Tough Times for US Organic Cotton Farmers
>From Natural Foods Merchandiser (March 2003)
Manufacturers Bail On Cotton Growers
While demand for organic fibers continues to rise, expanding
supplies of organic cotton from countries like Turkey
and Pakistan have put price pressure on growers in the
United States, who responded by reducing organic cotton
production in 2002. Although apparel manufacturers including
Patagonia, Timberland and Cutter & Buck have announced
organic cotton product lines, according to a new report
from the Organic Trade Association, the acreage planted
in organic cotton last year in the United States fell
22 percent to 9,044 acres from 11,586 acres in 2001.
At the same time, high yardage minimums imposed by fabric
mills make it tough for growers to sell their crops and
manufacturers to source fabric in smaller quantities,
said La Rhea Pepper of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing
Cooperative in Lubbock. "We've had really mixed signals
from large users of organic cotton," Pepper said.
Farmers who had hoped to take commitments from big manufacturers
to the bank to expand their organic cotton crop have gotten
burned, she said, and such market confusion needs to be
straightened out before farmers commit to the time and
expense of converting acreage from conventional to organic
production. "We can't compete with Third World countries
in terms of labor costs," she said. Some organic farmers
were left with unsold cotton last year, even as organic-cotton
clothing lines were announced by major companies. Hanna
Andersson introduced 100 percent organic cotton long johns
and "short johns" for kids and adults last fall, made
in Sweden of Swiss cotton.
Nike added a 100 percent organic cotton option to its
women's apparel line last fall, and Gaiam launched a "Home"
line of 100 percent organic sheets, blankets and pajamas.
"I'm not working to expand production until what is already
produced can be sold," said Sandra Marquardt, coordinator
of the OTA's Fiber Council and the report's author. Some
market conditions that favor offshore producers will be
tough to change, Marquardt said. Companies whose manufacturing
plants are overseas usually seek to source raw materials
closer to production, and raw agricultural material costs
are lower in developing nations.
But other companies seek to balance sourcing costs and
problems with a marketing message such as "Grown and Sewn
in the USA." Organic Exchange, an Albany, Calif., company,
is working to develop consistent "portfolios of fabric"
that will help build the organic volumes that mills and
yarn spinners need to provide wider consumer choice. "If
they get the volume, costs go down, manufacturers buy
more and organic products become more present in the marketplace,"
said Organic Exchange President Rebecca Calahan Klein.
"We're basically committed to taking organic cotton from
a niche market to a global commodity."
To better match growers and buyers, Klein is also working
with retailers and manufacturers to create more accurate
estimates of market demand�not just "Nike needs 10,000
pounds," but exactly what material, in what country, and
with what yarn and fabric vendors. Marquardt's report
surveyed all the organic cotton farmers in the United
States: 20 members of the Texas cooperative and 10 others
in New Mexico, California, Arizona and Missouri. Her figures
included both certified and transitional acreage. OTA's
organic fiber processing standards should be complete
by fall 2003, Marquardt said. �L.E.