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Consumers Drive Move To More Sustainable California Cotton Farming

• By Jeannette E. Warnert •

california cotton cover crop

A handful of California cotton producers are experimenting with cover crops — photo courtesy UCCE

Consumers who purchase luxury cotton textiles want more than cool, soft, absorbent fabric. Increasingly, they demand clothing made from fiber grown using ecologically sound practices and they’re willing to pay for it, said speakers representing the textile industry at a University of California Cooperative Extension webinar on Healthy Soils for Healthy Profits.

At the beginning of the webinar, UC Cooperative Extension conservation agriculture specialist Jeff Mitchell recalled the tragic 1991 dust storm on the west side of Fresno County, which reduced visibility on Interstate 5, causing a 104-vehicle pile-up that took 17 lives. The devastating accident foreshadowed debates about agriculture’s role in reducing dust emissions.

“It turns out that air quality was just the beginning,” Mitchell says. “There is now a whole cascade of expectations that buyers, consumers and the public are demanding of farmers about how food, fiber, feed and fuel crops are actually produced.”

No-Till, Strip-Till

Speakers from nonprofit and commercial fashion and fiber organizations say they are anxious to get access to cotton grown using practices that promote soil health and sequester carbon to give their products climate-change mitigation cachet.

“What we envision when we look at the fields is groundcover year-round. Living roots in the soil year-round,” says Rebecca Burgess, director of Fibershed, a California non-profit organization that develops regional and regenerative fiber systems. “No-till or strip-till practices have garnered interest to protect soil from disruption, to avoid breaking up fungal networks and produce cotton in a system that isn’t eroding topsoil.”

Wrangler jeans is a clothing brand that has successfully incorporated sustainably produced cotton into its products. The company worked with a group of Tennessee cotton farmers and the Soil Health Institute to produce 100% sustainable cotton jeans and sell them in its Wrangler Rooted Collection. Men’s jeans in the collection run about $100 a pair. Ordinary cowboy cut Wrangler jeans range from $39 to $41 a pair.

Cover Crop Strategies

Growing regenerative cotton in California comes with challenges that farmers are facing head on. This year, Firebaugh farmer John Teixeira grew a multi-species cover crop that he terminated with a flail mower rather than a herbicide to make a compost. In some areas of the operation, he spreads 8 to 10 tons of the organic matter per acre.

“We spread it on soil and also on cover crops to digest the cover crop,” Teixeria says. “We’re adding bacteria. We would love to have more fungal diversity in the compost, but that’s really hard. Fungi don’t like to be disturbed. I believe microbes are the future. The key is to keep them alive.”

Gary Martin of Pikalok Farming in Firebaugh was using poultry manure on the farm until it became prohibitively expensive. He then turned to cover crops and municipal compost to improve water infiltration, soil structure, water retention and increase organic matter. After three years, he added gypsum to improve the soil health.

He found that planting a cover crop without irrigation is a gamble.

“The net value of the cover crop is negative if it doesn’t grow (because of a lack of rain),” Martin says. “Composting is more of a sure bet.”

Bowles Farm is experimenting with using a native plant cover crop.

“Native plants are designed to grow when we get moisture, and go away when we don’t,” says Bowles Farm Executive Vice President Derek Azevedo.

The company is also working on writing a carbon plan to map out how much carbon a cotton farm in Merced County can capture. The trial is managed with a multi-species cover crop, strip tillage, untreated seeds, fungal-dominated compost inoculation and a reduction in synthetic nitrogen.

Cotton Fits The Bill

Rebecca Daeschner represented the Los Angeles-based luxury women’s wear brand CO (CO-collections.com), which in its current collection sells a ruched cotton top for $725, a cotton button down shirt for $795 and a short-sleeved cotton dress for $795.

“We’re interested in making products that stand the test of time, stay out of landfills, eliminating waste,” Daeschner says.

The company currently sources its high-end materials mainly from Italy but is interested in transitioning to fabrics that are not only high-quality but also have a reduced environmental footprint.

Jeannette E. Warnert is a communications specialist, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. Contact her at jewarnert@ucanr.edu.