incessant rain, and how it all directly impacts their crop, will help explain the farmers’ way of life beyond the High Plains. (“Hurry up and wait” is how she captions one share about this year’s harvest season.) “How can we show you why we believe what we do, and why we do what we do?” she asks me.
On a neighboring farm belonging to Wedel, the farmer clad in Patagonia, I meet Angel Osorio, 46. She’s worked a variety of positions on Wedel’s farm, from packing cotton modules, an essential role in the harvesting process, to tagging bales of cotton with a stamp that reads “organic” before they’re taken off to the gin, to driving tractors. There is no job too big or too small for her and her fellow farmhands. They’re committed to organic farming, she says: “We bust our butts to do this.”
A corner of Carl and Kayla Pepper's dryland farm stricken by high heat and low rainfall. “In any given year, a weather event can knock you out of the game," says Pepper.
Organic farming is a nonstop, year-round way of life. “There is never a time when nothing needs to be done on the farm,” says Wedel. Every day weather, insects, and weeds are all gunning for your crop, and manual labor and ingenuity, not chemicals, are the ways these farmers mostly deal with them. From before the cotton goes into the ground in the spring until harvest time, the farmers are out tilling the land or tackling weeds or managing hoe crews, more than a dozen people who go row by row and kill unwanted plants during the summer.
Recently, Wedel’s crew dug up an infestation of bindweed, one of the most invasive and destructive weeds in cropland, with only a backhoe. His conventional neighbor, he says, would have just hopped in a spray rig and blitzed the noxious plant with chemicals in a few hours; it took Wedel’s crew the better part of a month to dig 30-foot holes surrounding the weeds. It’s time-consuming tasks like this, says Cat Osorio, 51, Angel’s husband and Wedel’s chief farmhand, that keep the team going. They get a kick out of responding to nature instead of dominating it, he says. “We’re always learning every year, because it’s never the same thing twice.”
The willingness to carve your own path is important, considering the lack of industry and institutional support for organic cotton farmers across the nation. The November issue of Successful Farming, a top agricultural publication that bills itself as the magazine “for families who make farming and ranching their business,” features numerous full page ads for GMO seeds and chemical fertilizers, and yet not one article on organic farming. Modern extension services and agricultural schools, where farmers hone their trade, rarely teach organic methods anymore. And across the U.S., there are only a handful of public sector breeders who develop non-GMO seeds. One of them, Jane Dever, works at the Texas A&M Agrilife Research and Extension Center in Lubbock, where she says many of her colleagues hold a strong belief that farming without GMO seeds or chemicals is near-impossible in this day and age. “Except that you can cast your eyes over to a small group of farmers that are making it work,” she says of the cooperative on the High Plains.
Fig : 1
Anna-Marie Van der Bank, one of Carl Pepper’s farmhands.
Fig : 2
Pepper and his crew members waiting for the humidity to drop so they can harvest.
I carried a swirl of preconceptions about organic cotton down with me to Texas. The first is that cotton is water-thirsty. (It’s one I’ve personally circulated in my book, The Conscious Closet, and in my reporting for publications such as The New York Times.) That theory fell apart as soon as I stepped foot onto Carl Pepper’s expansive farm, where he’s able to grow one bale of cotton an acre on rainwater alone in a good year. As it turns out, the cotton plant is very drought-tolerant, which is why most of the farms south of desert-like Lubbock are covered in the stuff. If we’re comparing it to polyester, a fossil fuel fabric, cotton is water-thirsty—but that’s because it’s a plant. And plants, like people, require water to survive, making this a fairly uninteresting if not moot point.
But that’s not the whole story: North of Lubbock, over the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground body of water that services the thousands of acres of crops and rangeland from Texas all the way up to South Dakota, farmers can grow as much as five bales per acre because many growers there pump staggering sums of water on their cotton (though not nearly as much as on corn and other commodity crops). As the aquifer empties—and it is emptying—farmers are likely to turn more and more to cotton, they say, because it can survive on rainwater alone. Is it unethical for the cotton farmers to use the water while it’s there? They’re unsure. They just know it makes their plants grow more cotton, which is what the world seems to demand, so they use it.
Another preconception is that organic cotton is low yielding. Organic yields can be on par with conventional yields if the right seeds, input, and training are in place, says Crispin Argento. And in West Texas, where the climate is near perfect for organic farming, and an ecosystem of highly experienced growers exists to lift one another up, the most successful farmers grow as much cotton per acre as their conventional neighbors (as much as one and a half to four bales an acre, depending on access to irrigation and weather). Cotton farming can vary from one corner of a field to another, but the drastic variations are often signs of a system in balance, not of failure.
It's not unusual for organic cotton farmers to harvest well past nightfall if the conditions are right.
Of all the myths I overturned about cotton on my trip to Texas, the notion that modern pesticides are safe and judiciously used is the biggest. The U.S. cotton industry uses a staggering 18.7 million pounds of pesticides each year, according to the Organic Trade Association. And while insecticide usage has gone down, other chemicals such as herbicides have shot up.
“I seriously thought that by the time I was 20 I would have died from cancer,” says Chad King. At 10 years old, King worked alongside his dad, a local crop duster, as a flag marker. It was a dangerous occupation that required King to stand at the edge of cotton fields as his dad applied pesticides from a plane overhead. Sometimes the wind would switch directions and pesticides would rain down on him. During his time working on the conventional farm, he was also exposed to one especially toxic pesticide, Furadan, which would cause his lips and eyebrows to twitch for 24 hours. “I hated it,” he says. “It’s what drove me to organic in the end.”
