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How organic farmers harvest sustainable fashion

Elizabeth Carey Smith

While Jimmy Wedel doesn’t know exactly how far back in his family tree his relatives farmed, as the founder and president of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Co-Op, from which Zady sources its cotton, he knows it’s in his blood. “I started farming in 1979. My father started farming in 1948, and his father, I don’t know when! I personally know three generations that have farmed. Not necessarily on the same land, but once you get many more generations than that, then everybody’s ancestors were farming.”

It’s true. Agriculture was a leading occupation for early Texans, and the high-altitude and arid climate of West Texas has always been ideal for growing cotton and commodity crops. Despite this, the past 50 years have shown a downturn in independent farming worldwide. “I’m the end of the line,” Jimmy says from his office at Wedel Farms in Muleshoe, Texas. “My son and daughter wanted to do something that made more money and wasn’t nearly as hard.”

Jimmy Wedel grew up on a farm, got his bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Economics, and for many years, he farmed using what are called “conventional” practices: spraying Monsanto-brand insecticides and herbicides (the brand name is Roundup) and using their GMO cotton seeds, called “Roundup Ready”, which are specifically engineered to be resistant to the chemical sprays. This is how more than 95% of cotton is grown, but Jimmy wasn’t having much success. “I’d been conventionally farming and not making any money, not getting ahead in life, and pretty much spinning my wheels. I’d had what I call several ‘chemical failures’, in other words, when you apply herbicide or insecticide, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, particularly with insecticides—sometimes they’re a bit finicky. You spend all that money and basically there’s not anything you can do if it doesn’t work, other than respray.”

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Jimmy Wedel in one of his Organic Cotton fields. Photo: Josie Musico for Lubbock Online

Feeling slightly hopeless about the scant options for improving his crops’ yields, it was just the start of several things that led Jimmy to begin to question conventional farming practices. He was wary of the amount of chemicals consistently being applied to the land. “You know, 95% of the cotton grown in the U.S. is Roundup Ready cotton. Roundup is a poison, it poisons that cotton plant. Roundup Ready plants have a gene in them so they have a tolerance to throw that off, but you can feel sick for a day or two when those guys spray it.”

When that happened, that kinda made me question all the chemicals we were putting out….that maybe there was a better way.

Around 1989, the Texas Department of Agriculture instituted its Organic Standards. Curious, Jimmy spoke to the program director. “He was touting the fact that we could get maybe twice as much Organic cotton as what we were getting from conventional cotton.” He continued, “and of course, my dad was farming before they had most of the chemicals they have today, and so he was basically already familiar with Organic farming.”

Meanwhile, “My dad was an avid bird lover. If he came across a bird’s nest in the field, he would raise up the planter so as not to disturb that little bird nest.” One day—Jimmy guesses around 1992—his father found a pheasant’s nest in the field near Jimmy’s house. “He was planting the cotton, and he sees that pheasant’s nest and it’s got 10, 11 or 12 eggs in it, and he picks the planter up to not disturb that nest! And he’s gonna skip maybe 3 feet in the field, right? So now we have 8 rows wide and 3 feet long and no crop planted, to save the bird. That was his character. When we went out there to look at the nest the next day, there was the pheasant beside the nest, and she was dead. And the reason she was dead was, when he raised the planter up, some of the corn cobs that had been planted came up and fell on the ground, and the pheasant ate those corn cobs, which had the poison on them, and it killed the pheasant. When that happened, that kinda made me question all the chemicals we were putting out….that maybe there was a better way.” His father, who had experience farming before the advent of chemical spraying, convinced him he could do it.

“I looked at the economics of it, understanding that we’d have to give up the synthetic fertilizers, and the herbicides and insecticides and pesticides, which had a lot of extra cost…but I ran the numbers and thought, hey this will work. I could even take a significant reduction in yield and we could make this deal work.” Organic certification takes 3 years: 36 months after your last prohibited chemical application, to ensure the soil has been ridden of synthetic chemicals.

In 1993, Jimmy started out with about 300 acres of Organic cotton. While the yield was great, he quickly realized he’d exceeded the Organic market demand…by a lot. He quickly mobilized the other Organic cotton growers (“probably all but two”) and started the Texas Co-op, so that they could market the cotton together. This gave them more leverage with bigger cotton buyers, and put Texas Organic cotton on the map.

When you quit putting chemicals and synthetic fertilizers on your land, your plant is healthier. It has a better immune system.

