The Growing Demand for Organic Cotton w/ Andy Jordan
Interview with Andy Jordan, Owner of Jordan Associates
Today, organic cotton only constitutes less than one-half of 1% of all cotton grown globally. With the demand for organic cotton growing day by day, savvy organic growers are looking to enter this promising space. Still, there are many questions surrounding the future of organic cotton, which we aim to unpack this week, with special guest Andy Jordan. Andy is an agronomist working to find more effective methods for growing organic cotton. He is the owner of Jordan Associates and also works on sustainability standards for the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.
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Learn more about the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol: www.trustuscotton.org
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INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower — an interview podcast where we hear from the top experts in the commercial organic industry — with a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field. You will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you ad-free by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. To learn more about Avé Organics, visit our program notes. In the meantime, enjoy the show.
TOM: Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning in today. Welcome to a new episode of Organics Unpacked, a podcast where we discuss organic farming from a practical view. I’m your host, Tom Buman. Today, I’m joined by Andy Jordan of Jordan Associates. Andy is a highly respected agronomist who works on sustainability standards for the Cotton Trust Protocols. Andy, welcome to Organics Unpacked.
ANDY: Thank you. Love to be here.
Background in Agriculture & Aerospace
TOM: Well, it’s really good to have you here today, Andy. I’ve met you before, and, at the time, I just respected how much you were committed to sustainability standards in your work with cotton. And I thought today would be a great opportunity to bring you in and just talk to you about where cotton is in the organic world and what you’re seeing. As we get started, Andy, I’m really interested in your background and how you got to this position of where you are today.
ANDY: Great. Thanks for the opportunity. Let’s start back 100 years ago. I was raised on a farm in Georgia. We did not grow, technically, organic crops, but much of them were by organic methods. The main difference back then to now is the weed control. Back when I was a younger person living on the farm, our total weed control was through mechanical means: by cultivation, plowing and hand-hoeing. Today, in modern agriculture — modern cotton farming — we heavily rely on chemical weed control measures. That’s the big, big difference.
ANDY: And how I got here, through a long process of spending some time in aerospace, teaching aircraft structural analysis. Later on, working at Clemson University, I worked in agriculture/agricultural production. And later, traveling to Memphis to work for the National Cotton Council, there I ultimately served as Vice President of Technical Services with the cotton industry. So, with that, years ago, when I was still fully employed at the National Cotton Council, I was very intent on developing metrics, developing methods for farmers to understand their impact on the environment and to articulate and measure those impacts. And that led us to, eventually, creation of the Field to Market Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, a multi-stakeholder group whose sole purpose is developing methods for measuring and methods for promoting sustainable practices in agriculture. So, from that, later on, retirement. I’m working full time with commodity organizations primarily. Not only cotton, but other crops: some small crops and some large crops. Still trying to understand and help my clients on this journey of continuous improvement for the ultimate objective that we will be truly sustainable on this planet.
Cotton Sustainability Today
TOM: Well, that’s a great goal, and I appreciate your work in that. So tell me about where cotton and sustainability is today. Let’s start there before we get into organic production. Me being from the Midwest, I hear about cotton as kind of hard on the soils. There are some things maybe. I’m sure everybody hears that about all crops. But where is cotton in sustainability today?
ANDY: That’s a great question, and it goes back, to a great extent, to cotton’s heritage. Unfortunately, going back a century or so ago, cotton did not have the greatest reputation for obvious social reasons and other reasons. But where cotton is now, cotton in the U.S. — I’m going to state the U.S. first and then globally — but cotton in the U.S. is highly mechanized. It’s highly dependent on technology. It’s a crop that, because of its traditional high-labor demands, had to become mechanized. And that means, with mechanization, with the size of machinery, there is an economic scale. Typically, cotton in the United States is not grown on a 50-acre farm or five-acre farm. It must have an economy of scale to justify the investments. So that leads us to the point that we’re highly reliant on technology. We must have access to good genetics, good nutrient practices, fertilization practices and really good plant protection materials for the myriad of insects and diseases and weeds that really like cotton. And now, globally, the U.S. is now, I think, the third largest country in production of cotton. India is number one. China is number two. The U.S. is number three. Brazil is coming on fast. They’re increasing their acreages. Then, the rest of the world: Western Africa is a significant but smaller part of total global cotton production. Organic production globally is less than one-half of 1%, and there’s a reason for that. And I’m trying to find ways to change that for many reasons. One: there is a demand. We’ve got many consumers that organic has a wonderful halo effect. It’s wonderful for organic food. Organic cotton follows. Customers really want to know their products, so it’s easy on the environment, they’re healthy, and they like that. So the point here is that, even though organic cotton has its great challenges, I’m going from a history of research, knowing that if there’s a problem, let’s solve it. That’s where I am right now, working with trying to find a way to make the supply of organic cotton more greater than it is now.