Thankfully, the job disappeared with the invention of GPS, and King is healthy. But chemicals are integral to conventional farming—far more so today than three decades ago when TOCMC first formed and he was just a kid, says King. From seeds coated in fungicides and insecticides to desiccants and defoliants that kill the cotton to prepare it for harvest, chemicals are often used every step of the way. Especially on the High Plains, where sales reps knock on doors each season and bags of the latest GMO seeds and herbicides are sold in local stores. “Everybody here sprays because they just think they have to have it,” says King. “It’s a huge misconception, in my book.”
And while it may be easy to argue that the agricultural chemicals widely used today are not as immediately lethal or persistent as earlier incarnations, like the insecticide DDT, it doesn’t mean they are safe for the environment or farmers. They have taken a slow and subtle toll on our world. The U.S. still uses 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides, millions of which have been banned in the European Union, China, and Brazil. Globally, we are suffering huge biodiversity catastrophes, like the collapse of our insect populations and the loss of one third of America’s bird population, both of which are linked to pesticides. And the high rate of cancer and chronic illnesses in farming families like Pepper’s should be evidence enough that chemicals are best used sparingly.
And that’s exactly what the Texas growers like King and Pepper want to see happen. In many regions, pests and weeds, not to mention a shortage of farm labor, would make it challenging and far too expensive to grow cotton without any chemicals. In fact, that’s why many farms within the cooperative still farm a few plots conventionally (though, across their nonorganic properties, they mainly rely on the same organic principals, such as crop rotation, mechanical weeding, and green manure). Without the help from some chemicals, it would be too difficult to tackle all the invasive weeds and protect their cotton from being “drifted on,” or contaminated by pesticides from a neighboring farm, they say. But they imagine a world where they are used sparingly. “I believe in agricultural chemicals like I believe in prescription medicine,” says Pepper. “There are specific places and applications that are appropriate, but very limited.”
Everybody here sprays because they just think they have to have it. It’s a huge misconception, in my book.
Angel Osorio, 46, has worked a variety of positions on farms in West Texas. She and her fellow farmhands are committed to organic farming, she says: "We bust our butts to do this."
I’m in the jump seat of a cotton harvester pushing out into the most gorgeous field of cotton I’ve ever seen. The beetle-like machine, which features a row of metal teeth at the front, is ripping the cotton off its stalks and tossing it like popcorn into the basket overhead. Dust and cotton lint flurry all around us as wind turbines make circles in the distance. The Texas sky is huge, blue and striated with wispy clouds, and the air is cool and dry enough to harvest. The cotton is pristine, full-capped, and packed tightly across the field. And it’s organic. This is what I’ve come to West Texas to see.
This farm belongs to King, the flag marker who once risked his life in the name of cotton. The tall, fit former football coach, a father of two, farms northwest of Lubbock on land that belonged to his great-grandfather in the 1910s. At 44, King is young for an American farmer and a symbol of organic cotton farming’s tenuous future.
Fig : 1
Dust and cotton lint flurry all around on a farm northwest of Lubbock, TX.
Fig : 2
Dust and cotton lint flurry all around on a farm northwest of Lubbock, TX.
King grows a mix of organic and conventional cotton, giving him unique insight into why more farmers his age aren’t switching everything over to organic just yet. He sums up the squeeze: “It’s a continuous evolution of more yield, more yield, more yield. More production, more production, more production.” And to make ends meet, farmers take on more land, more land, more land, he says, which no doubt requires the use of more chemicals. And all for what? More T-shirts. More bedsheets. More stuff.
That afternoon King harvested enough cotton from one piece of his land to make 12,900 pairs of jeans, according to Cotton Inc.’s calculations. TOCMC’s small band of farmers grew enough this past harvest to make just under 2 million pairs. Around the world, there was enough conventional cotton grown to make more than 26 billion pairs, raising the question of whether we need more cotton, or fairer cotton.
The answer for many inside the industry is indeed the latter. Within the last year, consultants such as Sally Fox, who has worked on and off with West Texas organic farmers since the 1980s, have been bombarded with calls from brands eager to source home-grown organic cotton, with 36 brands making pledges to shift completely to organic by 2025. Because of the demand, she’s currently recruiting more farmers to grow the crop in California and aiding others in finding potential buyers. There are reports that organic growers of pima cotton, a long, silky type of cotton that is used in many luxury brands, are having a banner year, she says. “I feel like the pendulum swung against all of us and now it’s coming back,” she says.
Fig : 1
Piles of cotton seeds, which are separated out at the gin, return to a farm to be replanted for next year's harvest.
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A red flag signifies a freshly harvested field of organic cotton.
There are other signs that life is set to get better for American organic cotton farmers, even once the world has returned to some semblance of normality. A 2018 farm bill set aside research money for organic farming, a little of which should trickle down to cotton. And Dever, of Texas A&M Agrilife, is breeding a cotton variety that has a different leaf shape than GMO plants, which will make it easier to identify contamination in organic fields.
King is hopeful for the future of cotton too, but not necessarily for the same reasons. The positive market shift has happened before, he says, and only has staying power if the price paid to organic cotton farmers remains high. It’s what’s happening at home with his own children that gives him the most hope. “My kids are really interested in the environment, and I think they will be interested in organic farming,” he says, explaining that the generation born after 1995 is growing up with an expectation that products like food and clothing be made in a way that protects the planet and their health. And why shouldn’t what we put in and on our bodies be made sustainably? It’s a question this small crew of West Texas cotton growers have been asking for over three decades, to no avail. And that’s just fine, says King: “I really like to prove people wrong.”