The farmers of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative (TOCMC) have made the Texas High Plains the largest organic cotton-growing region in the United States, going from virtually nothing in the early 1990s to more than 20,000 acres in 2015. They produce 80 to 90 percent of the organic cotton grown in the United States.
“The farmers of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative represent the best characteristics of organic farmers--extraordinary vision, commitment to a cleaner agriculture, and a strong collective spirit,” OTA Executive Director Laura Batcha said in a news release announcing the award. “OTA is thrilled to be recognizing these Texas organic cotton farmers for their significant contributions to the domestic organic cotton industry and to organic cotton production.”
Jimmy Wedel, president of TOCMC, said in a 2012 interview with Country World that he became interested in growing organic cotton after he became frustrated with his conventional operation.
“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 began to look around for options. Organic cotton, which sold — and still sells — for a premium was one of those options.
“The truth is, if the economics (of organic farming) hadn’t been there I never would have done it,” Wedel said.
These 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,” Wedel said. “We stay in close contact with the people who buy our cotton. It’s not quite like selling other commodities.”
Indigo, an agritech startup with $150 million in funding, is putting a lot of that money on the line with this year’s cotton harvest. The company sold its probiotic-coated cotton seeds at a minimum cost, to farmers for 33 percent of any additional value the seed creates for the farm.
The company restructures seeds by adding microbes to farm crops in the belief that modern farming, with its increased use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides over the last half century, has changed the microbes in plants. Indigo aims to put the germs back in.
The company has been working with farmers in Texas and four other states to conduct trials with the product. They have shown 10 percent or greater yield increases under targeted stress conditions.
“Indigo Cotton is a fungus that we’re working with that helps the plant grow better under stress conditions,” Indigo representative Barry Knight said in an interview with the Texas Farm Bureau Radio Network. “Presently, we have our product on about 50,000 acres in cooperation with our partner Americot. So farmers across Texas and the mid-south are getting to look at it this summer.”
The innovative new product was developed from the cotton fields of Texas during the historic drought of 2011, Knight said.
“We went into the fields in that drought year and we looked for cotton plants that were doing well and surviving well,” said Knight. “We made collections of those plants to see what microorganisms were in there and if they were doing good things. Then we took those microorganisms and reintroduced them to all the cotton seeds that were in the fields.”
Indigo researchers are developing seed coatings the company expects to make crops more resistant to drought, insects, severe weather and nutrient-poor soil. Indigo is also working on crop-specific microbes for wheat seeds, which farmers will plant this year, as well as re-engineered corn and soy seeds. Indigo is focusing its first round of seeds on drought-resistant crops.
“The global demand for water has never been greater,” Indigo said in a news release announcing its latest round of funding, which netted $100 million from the Alaska Permanent Fund. “The increase in global population to 9.7 billion people by 2050 will place additional pressure on water supplies."
“The future of West Texas agriculture depends on finding ways to get more agriculture productivity from less water,” Indigo President and CEO David Perry said.
Texas grows more than six million acres of cotton every year, and most of that is grown in West Texas where conditions are dry. Much of the irrigation used to grow the crop in this region is from the Ogallala Aquifer, according to Indigo Agriculture. The Ogallala water level has dropped due to several consecutive years of drought and a high demand for water.
With population and weather volatility increasing, companies like Indigo are investing in innovations that make crops more tolerant to various climate conditions and help improve water efficiency.
“As agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global water consumption, more water-efficient methods of food production are urgently needed.”
Indigo scientists studied hundreds of plant species to create the coatings, using technology to determine which microbes they found in heritage plants were missing from modern agricultural crops. They used that information to formulate the seed coatings.
But for Indigo — and farmers — the proof is in the pudding that will be this year’s harvest.
“Ultimately, we will judge our success on the yields at harvest,” Perry told Reuters.
According to cotton specialists across the state in late July, this year’s cotton harvest needed some rain.
“The southern Blacklands are seeing a good fruit set, but that region needs a rain badly, especially in later planted cotton,” Texas AgriLife Extension State Cotton Specialist Gaylon Morgan told AgFax. “Earlier cotton is still progressing. ... However, later planted fields are blooming and are virtually at cutout. If we don’t get rain fairly quick, there won’t be a lot there to harvest.”
Morgan said the situation was the same in part of the Upper Coast — pretty plants with good fruit set on the bottom but shedding fruit at the top.
“Harvest yields are strong in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and up to the Coastal Bend,” he said, adding that insect damage had been light so far.
Wayne Keeling, an Extension cotton specialist in Lubbock, said weed pressure has also been light this year. Below-average rainfall — at least compared to last year’s spring deluges in the area — combined with farmers implementing good weed control programs has paid off so far.
“The season isn’t over,” he warned. “Farmers need to be diligent in making sure they control any weed escapes that may occur if we receive heavy rains late in the season. They need to watch for late-season weed emergence and weeds that may go to seed and present problems for next year.”
A recent University of Texas study found that the more kinds of pollinators cotton has, the better the yields. A report on the study appeared in the June 16 issue of the journal “Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment.”
Shalene Jha, a senior assistant professor of integrative biology at UT, was the senior author of the report. She said the study shows that biodiversity has many benefits.
“With the right management, cotton farmers have higher crop yields and support native plants and animals,” she said.
Cotton plants can produce bolls without pollinators, but they produce a lot more when pollinators are present. The addition of pollinators takes the pollen and spreads it to other plants, increasing cotton yields significantly.
The study suggests several management techniques producers can use, including planting wildflowers between crop rows or on the edges of their fields, and introducing flowering plants into crop rotations. Researchers also found that natural land cover within about 800 feet of the field increases the diversity of pollinators.
The study focused on 12 sites in South Texas. The authors noted that pollinator populations and growing conditions vary widely across the state, but they believe that more and diverse pollinators could increase farmers’ revenues by several million dollars statewide.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the U.S. Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation, and the Winkler Family Foundation helped fund the research. Scientists conducted the work in collaboration with the Welder Wildlife Refuge and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.