Challenges in Organic Cotton
TOM: That’s wonderful. So let’s talk a little bit about: what are some of the challenges for organic cotton? I know that you’re dedicated to making it work, but I also sense some hesitancy in the wide-scale adoption of it. So what are some of the challenges with organic cotton?
ANDY: I’ll speak as today, this afternoon, I will be going back out to an organic field, and I’m fighting weeds. Weeds are a major, major challenge. Little background here: I’m a board member of Agricenter International, which is a large research area inside the city of Memphis’ city limits. And we are providing, primarily, typical plot research for commercial companies with seeds, genetics, fertilizers, chemicals and various crops. And we have made it a point to dedicate a portion of this land to organic. So we have some area that’s certified organic land, and we are continuing to grow that amount. And the point here is that we have an area that’s dedicated to organic. So, now, yeah, my point is that I have selected five acres of land to begin what I’m calling a ‘year one’ of making organic work for the Mid-South. And I’m saying ‘for the Mid-South’ because the Mid-Southern areas are quite different from, say, the High Plains of Texas. The High Plains of Texas are more arid. It does not have the same challenges of insects, the same challenges of weeds, unless perhaps they have some good rain that they had this year. Now, they’re having some of the same problems. But getting back to my experience: as we speak, I planted these five acres in dry soil, which is not a good idea, and then it rained. And the weeds and the cotton came up at the same time, so that was problem number one. You cannot plant organic in dry soil because of the weeds. Typically, going back to my heritage — I mentioned I was raised on a farm quite a few years ago — we did not have herbicides, so we would always make sure we planted cotton in moisture. The soil had to be there, so there was enough moisture to germinate the seed before the weeds became there. This time, I did not do that because of the urgency. Timing was of the essence. Time was running out. I had to plant it. Then, it rained, and then, as soon as the weeds got tall enough for me to start cultivating, it started raining. It rained every week for several weeks, and the weeds enjoyed that very much. So, now, I’m in what you might call recovery. I’m controlling weeds that are now — some of them — more than eight feet tall.
TOM: Oh, my.
ANDY: And the cotton is two feet tall, so you could imagine the challenges. Weeds are predators. They capture the sunlight. They capture the nutrients and are shading the cotton plants, so this is a challenge. Now, the next challenge is availability of labor. Organic cotton production is going to be highly labor-intensive. Labor is expensive. It’s not particularly available, and I can understand why. Yesterday, the temperatures were approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was in the field. And you know what? It’s hot and uncomfortable. I would much rather be in an air-conditioned cab of a tractor than doing this, so I’m being realistic here. So labor is a serious issue. Fortunately, we were able to access a firm in Memphis. It’s a rehab center where they’re taking people having various issues they’re recovering from, and they’re willing to work. We’re paying them way more than minimum wage, paying them for labor, paying them a good wage. But it’s hard work and available and expensive. Now, getting to my cost: my cost will likely be, on a per-acre basis, $500 to $600 per acre. Now, this is for commodities, that when I produce my organic cotton, I will get a premium. I’ll get a nice premium. But unfortunately — and I’m projecting this year — even though I may get a nice premium of, say, double or triple what conventional cotton is, I can’t make it work. Now, I’m doing this for research purposes so I can justify it. I’m learning from this. Next year, I will take some drastic measures to do things differently. We’ve got to do things differently. If you’re going to do this from a commercial standpoint, we’ve got to find a way that we can do more with machines, less reliant on the drudgery of labor in 100-degree temperatures. We must find a way to make no-till work, and this is another issue, a real serious issue that I’m having. I had this nice area of land, which was fallow. Last year, we planted cover crops on it. It had perennial grasses. It had some legumes, which were doing a nice job of building up. But the first thing I did: I had to go in and till this. It breaks my heart to till soil because once you till the soil, we expose the organic matter to the atmosphere. It goes up and adds to our greenhouse gas burden. This is in the opposite direction of regenerative agriculture. Then, after planting, then, when I was able to start cultivating, I did it again. I go in, and I disturb the soil. Three times already, I’ve cultivated this, fighting the weeds in the row-middles. Then, in the meantime, it rains. There’s erosion that I’m fighting with. This is breaking my heart because this is totally, I guess, the principle that I have, keeping surface residue to prevent erosion. I’m bringing these out because these are the challenges that I intend to overcome. Not saying why not to do organic, but that explains to some extent why, globally, organic cotton is still less than one-half of 1%.
