As society grows more concerned with what is on a label, organic cotton has steadily grown in popularity.
Conventional cotton has long been a staple of Texas agriculture, producing roughly 25% of the entire US cotton crop and generating about US$ 2.2 billion every year. While organic cotton doesn’t yet have the market to support millions of acres, about 95% of the American crop is grown on the High Plains.
“We grow the only organic cotton in the US, essentially,” said Jimmy Wedel, president of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative. “There’s a scattered field or two that people have tried in other states, but this is the easiest place in the US to grow organic cotton without chemicals. It fits here on the High Plains.”
Wedel has been growing organic cotton in Muleshoe for over 26 years and helped form TOCMC in 1993. The group now consists of 40 producers who plant 20,000 acres yearly and grow other organic crops as well, such as peanuts and corn. They provide cotton seed to organic dairies for feed. Many of the members, including Wedel, used to grow conventional cotton before switching over.
“I was concerned for the environment and what our pesticides were doing, and I was tired of using a lot of chemicals that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t,” Wedel explained.
Growing cotton without chemicals is the big draw for consumers in the organic market. Organic producers can’t use growth regulators or synthetic inputs – just feedlot manure or compost – and few natural bio-pesticides. Organic grows the same as conventional cotton, with the exception of waiting to harvest until about two weeks after the first hard freeze so natural defoliation can occur. The extra steps and slightly higher prices are worth it to consumers, as they are now behind the growth of the organic market, bringing organic sales up by 6.4% to total a record US$ 49.4 billion in 2017. According to Wedel, this is because consumers have started weighing options more carefully.
“Consumers begin to become aware of the environmental benefits of purchasing organic productions,” said Wedel. “There’s more interest in wearing an organic cotton shirt or sleeping on an organic cotton mattress that hasn’t had an abundance of chemicals put on it. You have a choice, so more consumers are choosing to use a product that hasn’t had all these pesticides.”
It’s not just clothing and mattresses either, as bedsheets, cotton rounds, and feminine hygiene products are gaining more attention. Brands such as the Honest Company or L. have taken over the organic market, while there is no mandate to include a label of ingredients for the conventional products and the Environmental Protection Agency maintains that regular products are safe.
However, cotton in the US is typically sprayed with chemicals just prior to harvest and put through more in production including chlorine bleaching before hitting shelves, leaving many off-the-shelf period products with rayon, pesticide residue, and dioxins along with other fragrances and dyes.
The chemicals also run the chance of drifting into other areas and contaminating organic crops, a problem that caused a lot of concern for organic producers. La Rhea Pepper, a co-founder of TOCMC, has a long history of fighting back against the use of chemicals, as her family was part of enabling legislation on the matter in the late 1980s and she joined a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto.
“Cotton is an amazing, wonderful crop; it’s also fairly chemically intensive during production,” said Pepper, a fifth-generation producer in Lubbock. “Instead of spending money on developing cancer cures, I think we should be spending money on preventing cancer in the first place – choosing products that reduce your exposure to toxins is really important.”
Pepper was a child when farmers began spraying in the 1960s, and she recalls her grandfather saying they are only stewards of the land and have a responsibility to respect it. That message has stuck with Pepper, who says she will stay organic because it’s part of her heritage and legacy. “My farm was a safe place to live and play; my kids could run and play in the field without concern of being exposed or hugging their dad while he’s covered in chemicals,” Pepper said. “You don’t realise how many of these farming communities are exposed to all these sprays.”
While there is a big investment that goes into growing organic cotton that could be causing producers to turn away from the idea, Pepper says she has noticed a reduction in the use of pesticides over the last 20 years. “Cotton farmers have come a long way, they’re not spraying every ten days, but they still have a very long way to go,” said Pepper. “Honestly, most of them believe they’re doing the right thing. The university systems are promoting the chemicals as the most productive & efficient system, so they’re still trying to do the most cost-effective thing.”
Buying organic or conventional cotton products ultimately comes down to the consumer’s choice, as they are the ones driving the market, and more brands are deciding to offer products to meet that demand. “We do all this to protect our crop and the consumers who we serve,” said Pepper. “Consumers need to be aware that skin is the largest organ on their body, and it absorbs everything. They have a choice, and their choice matters.”