Cotton-Picking Dynamo

LaRhea Pepper believes organic cotton can revive her small town


| January / February 2003


CHANCES ARE YOU and cotton have been close for years. My own closet has been full of cotton clothing since high school. I just love the feel of cotton against my skin. I’ve also bought it to protest those artificial polyesters and other fake fabrics spawned from chemicals rather than from the earth. Fluffy, soft, light cotton just seems so . . . pure.

But here’s the kicker: There’s nothing pure about most cotton. It’s been marketed that way for years, but growing it requires a terrifying amount of poisons—about a fourth of all the insecticides used in the world. The yard of cloth used to make the shirt that you are quite possibly wearing right now requires one-third pound of toxic chemicals. Then there’s processing of the fabric, which calls for heavy-metal dyes and finishes such as formaldehyde that reduce wrinkles. “In west Texas alone, cotton causes 13.8 million pounds of agricultural pollutants to be dumped into the soil, water, and air every year,” notes LaRhea Pepper.

LaRhea doesn’t fit some stereotype of a tree-hugging enviro. Since 1978, she and her husband, Terry Pepper, have been farming 1,400 acres near O’Donnell, Texas, on the high plains of northwest Texas. And for the past decade, the Peppers, along with 30 other cotton farmers in the area, have been championing an organic cotton that delivers the same cozy feel without the poisons. In 2001, the cooperative these farmers banded together to create produced about 3,000 quarter-ton bales of cotton, making it the nation’s leading supplier of truly natural cotton.

With the dimple-grinned dynamo LaRhea at the helm, the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative has also created a savvy model to make organic agriculture truly viable. When LaRhea realized that simply producing a wonderful earth-friendly material wasn’t enough, she began criss-crossing the globe to secure markets for organic products. She also helped jump-start local organic cotton businesses back in Texas. Her efforts have helped fuel a steady growth in the demand for and the availability of sustainably grown and manufactured cotton.

“Consumers have really been responding to organic-cotton goods in the last five years,” notes Sandra Marquardt, coordinator of the Richmond, California–based Organic Trade Association’s Fiber Council. Today, all types of clothing, from delicate intimate wear to tailored men’s shirts, as well as hardy  linens for bed, bath, and kitchen, are available in organic cotton. The manufacturers range from small companies that sell mostly over  the Internet to big  names such as Nike and Patagonia. Since 1996, Patagonia has used only organic cotton, and Nike, one of the world’s largest buyers of organic cotton, has in recent years nearly doubled the amount of cotton it blends into its garments.

Still, organics constitute less than 1 percent of the cotton planted in the United States. And farmers need reliable customers to justify the risk in switching over to organic growing. Cotton is a precarious way to make a living, as shown by the fact that prices for conventionally grown cotton are almost the same today as they were when LaRhea’s family started farming in the 1930s. And organic farmers must contend not just with fickle weather and fluctuating prices but with the powerful forces of the conventional cotton-growing industry, subsidized by chemical-boosting government policies of recent decades.