Lately, it seems you hear more about the “organic vs. conventional” topic and while people are often playing these two against each other, there are some who are actually utilizing each to the best of their ability.
Jeremy Brown, a fifth generation farmer, is farming 2,700 acres of cotton: 1,700 acres is conventional cotton and 1,000 acres is organic cotton. Brown said he got into organics in 2010 after recognizing the growing niche market.
“It’s really good to be diversified,” he said. “I never want to have all my eggs in one basket.”
Brown said West Texas is a great place to farm organic cotton because organics can present several growing challenges and with many beneficials, like ladybugs, and harsh winters, pests and weeds can be naturally taken care of.
Around planting time they have to keep a clean seed bed for organic cotton and they want it to be as clean as possible as there is only so much space they can work with once the cotton comes up. Brown uses compost as his form of fertilizer and will also use green manure crops.
“The great thing about composting is that its not going to leach. It will stay in the soil if the plant doesn’t use it,” he said. Brown uses Southwest Compost in Slaton and places two tons to the acre on dry land and on their organic acres they recompost every third year.
When choosing an organic variety of cotton, he said he likes to look for good fiber quality that will grade well. They use Fibermax 958, non-treated and non-GMO seeds that do well with limited water and are storm proof.
By the end of August the organic plant is not using as much moisture and it is maturing out so at the first of September, Brown slings out non-treated and non-GMO rye with a spreader on the back of a tractor where they then come behind that with sweeps to cultivate and plow it.
Brown said that process serves two purposes: they are cultivating as it is normally their last plowing and they are putting a little dirt on top of the seed and they are also hopefully getting a rain in September to sprout it. Depending on the freeze date for the cotton, Brown said they are sometimes driving over the green rye while stripping cotton.
They cultivate the green rye, or basically kill it before it makes a seed, around mid-March then they start to ready the land for cotton. He said the rye’s sole purpose is to be a form of rotation and to put organic material back into the land.
The difference between organic and conventional vastly comes into play during harvest. When it’s harvest time, with organic you’ll wait for a freeze before the cotton is ready to go, whereas, non-organic you can use a chemical to defoliate. Keeping the equipment clean is a must. Brown said “you have to thoroughly clean your equipment for your organic varieties.” Before they pull into their organic fields they will powerwash equipment to prevent spray residue and soil contamination. They try very hard to uphold the integrity of the system and the integrity of the product. The gin also follows the same rules and has to clean everything very thoroughly.
Growing organic cotton essentially means you are required to follow a lot of rules. “If you don’t like paperwork, I don’t know if organic is for you. It’s more about keeping good records and obeying the rules on crop rotation, crop plan, fertilizers, no chemicals, and no synthetic fertilizers,” Brown said.
He said they have to keep records of everything that way if they are ever questioned they will meet the standards and follow the rules. Brown is certified by the Texas Department of Agriculture to grow organic cotton and he is inspected regularly by the TDA to ensure the regulations are being followed.
The differences between growing organic cotton and conventional cotton are actually small. “The difference with conventional is you can use fertilizers, synthetic chemicals and new technology, like GMOs,” he said. “When it comes down to growing the crop, your techniques may be different, but at the end of the day it is still the same crop. It’s still a cotton plant.”
In fact, some of his organic practices are being transferred to his non-organic fields, like composting. This year, Brown’s bale-to-acre ratio on dryland was actually close between the two. His organic cotton yielded nearly as good as his non-organic cotton with similar grades. This year was slightly exceptional; however, seeing as his organic cotton, on average, will yield a little lower with a little less quality. He said there is never a normal and it can depend on several factors.
Brown has visited with several companies about his organic cotton, such as Patagonia and Nike and he said that he likes the opportunities organic products bring to the grower. With conventional products, he said the product can get kind of lost within the supply, but with organic, you get the chance to hear what companies are wanting and what their customers are saying.
He did say organic apparel can be challenging because organic cotton will typically be of less quality and companies are searching for high quality organic cotton. While organic is a niche market, Brown said it ultimately comes down to basic supply and demand for differences in price. There are not many organic growers, which means a lower supply and higher demand for organic. He believes that if that were to change, conditions would be different and premiums for organic cotton would not be as high.
Right now, whether it is organic or non-organic, Brown said this year he needs good, timely rain and a good climate. He said an improvement in the economy is needed as the world economy is hurting all farmers. Oil prices affect agriculture, especially cotton farmers because the lower the price of oil, the lower the price of polyester, which is cotton’s biggest competitor. Going forward, Brown would really like to see farmers be prosperous again, until then, his message is simple.
“My mission is to steward the land, so whether that is organically or not organically, we’re trying to do everything we can to be good stewards of the land,” he said. “And we realize that God has entrusted it to us to go out there to feed and clothe the world.”