One of the good things that happens when you use the term The South is that broad understanding deploys. The climate, the culture—there’s no mistaking The South for, say, New England.
One of the bad things that happens when The South is broad-brushed over a topic is that important differences within the region are lost. So it is with growing cotton, and in Texas, growing this commodity organically.
If you think you know what cotton means to Southern history, culture, and the economy, consider the Lone Star State. It really is “a whole other country” where the production of cotton lint (the industry term for raw cotton) is concerned. For certain, Texas has become a major exporter of cotton in the world and the leading producer of organic cotton in the United States.
COTTON AND HUMAN HISTORY
Cotton has been cultivated for several thousand years; its exact origin is unknown.
Scholars believe it was independently discovered and appreciated in the wild concurrently in three major areas of the world: The Indus Valley in India; Peru in South America; and a swath of northern Mexico into what became the southwestern United States. Each area is a hot climate with sufficient moisture for plant growth.
They also note that handling the harvested bolls gave rise to almost the same tools in all three places: combs, bows or cards, hand spindles, and looms. This is how smart our ancestors were: some automated/mechanized version of each of these same implements is in use today.
Back in the day—the day being the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300)—the manual spinning wheel “automated” the creation of cotton (and woolen) yarn, driving the need for more and more raw cotton. After all, which would you rather wear (and produce)? Chewed up animal skins and bug-laden pelts or soft, pliable cotton?
COTTON IN AMERICA
A few hundred years later, Europe’s desire to colonize the New World was driven by resource scarcity in the Old World. We like to focus on people fleeing religious persecution, but in fact, it was a search for precious metals, especially gold, that propelled the earliest and the most extensive investments in populating the colonies.
When gold turned out to be pretty much a bust, for a long, long time it was the economics of having access to seemingly unlimited resources that made America valuable to the colonizing nations and to the continuous waves of immigrants who settled here.
Lumber and tar were just waiting to be harvested, but it was not lost on anyone that rich, fertile soil was also a hugely important resource. Planting cash crops became the gold people sought, and many were made wealthy with tobacco, rice, indigo . . . and cotton.
Part of what sparked the American Revolution was England’s insistence that the colonies remain dependent on certain English industries, including textile weaving and dyeing. Imagine not being able to weave and make your own clothes and household items but being demanded to supply the raw materials to the Mother Country for next-to-no-profit and then be taxed on the finished product. It wasn’t just the tax on tea that brought the wrath of the colonies on King George III. It was more so cotton, tobacco, and indigo that helped bring about the desire for independence.
As time went by, Americans became adept at planting and harvesting cotton and manipulating it through several steps to produce high quality fabric. Yet another revolution sparked by cotton was the Industrial one, powered by Eli Whitney’s 1793 invention of the cotton gin (engine).
COTTON IN TEXAS
There probably were small, serendipitous plots of wild cotton managed by Native Americans scattered throughout the enormous territory that was eventually known as Texas, especially in what is now Arizona. For certain, Spanish missionaries brought cotton with them as they settled in the area in the sixteenth century, as did Anglo-American settlers in the nineteenth.
Because Texas was originally invaded by Spanish explorers and colonists, the slavery we associate with cotton farming in the South was not an early, widespread institution here. It primarily arrived with Anglo-American settlers long after the buying and selling of human beings was entrenched elsewhere.
Instead, the early cotton years in Texas relied on tenant farming and sharecropping, both their own kinds of indebted bondage. Small cotton plantings were the norm in eastern Texas, but when slavery arrived full-blown, landowners created much larger holdings. Over time, cotton farming moved from eastern into central and western Texas, prompted by available land, railroad placement, and mechanization.
TEXAS COTTON GOES ORGANIC
As with so many agricultural products, chemicals eventually came into heavy use to boost cotton production and reduce pest and disease problems. These are worse with monoculture crops, as cotton typically is grown, so the shift in the US to growing cotton organically in the last two decades has been slow to take hold. This is odd, actually, because cotton was only grown organically for much of the South’s history.
Cotton in America was largely a natural crop, untouched by pesticides or fertilizers until the late nineteenth century when the boll weevil arrived from Mexico and spread like crazy. Chemicals in the form of both pesticides and fertilizers were introduced to save crops and boost yields. In the 1990s, a few cotton farmers in Texas turned back the clock and went organic.
These organic cotton farmers formed a marketing cooperative in 1993 to better manage their output with market demand. Coop members have survived drought and floods, hail, and sandstorms and as much as seventy-percent crop loss in the gamble that farming always is, regardless the method. Perseverance pays off: Today Texas organic cotton farmers produce eighty to ninety percent of the organic cotton grown in the United States. Plus, in 2016 these coop members won the Organic Farmer of the Year award from the (national) Organic Trade Association.
Texas produces some twenty-five percent of the US cotton crop on six million-plus acres. Other Southern states producing cotton include Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. All told, including California and Arizona, the US comes in third in the world for cotton behind China and India. Interestingly, much of Texas’ production is exported to China, and it is highly regarded by Japanese weavers for its strong fibers. Almost all of the US cotton is known as Upland, with about one percent being grown as American Pima.
As long as humans need a laundry list of items dependent on this ancient textile—clothing, linens, carpet, fertilizer, paper, tires, cattle feed, draperies, cottonseed oil, and celluloid—Texas will remain in high cotton.
SEE MORE TEXAS COTTON PHOTOS HERE