King Cotton Goes All Natural
“We have to hire more employees than a conventional operation of the same size.”
– Jimmy Wedel, President,
Texas Organic Cotton
Growing organic cotton is one thing; getting it to the market is another. That’s where the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative comes in, matching cotton buyers with raw products.
“We have customers come to us needing a certain amount of cotton, and a certain quality as well,” says Kelly Pepper, the co-op’s manager. “We can pool together our members’ cotton and deliver it to the mill when they need it a lot easier than individual members can.”
The majority of organic cotton stays in the U.S., with most used in T-shirts, jeans, linens and non-woven goods such as cotton balls and mattresses.
A contingent of Texas cotton growers has gotten back to growing it the old-fashioned way, in a sense. They still use mechanized implements for planting and harvesting, but in between it’s just water, Mother Nature and pitched battles against weeds and insects.
Organic cotton is good for the environment and covers more acreage on the Texas High Plains than ever before, says Jimmy Wedel, president of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative (TOCMC) and an organic cotton grower himself.
Formed in 1993, the co-op’s members farmed about 3,000 acres its first year. Today, about 40 members are growing about 10,000 acres of organic cotton. Co-op members produced an estimated 11,200 bales in 2009, about 85 percent of the nation’s organic cotton crop.
“We’ve had some ups and downs along the way, but that’s one reason we formed the co-op, to help establish a market for organic cotton,” Wedel says.
U.S. cotton once supplied about three-fourths of the world’s demand and helped fuel textile mills here and abroad during the industrial revolution. American market share isn’t what it was in the 1800s; we supply about 16 percent of world demand today. But Texas is the nation’s largest cotton producer by far. The 4.9 million bales our farmers produced in 2008 accounted for about 40 percent of the U.S. total.
Organic cotton commands a higher price, Wedel says – typically about 40 cents per pound more than conventional cotton. And organic cottonseed fetches a higher price as well. Organic dairy farms use the high-protein seed as cattle feed.
Federal law regulates the use of the organic designation for cotton, Wedel says, and state and private inspectors certify the designation in Texas. Going organic demands not only meticulous record-keeping and crop rotation – by law, organic cotton crops cannot be grown back to back on the same land without a crop in between – but also greater expense and greater risks.
“One of the most difficult aspects of organic cotton farming is labor,” Wedel says. “We cultivate more, plow more and have to hire more employees than a conventional operation of the same size. And the further you go north into the Panhandle, finding crews to hoe fields in the summer… there just aren’t as many crews.”
As the name suggests, organic cotton is grown without the aid of chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and its seed cannot be genetically altered.
“Before you can be certified, you have to be chemical-free on that land for three years, and you have to grow on it for two years and get a conventional price,” Wedel says. “You have to get over that sort of addiction to chemicals.
“We grew up with chemicals to control pests and weeds, believing that’s the only way to do it,” he says. “You pick up a farming magazine and on every other page, there’s an ad for a chemical to put on your crop.” FN
Texas produced about 85 percent of the nation’s
organic cotton crop in 2009.
|Year||U.S. Production (nonorganic)||Texas Production (nonorganic)||Texas Production (organic)|
|2009||12.4 million||4.9 million||11,200|
|2008||12.8 million||4.6 million||7,300|
|2007||21.6 million||8.3 million||14,900|
|2006||23.9 million||5.9 million||5,900|
|2005||23.3 million||8.2 million||8,500|
|2004||18.3 million||7.8 million||5,400|
|2003||17.2 million||4.4 million||3,400|
|2002||20.3 million||5 million||6,100|
|2001||17.2 million||4.3 million||4,900|
|2000||17.0 million||4.0 million||3,100|
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative