In 1993, a group of farmers on the high plains of Texas planted thousands of acres of organic and transitional cotton. After finding a very underdeveloped market with only one or two potential customers, they formed the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative (TOCMC).
With no paid staff, the organization worked out of co-founder Jimmy Wedel’s home trying to develop a totally unknown market.
Twenty-three years later, the farmers who make up TOCMC are receiving OTA’s Farmer of the Year Organic Leadership Award.
TOCMC farmers estimate they grow 85 percent of all domestic organic cotton. Most of the founding farmers are still at it, making up part of the 35 members today who are growing organic cotton.
“The award makes us very proud because we’ve grown the organic market for cotton, helped farmers to grow it, and have the satisfaction to grow a crop without chemicals and maintain a reasonable yield that is sustainable,” says Jimmy Wedel, who today serves as TOCMC President.
Wedel is quick to admit the domestic organic cotton market has faced many challenges. A major one is that while organic textiles have undergone exponential growth, the reality is most organic cotton customers do not use U.S. grown cotton.
As interest in organic products accelerated in the mid and late 1990s and early 2000s, TOCMC educated many U.S. retailers, helping get their organic programs off the ground. “However, most large retailers soon realized that TOCMC could not supply as much organic cotton as they needed, and that they could also get it cheaper overseas, “says TOCMC’s manager Kelly Pepper. “In recent years the premium paid for organic cotton has dwindled to where organic farmers in India, Turkey and Africa are getting very little if any premiums.”
Consequently, organic cotton has been an up-and-down ride with great fluctuations in production. Weather also plays a big role in supply, since most acres have no or limited irrigation. For example, 2007 was a phenomenal year with perfect growing conditions, but 2011 was one of the worst drought years in recorded history, and the drought extended into 2014.
“Fluctuations due to weather and inconsistent demand present one of our biggest challenges—trying to match the quantity produced with the quantity in demand from the market,” says Pepper.
Patagonia has been a long-term customer, using TOCMC organic cotton in its t-shirt products since the cooperative formed in 1993. Jill Dumain, Patagonia’s Director of Environmental Strategy, says that while other organic cotton providers have come and gone, “TOCMC has exhibited stalwart consistency in growing high-quality organic cotton through the tough times, and has tirelessly worked with the entire industry to ensure a reliable supply.”
In addition, Dumain says, cooperative members have been amazing teachers, educating Patagonia about the complexities of cotton. “It’s so unusual for a brand to think back to the farm level with their supply chain. But we needed to learn about the different characteristics of cotton to determine if it would be a good fit for our products. The staff at TOCMC along with the farmers growing the organic cotton were always patient with our many questions.”
Another user is organic sock manufacturer Zkano established in Fort Payne, Alabama, in 2009. Owner Gina Locklear struggled for years to find a supplier of domestic cotton. Two years ago she connected with TOCMC. “Our brand is built on the importance of manufacturing our socks here in the U.S. It’s paramount to us—and our customers—that the cotton we use to make our socks is also grown here. ‘Where is your cotton grown?’ is the most frequent question I’m asked. I also love that we know and have a relationship with our farmers—a rarity in this industry.”
According to Pepper, TOCMC has about 20 regular customers, mostly spinners, processors for nonwoven products, and garnetting companies—the first step in the manufacturing supply chain for different types of products. As a result, while the cotton can be traced back through the supply chain to TOCMC and the individual farmers, they don’t always know the end user.
DID YOU KNOW?
- The Disney organic t-shirts sold in their stores and online have historically been from U.S. grown cotton.
- There is a strong demand for organic cottonseed for feed use in organic dairies.
- Organic vs. conventional cotton: Farmers growing conventional cotton use synthetic fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides. And with much of the conventionally grown cotton also genetically engineered, more and more Roundup herbicide is used to combat increasing weed resistance. Organic cotton is grown without such chemical use.
TOCMC also helps its farmers, including Chad King, a more recent organic cotton grower. Ironically, King’s office in Sudan, TX, is shared with his father’s aerial spraying business. “My dad is a spray pilot and he encouraged me to look into organic cotton. Our family has been in agriculture since 1920. Growing up in the early 1980s, I used to flag for my dad and I would get sprayed. I didn’t like chemicals,” he says.
King had an untreated field coming out of grass and seizing the opportunity, he planted his first organic cotton crop six years ago. “I really had no idea what I was doing. I talked to people who recommended Jimmy Wedel who had been growing organic cotton since the 1980s. I contacted him, kept asking him questions and you could say I became his apprentice.”
Today, King grows both organic and conventional cotton, along with organic corn, milo, peanuts and soybeans. He would go all organic if he could. “I just love organic farming. It’s been good for my family. It’s a real challenge but it pays in the end,” King says.
The drought in Texas has ended. And in 2015, TOCMC farmers logged their largest crop of organic and transitional cotton, totaling over 15,000 bales. Now they’re actively marketing the increased production. They’ve lowered prices, and may have to market some of the bales conventionally, which will result in lower payments to farmers.
TOCMC has been very close to establishing large customers who commit to U.S. grown cotton, but cheaper prices overseas have won out in the end. “We have a lot of producers interested in growing organic cotton. Some of the large U.S. companies have to make the decision to use U.S. grown cotton. If that doesn’t happen, we will continue our slow growth as we feed out to the smaller companies who appreciate that our cotton is grown in the U.S.” //