Mon, Feb

Patagonia Staff Learns about Organic Cotton Production

Believed to be the only grower of organic cotton in California, Don Cameron wore his 100 percent organic cotton shirt from Patagonia as he showed representatives of that company from around the world his field near Helm on Friday.

Believed to be the only grower of organic cotton in California, Don Cameron wore his 100 percent organic cotton shirt from Patagonia as he showed representatives of that company from around the world his field near Helm on Friday.

"The shirt felt good this morning," he told them. "It got down to 38 degrees out here."

Cameron's blue plaid flannel shirt, which fetches about $70 at retail, was made from his own cotton, which took quite a trip before he was able to wear it. Its stops included a mill in Switzerland, where it was spun into yarn, and a plant in Portugal, where it was woven into fabric.

Cameron told the 45 visitors to his farm, most of them from Ventura-based Patagonia, about the global world of cotton production and the challenges to growing organic food and fiber.

"There is a lot more risk in growing organic," he said. "You can lose an entire crop" to pests and diseases that might otherwise be controlled by pesticides.

Patagonia, a maker of casual and outdoor clothing that has been a pioneer in use of organic cotton and wool, has used 100 percent organic fibers in its cotton clothing since 1996 and frequently sponsors visits with growers.

"We want our staff to 'get it,' to see it first hand," said Jill Dumain, director of environmental analysis at Patagonia. "As a clothing company, we're so far removed from what it takes to make this, we're very removed from agriculture."

Dumain said tours include "everybody from the vice president for marketing to the person who packs the order in the warehouse and the sales representative."

Sometimes competitors join the tours. Another was conducted Oct. 21 that was termed a "sustainable cotton project tour" and included representatives of Gap, Levi Straus, Sam's Club, Avondale Mills and others.

Dumain paraphrased the company's mission statement to include the goal of "making the best products with the least amount of harm." Growing conventional cotton means using pesticides extensively.

Cameron, general manager for Terranova Ranch Inc., pointed out the farming enterprise also grows conventional cotton, in addition to its 80 acres of organic pima cotton, which has a long fiber and is considered to be high quality. He also pointed out the farm has biotech pima.

"I believe organic and biotech both have a place," he said, pointing out that growing genetically modified cotton also means less use of pesticides. Cameron said that has also meant fewer illnesses, for example in China where workers had been applying insecticides by hand.

Cameron said that growing organic crops -- Terranova has others that include walnuts, cilantro, alfalfa and oat hay and processing tomatoes -- often involves hand-weeding, which means stoop labor that is costly.

This year, the cost for that weeding -- about $400 an acre -- could eat up any premium Cameron might have made from growing organic cotton.

The margin was already thin, he pointed out. Before planting, he had contracted with a buyer who will pay him $1.45 a pound.

Rodger Sanders, who had grown organic cotton in Bakersfield for Patagonia for 10 years, pointed out that Calcot, the Bakersfield cotton cooperative, this year announced a price of $1.37 for conventionally grown cotton from 2004.

"That 8-cent difference won't pay the weeding bill," Sanders said.

Cameron said Terranova has 17 different crops, and that diversity enables it to stay in business despite lower profit margins on some crops. Ten percent of its 5,500 acres are organic.

Terranova is able to command a premium for the seed from the cotton that is separated from the fiber during the ginning process. It goes to a Modesto organic dairy for cattle feed and sells at about $300 a ton, compared to $120 for conventionally grown pima cotton seed.

According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic fiber apparel grew 22 percent in 2003, the last year for which statistics are available. Sales were conservatively estimated to grow more than 15 percent a year through 2008.

Recent decisions by major retailers, including Sam's Club, Nordstrom and Whole Foods, could double those figures, said Sandra Marquardt, senior consultant with M&R Organics in Washington, D.C.

Wearing organic cotton slacks and a blouse and carrying an organic wool sweater, Marquardt trotted out some statistics on pesticide use in cotton and listed many brands that use organic fiber. Among them: American Apparel, Eddie Bauer, Indigenous Designs, Timberland, Norm Thompson and Under the Canopy. Designers using organics include Eileen Fisher and Diane von Furstenberg.

In the U.S., organic cotton is grown in Texas, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Missouri.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News