The changes in his fields and crops soon became apparent. “When I first got into this, I was involved in the integrated pest management program. We had people looking at our pests and counting bugs. The bollworm was a significant pest in cotton, and if you reached, say, 10,000 bollworms per acre, and you didn’t spray to kill them, you were gonna have huge yield losses in your cotton. That’s what we’d been told, that’s how I’d been educated. I’ve been to lots of insect courses, and we just knew you were gonna be ruined if you didn’t spray your cotton. Around our second year, I had an entomologist checking our conventional crops.” Jimmy asked him to look at one of his Organic fields “to see what the bugs were doing.” The entomologist found nearly 30,000 bollworms — 3 times the amount he’d been warned about. The result? “That field made just as much, if not more than my conventional fields. I can’t explain it, but when you quit putting chemicals and synthetic fertilizers on your land, somehow your plant is healthier. It has a better immune system, for a lack of a better word. It’s not all that different from a human that takes too many antibiotics and all of a sudden doesn’t have the immune system to stay healthy. We didn’t have near the insect damage we anticipated because for some reason, our plants are healthier than they normally would have been.”

Organic certification requires that the crops are rotated, which ensures nutrient-rich soil. Wedel Farms rotates their cotton with Organic corn, wheat, soybeans, and forage sorghum, amongst others. “When I first became an Organic farmer, I grew two crops. I grew corn and I grew cotton. Because I had to find additional markets, we had to find different ways to farm, that’s when I branched off into all these other crops that most of my conventional neighbors were not growing. We find different ways to work with Mother Nature. One of those ways is growing feed for Organic dairy. Normally, we would never even think about planting a crop like that. But this year, we got significant rainfall, so we can grow this other crop. As a conventional farmer, I never would have done that. You have to think outside the box.”

Because conventional farmers are not beholden to the strict rules surrounding Organic certification, the labor intensity is very different. “If I were a Roundup Ready, GMO farmer, which most all of the farmers are, I could farm from the beach in the Bahamas. All I gotta do is call my spray guy and tell him to spray. That is an oversimplification of what my conventional neighbors do, but they could. They plant, then everything else is just based on spraying insects or spraying weeds. So, that part of it is pretty simple. The primary difference is that I have to physically, visually see my crops every day. From the time I plant in mid-May, till the end of July, I’m pretty much on the farm every day. You’ve got to stay ahead of whatever issues are coming at you.” Typically, that means weed control, since the fields’ high altitude means they don’t have the insect and pest pressures of other farms. In the absence of spraying herbicide, Wedel’s staff have to hoe the fields manually. After 23 years of working the same land, he can usually predict how to handle situations. “But I do have to look at [the fields] every day. It’s what I call “intense management” because my conventional neighbor, who has one spray rig… that’s all he’s got to worry about. One guy, one spray rig. For me to farm the same amount of acres, I had up to six or seven employees running six or seven tractors and equipment.” At Wedel Farms’ peak, they were growing 4,500 acres of Organic crops. “I’d have 20-30 people on the payroll throughout the summer months, hoeing the weeds we missed with cultivation. So dealing with that, the management issues, the labor issues, it’s just a huge difference. But at the end of the day, my conventional neighbor barely breaks even in a good year, and I’ll make a significant profit in most years.”

I can’t tell you how much more fulfilling this has been.

Jimmy is clear about the fact that he wouldn’t be growing Organic crops if there wasn’t an economic advantage, but he also believes it’s the right thing to do. “Because we’re not spraying anything, we have healthier soil. Have I done soil tests to see if I have more microbes or more good bugs and good bacteria? No, but I can tell you my soil is very healthy. Every year you have to fill out a report to maintain Organic certification, and they ask, ‘how do you know your soil is healthy?’ And I say, ‘because my yields are still good!’ I don’t have to be a rocket scientist, I don’t have to go out and get a chemical analysis report to tell you that what we are doing is the right thing, because my yields are still really, really good.”

And he feels closer to the land and his crops. “I can’t tell you how much more fulfilling this has been as compared to when I was a conventional farmer. You know, when you’re a conventional farmer, your cotton gets blended with everyone else’s cotton, and you never know what happens to that cotton afterwards. And you probably don’t care. But being an Organic producer, I know where my bales go, I know what programs they go into. You feel like you’ve got some ownership all the way through the process.”

The story about the pheasant eggs his dad found has a happy ending, too. “When my wife found out those eggs were still there, she said, well, we have an incubator. So, she brought it in and the kids watched them and all of those eggs hatched into baby pheasants, and our kids got to watch that process. So it really does have a happy ending.”

Masthead image by David Wilson.

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