Larhea Pepper tells how she and a group of Panhandle cotton raisers turned around their farms and their community.
Editor’s Note: Over a decade ago, David Todd started interviewing Texans and their relationship to the state’s land, water and air. He talked to game wardens, state legislators, ranchers and anyone else who has helped save and protect the state’s environment.
Over the years, Todd built a modern history of how people in one state have learned to live on the land they call home. There are 225 interviews in what became known as the Texas Legacy Project. The tapes and transcripts are all stored here.
Now those interviews have become a book published by the Texas A&M University Press — The Texas Legacy Project: Stories of Courage & Conservation. (Find more about the book here.)
All the interviews are interesting, but we were particularly taken with the story told by Larhea Pepper, who farms 960 acres with her husband, Terry, near the Panhandle town of O’Donnell, Texas. They grow cotton, but not just any old cotton.
Well, better to let Larhea tell the story.
Part of why I’m involved in organic agriculture is based on my family legacy. As a child we still had some of that farm diversity: we had some chickens, dairy cows, and part of our land was in a crop rotation system. So, my family land has never used the synthetic chemicals or fertilizers or chemicals because granddaddy felt like we’re simply stewards of the land.
It’s not our land. We’re simply here as caretakers. That concept and that philosophy and those stewardship principles were a huge part of our family. So even though granddaddy and daddy didn’t necessarily preach that in a direct way, it was done indirectly.
I was the oldest grandchild on the farm, and I was sent to ride along with my granddaddy or dad, so I was with them a lot as a young child before I went to school, and even after school or in the summers. I remember driving by a place where a new farmer was putting up tanks for chemicals and starting to use the fertilizers and a lot of the synthetic chemicals that came along in the late fifties and early sixties. And there would just be comments from my father and grandfather like “they’re poisoning their land,” and “we don’t do that, we’re not going to do that, it’s not respecting the land, it’s not right.”
There were strong opinions in my family growing up as to what “stewardship” for the land meant.
As a young girl, I played in the dirt! When Daddy was plowing there’s nothing better then running behind the tractor and smelling the dirt just so fresh and turned and alive with life and earthworms. You can smell it—the soil smells good and healthy.
You know, on a lot of the conventional farms right now their land is almost played out. It’s nothing more then a sponge, and they have to apply so many fertilizers and so many other things to the land in order to have any kind of soil fertility. Whereas our land is balanced and healthy and it still smells good and it feels good to walk in it. It’s not like this hard pan of concrete. So part of my childhood is the legacy that was passed on from my father and my grandfather directly has to do with my respect for the land.
“Nobody called wanting a five hundred pound bale of cotton.”
When my husband and I started farming in 1979, the reality of the economics of the farm really hit us. As a young family (we have two boys), we started looking at the future of the family farm, and came to the realization that it was not working.
The inputs are going up, diesel costs more, labor costs more, and the price for the cotton is simply not there. So we looked at what do we’d need to do to diversify. A lot of families “diversify” initially by having the wife get an off-farm job and in order to support the family on the farm. We looked at that, and over the years I’ve taught school and done different things, depending upon what the crop year was looking like. But that’s not a long-term answer for what was going on at the “farm gate” level.
We just did some serious talking, and in the back of my mind was the first degree that I have from college, in fashion design and textiles. And when my husband Terry and I were dating, that was before we decided to farm, I always had dreamt of something involving fabric and textiles. I’ve just always loved that. And then, Terry decided to farm with my granddaddy and I could not believe that I was moving back to the farm! It’s a mixed blessing kind of thing. And I’m like, “Boy, this degree in fashion design’s going to do me a whole lot of good in the middle of the cotton patch!”
But when we started looking at it, we realized that two things happened kind of at once. In 1990, the enabling legislation for certified organic products came into being and a lot of public and private certifying groups started developing standards for organics. Those were words that had been floating around out there for a number of years, but there wasn’t a set of standards or methods that you could use here and apply those to your land.
The other thing that happened was we saw a need to diversify our farm base. Out here we get about seventeen inches of rain, and that’s on a good year! So, we don’t have a lot of cash crop alternatives. We’ve had three years of droughts right now, and we haven’t averaged over about seven or eight inches of rain. This is a very tough climate in regards to rainfall, and there’re just a limited number of crops that can grow in this area on a limited amount of rainfall.
When we looked at diversifying, other cash crops didn’t come to the top of the list. There just wasn’t anything out there that you consistently grow on an annual basis in some kind of a crop rotation basis that could be the cash crop that cotton is for us.
The other thing that happened involved the organic standards. I found out that we needed to change a little bit of our farming dynamics as far as how we did crop rotation, and fill out a stack of paper about this deep to become certified organic farmers.
And then, another whole dynamic opened up. It’s one thing if you’re a strawberry grower or a green bean grower. You can take your crop to a farm stand at the edge of your farm, or in town to a community farmers market, and you can sell your organic crop to the people that know you or who come by your farm stand. You can be an organic farmer, the customers trust you, and everything’s great and wonderful.
But no one, no one, wants to buy a five hundred pound bale of cotton! No one. People were calling us wanting organic cotton tee shirts or tote bags or sheets, all kinds of different things. Nobody called wanting a five hundred pound bale of cotton. The market simply wasn’t there.[img:organic-cotton1.jpg]
This situation presented us with both some opportunities and with some challenges. When we started looking into the fabric side of it, which is my love, we found out that the finishing mills required a four thousand yard minimum of fabric to make a production run. There were many different manufacturers interested in making jeans, tee shirts, tote bags, baby clothes, sheets and linens, but they didn’t have or couldn’t acquire enough organic cotton to meet the four thousand yard minimum for the manufacturing mills.
From a marketing standpoint, we expanded from just growing the cotton to getting involved in the product manufacturing process. From our 1991 crop that had been certified organic, we took some of our bales down to New Braunfels, Texas, and had four thousand yards of denim fabric made, and that was just a riot. I remember Terry and I driving back thinking, “What have we done?”
When we got home, I started calling back all those people who had previously expressed an interest in some organic fabric and I said, “I’m making some denim, and are you guys interested?”
And they were! Well, three months later, by the time it got spun and woven and finished, we had four thousand yards of denim in our family room. And I had all that denim sold before it was delivered. So then we ordered another round of denim, added a chambray, a twill, a flannel, and now Cotton Plus has celebrated its tenth birthday.
We have about forty different fabrics in our inventory and we service between six and seven hundred accounts, so, people are interested. You’ve just got to get the product. Nobody wants the five hundred pound bale, but they certainly want all the different products that are available to be made from organic cotton.
And from that came the formation of our farmer’s cooperative, because it’s so important when you’re growing a market that you have stability and consistency and supply. Since it’s really difficult for one farmer to do that, we had other farmers in our area who were interested to join.
The co-op also celebrated its tenth birthday this year. We have thirty families involved. About ten thousand acres in our geographic area are organic, and about half of that is in cotton. So we’ve got a strong rotation program going, strong families, strong commitment, and that provides a stable foundation for the organic industry.