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Organic cotton is farmer's focus

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Aug. 23, 2012 - The question Jimmy Wedel is asked most often is why he grows organic cotton. The next thing they want to know is how.

To answer why he does it, Wedel goes back 20 years to a time when he had been farming cotton and other crops on the family farm near Muleshoe in the southern Panhandle, same as his father, for a little more than a decade. Jimmy couldn't see that he was getting anywhere with it and he began to look around for options. Organic cotton, which sold -- and still sells -- for a premium was one of those options.

"I wasn't doing anything but spinning my wheels by farming," he said. "I couldn't get ahead. I got tired of dealing with chemicals that worked sometimes and sometimes they didn't. You would spray in the spring and then sometimes you had to spray again. It added up to a lot of money."

Wedel's father, a soft-hearted sort when it came to wildlife, was a conventional farmer, but he had one unconventional habit. If he was working a field and came across a bird nest, he would raise the tractor attachment and skip five feet of the field to avoid the nests.

"It kind of annoyed me," Wedel admits today. "It left a big blank in the field."

Once, when his father skipped a spot where a family of quail had its nest, he went out the next day to find the mother quail lying dead next to the nest. A chemical-laced corn cob that fell out when he raised his sprayer had fallen near the nest; the mother bird ate it and died. The Wedel family rescued the chicks, incubated them and saved them, but the experience made an impression on the younger Wedel.

When the Texas Department of Agriculture became one of the first states in the country to institute an organic certification process, Wedel was one of the first large-scale farmers to take advantage of it. He grew his first crop of organic cotton in 1993. Organic cotton was expected to sell for $1.25 a pound at a time when conventional cotton was selling for a fraction of that. Organic cotton typically sells about 50 to 75 cents higher than conventional cotton, Wedel said.

"The truth is, if the economics (of organic farming) hadn't been there I never would have done it," he said.

Starting out with 160 acres, Wedel was farming 1,500 acres when he first switched to organic crops. Today, he farms close to 4,000 acres, with nearly all of it dedicated to organic corn, wheat, soybeans and peanuts, in addition to cotton. He is president of the Texas Organic Marketing Cooperative, which consists of about 25 producers in the Panhandle and High Plains who grow about 90 percent of the entire U.S. crop of organic cotton. Production ranges from between 6,000 and 15,000 bales of it a year, Wedel said.

How they do that without fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides is the second question that Wedel gets. There is a lot to it, Wedel says, but not as much as most people think. Weeds are a bigger problem than insects. The main thing it takes is work, especially during the growing season. Wedel only leaves the farm when necessary in the summer.

"There's no vacation, no golf, no ball games. You're tuned into this 24/7. You have to be in every field every day or it can get of hand," he said.

Wedel uses rotating hoes to control weeds and a GPS guidance system to get as close to the cotton plants as possible. Problem areas are hand-hoed. Insects don't pose as big a problem as weeds.

"We don't have as much insect pressure here on the High Plains as they do in other parts of the state, but there's also something about the organic soil that helps keep insects down," he said. "The soil is healthier and the plant is healthier, and they can withstand insect pressure better. With prescription farming, you end up with no live bacteria in the soil to help the plant fight off insects and disease."

The Texas organic cotton farmers sell their cotton through the cooperative, which makes that end of the business much different from conventional marketing, he said.

"It's more of a relationship-based business," he said. "The reality of organic cotton is that it accounts for -- I don't know the exact figure -- but probably less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all the cotton grown in this country. We stay in close contact with the people who buy our cotton. It's not quite like selling other commodities."

About half of the cotton grown by the cooperative is sold to one buyer, Anvil Knitwear. How much they buy depends partly on how much the farmers can grow and that depends a whole lot on the weather, which hasn't been too wonderful on the High Plains the last couple of years.

"Last year, we had a little less than 6,000 bales. That's where the relationship part of the business comes in. Our main buyer knew 12 months ahead of time that there was going to be a lot less cotton than they had been expecting," Wedel said. "We stay in close contact with each other so there's no big surprises at the last minute."

Last year, according to data compiled by the cooperative, the organic growers lost almost 10,000 acres to the drought and harvested 5,393 acres. The previous year the farmers lost just 100 acres and harvested nearly 11,000.

This year hasn't been ideal for the growers, but Wedel said most organic growers will harvest their crops because the premium price it brings will help offset the lower yields. Wedel's farms are irrigated and are in better shape than the dryland farms, which have been hit hard by the lack of rain. The cooler temperatures this year compared to last year has made a positive difference in the crop.

Though the initial inspiration to grow organic cotton was economic, the environmental aspects have become just as important to him as the money.

"I never have been a radical environmentalist, but I have some concerns about what all those chemicals are doing to the soil. I think of myself as a reasonable environmentalist, but I guess some people would still say I'm a radical, I don't know I have a couple of fields that are not organic because they just aren't suited for it. Organic farming isn't for everybody, but I don't think I'd go back now, even if we lost the premium."

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