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Corn+Soybean Digest

Organic Cotton Fills A Niche

Want to grow $1/lb or more cotton? Just manage your crop more intensely - and don't apply an ounce of synthetic insecticide, herbicide or fertilizer.

Farfetched? Not for Jimmy Wedel. Organic cotton has become his No. 1 cash crop. And his yields only suffer by a half-bale or less per acre on his irrigated farm near Muleshoe, TX.

In his sixth year of growing organic cotton, Wedel has 600 acres of it.

"From '93 to '96, I received from 80 cents to $1.07/lb for it," he reports. "Our '97 price was 90 cents to $1 - up to 40 cents higher than spot prices."

Wedel helped develop an organic cotton marketing co-op in '93. Headquartered in O'Donnell, TX, south of Lubbock, it has about 30 growers who produce most of Texas' 5,000 organic bales.

"There are about 10,000 organic bales produced nationwide," says Wedel, quick to point out that he has no qualms with "normal" cotton production.

"I still have some conventional cotton," he says. "The problem I have with it is the low price we often see. There is a small group of consumers willing to pay a higher price for clothing, food and other products produced from organic commodities. That's a niche we're helping fill."

Certified chemical-free, Wedel's cotton is grown in the Texas Department of Agriculture Organic Certified Program.

"There can be no synthetically manufactured pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers applied to land three years prior to the first organic harvest," says Wedel.

Ag department personnel do periodic on-site soil testing to help guarantee certification.

"We must maintain a 50' border from fields that receive chemical applications. Ginning must be done at a certified gin, meaning it must be cleaned of conventional cotton prior to processing organic."

For fertilizer, he applies manure he gets from nearby cattle feed yards.

"Soil fertility is comparable to what we receive from conventional fertilizers," he says.

For weeds, it's strictly cultivating and hand labor. He uses a spring cultivator to weed the 30"-row operation. And after irrigating or a rain, he immediately runs a double rotary hoe.

"This is where intense management is essential," he says. "Every time it rains, you have to run the rotary hoe when the crop is young. To compensate for thinning caused by rotary hoeing, we push for a higher plant population. We plant 37 lbs of seed/acre instead of a normal 27 lbs."

Hand hoeing, depending on the amount of precipitation received, is often his biggest expense.

"Our hoeing bill will run from $20 to $90/acre," says Wedel. "But we're also saving about $60/acre we would spend on three to five herbicide applications."

Insects are what make organic cotton difficult over much of the nation's cotton areas. With no pesticides, bugs are plentiful. Wedel counts on his region's normally cold Panhandle winters to help keep insect populations thinned. But the winter of '98 was mild, so he was worried about thrip damage to early plants.

"In these cases, you have to count on a possible yield reduction and figure it into your program," he says. "In fields where we normally yielded 2 to 2 1/2 bales/acre, we've seen a reduction of about 200 lbs (or about 1/2 bale)."

Boll weevils, which are causing some problems for the region 50 to 100 miles south of him, could harm Wedel's organic program. If they invade his area, a farmer vote could call for an area-wide pesticide program.

"We won't stand in the way of a weevil eradication program," he says. "We just hope we won't need one."

He would be forced to sell the organic cotton on the normal market, which can also be the case if state inspectors say an organic field receives too much pesticide drift.

Wedel says no genetically engineered cottons may be grown in an organic program, but growers may plant treated seed "if that's all that's available."

The cotton is sold via several buyers. Most is milled in Eastern textile facilities.

"Depending on the supply of organic, there is also a growing market for 'transitional cotton' grown on fields in their first year of being chemical-free," notes Wedel. "The market is close to $1/lb for transitional."

Since he rotates cotton with corn, wheat and peanuts, Wedel has no choice but to grow those crops chemical-free.

"Our corn yields about 15% less than normal," he says. He has corn contracted with a regional mill that produces organic-type meal, flour and other products.

"I feel there will always be good markets for organic cotton and food products," he says, pointing out that organic soybeans bring $13-15/bu.

"A certain segment of the population will always want chemical-free food and fiber products," Wedel declares.

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