Cotton-Picking Dynamo

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.

Terry Pepper and his cotton-growing brothers, Carl and Kerry, came face-to-face with one consequence of agriculture-as-usual a few years back. “My dad was a farmer in south Texas,” recalls Terry softly as he drives me around red-dirt cotton fields in his weathered pickup. “He had always used whatever chemicals the agricultural schools were pushing. He died of acute leukemia when he was 57.”

Though doctors can’t prove a direct link, Terry thinks his father’s early death was due to the potent chemicals he was exposed to every day. The EPA has classified 7 of the top 15 chemicals used in cotton fields as “possible” or “known” human carcinogens. Virtually all conventional farmers begin the growing season by massively fertilizing the nutrient-stripped soil, following up with pre-plant herbicides and insecticides, and then topping off with growth-regulating chemicals. They finish up by  spraying powerful defoliants on the crop that wither all the vegetation except for the harvest-ready cotton boll.

Organic farmers do it all without chemicals, harvesting only after nature provides a hard freeze that acts as a natural defoliant. To keep the soil healthy and rich, the Peppers rotate corn crops through their  fields. They shred the cornstalks, creating a thick layer of compost that acts as an organic fertilizer and keeps moisture in and weeds out. To control pests, they rely on naturally occurring predators like lady beetles and lacewings. To remove weeds, they  plow or hoe more frequently than conventional farmers, which requires more labor and increases the pressure on the bottom line.

The reward for countless hours of organic stewardship is the small premium that organic cotton fetches at market. But for members of the Pepper’s co-op, most of them third- and fourth-generation cotton-growing families, that premium is not enough to provide a living. That’s why LaRhea, as the co-op’s marketing director, launched Cotton Plus, the co-op’s first business, which sells a wide variety of organic-cotton fabrics, including twill, chambray, flannel, and knits.

As she shows off the huge rolls of fabric stored ceiling high in the co-op’s brick warehouse, LaRhea recalls the early days of the business. “We came home from the mill with 4,000 yards of organic denim without knowing if we could sell a foot of it,” she says with an infectious laugh. “But we kept calling and educating people about the advantages of organic cotton, and pretty soon they started coming to us.” LaRhea flew to Japan to meet a maker of household goods and organic clothes, who has become a loyal customer. She tracked down organic dairies in Colorado that were in search of rich organic cottonseed to feed their cattle. She persuaded futon makers in New Mexico to use the shorter cotton fibers not suitable for clothing. Herbalists around the country bought the cottonroot bark. She found manufacturers in Sweden and Germany to make organic tampons.

The tampons, along with organic cotton balls, cosmetic rounds, and cotton swabs, are marketed by the co-op’s newest business, Organic Essentials. All together, the co-op’s enterprises have generated some $12 million in economic growth in the region during the past six years–a critical shot in the arm for the town of O’Donnell. The co-op’s headquarters in an abandoned grocery store includes offices, a processing area, and warehouse space, and has become a beehive of activity amid the downtown’s largely boarded-up buildings. Its sunny community room is open to all groups around town seeking a meeting space. LaRhea also lured an organic bed-and-bath company, Sunshine Au Naturel, to relocate from Vermont and build a thriving textile mill up the street from the co-op headquarters. Her dream is to create even more organic cotton processing industries in O’Donnell and keep more of its young people from moving away and farmers from selling out.

Meanwhile, there’s even more work to be done in the hallways of the Texas legislature and in Congress, where LaRhea and other co-op members regularly engage in the uphill battle against anti-organic farm policies.

Co-op members lobbied for modifications to the state’s boll weevil eradication program, which mandates that infected fields be sprayed with the powerful organophosphate pesticide malathion or plowed under. Organic farmers traveled to the Texas capitol in Austin armed with studies and personal testimony supporting the use of weevil-eating wasps, but state authorities wouldn’t budge. Due to this policy, some organic farmers were forced to plant less acreage or reluctantly returned to conventional cotton farming.

Organic farmers also seek to buffer their fields from the tsunami of genetically modified cotton pushed by agribusiness corporations. Both in the O’Donnell area and nationwide, GMO cotton now accounts for 71 percent of the conventional cotton crop. Many fields surrounding the organic fields are planted with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Cotton seeds, which are genetically modified to resist the popular weed killer Roundup. The herbicide is suspected of being highly toxic–it has been linked to respiratory problems, increased miscarriages, and some cancers in farmworkers.

“Instead of doing spot spraying to get rid of weeds, farmers are using more Roundup than ever because it doesn’t harm the crop,” explains LaRhea. “But I fear that it will just give rise to Roundup-resistant superweeds, and they’ll have to come up with something even more toxic to kill them.” And, of course, the clouds of Roundup wafting over north Texas are a recurrent threat to the purity of nearby organic fields.

It’s easy to get discouraged, and as LaRhea drives from the family farmhouse back to the office after supper for a few hours more of work, she reflects on the sacrifices that organic farmers make simply to stay afloat. And she adds that it’s their determination that keeps her going. “Most folks around here have family going way back, and it means so much to them to keep their farms going,” she says. “If manufacturers and consumers demand our organic cotton, the ripple effect could turn into a tidal wave. We can bring our soil back to life, clean up the water, and return farmers to being the true stewards of the soil.”

Helen Cordes, a former Utne editor, lives with her family inGeorgetown,Texas. She is a regular contributor to “Life” on Salon.com and Child magazine. This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in Organic Style (May/June 2002).

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