Organic Cotton & Cover Crops
TOM: So, Andy, how do cover crops fit into organic cotton?
ANDY: It’s going to be a very, very important part of my program next year or starting this year, as soon as the weather is right. I mean, there is a timing for planting winter cover crops. It’s very important. I will plant a mixture of cereal rye, most likely some black oats, most likely a legume of some type. I don’t know whether it will be vetch or clover or peas — winter peas of some type — but that will be an important part of preparing for next year. So, with this cover crop, I’m an eternal optimist. I know my weather’s going to be great this fall. I know the winter’s going to be kind to me, and I know that I’m going to have this wonderful, thick cover crop next spring. There, my intent is to go ahead and start making no-till and cover-crop in organic work. It’s going to be a challenge.
TOM: That is quite a challenge.
ANDY: I’ve got various options, and my friends will tell me I’m really crazy, but you know what? Let’s face it. There’s a real need — whether it’s commercial conventional agriculture or for organic — we’ve got to find a way to have machines and robots do more of our workforce because it’s much kinder to the environment.
Fertility Programs for Organic Cotton
TOM: Well, I want to get to robots, but I’m interested in your planned fertility system in organic cotton. Obviously, you can’t use synthetic fertilizers, so what is your fertility program?
ANDY: My fertility program is, first of all, anything I use would meet the OMRI standards. This year, I had a donor of pelletized poultry manure. It had a nutrient balance of 7−3−0, I think. And my sort here is generally adequate of potassium and phosphorus. Nitrogen is the real need there. So my plan was to use, typically, only half of the amount of nitrogen per acre for this reason. Since I could not use the foliage to harvest it, I must keep the size of my plant down small so that I can harvest it mechanically. And reducing nitrogen is the main way to keep your plant smaller than it is. Also, the timing of nitrogen is so important, to be sure. And again, I will be using products such as yours. I’m really interested in the products that you have. So I’m thinking — now, with the technology and the products that we have — fortunately, nutrition is not going to be my major problem because there are products available. Now, if I had access to poultry manure that could be hauled in from a reasonable distance, I would definitely be using that. Of course, I have to test it to make sure that I don’t get an imbalance of, especially, the phosphates. I don’t want to get too much there because of the eutrophication problems. My big picture: I’m still looking at the environmental footprint, so too much of any nutrient is just as bad as too little.
Insect Programs for Organic Cotton
TOM: So you’re working on your fertility program, you think, largely, with chicken manure. The weed control, obviously, is a challenge because of the amount of manual labor and tillage that gets done. How about your insect program?
ANDY: Insect program? Fortunately, this year, I’ve been blessed. Maybe there’ve been enough weeds that insects were not particularly attracted to it. But here’s the thing with insects in cotton: we do have some products, some organically approved products for cotton bollworm. Those are effective, and I anticipate using the BT materials that are available that are approved with OMRI. Plant bugs are a particular problem. Now, plant bugs — all bugs are plant bugs — but in this particular area of sucking insects, there are no products that I’m aware of, organic products that control those. In some areas, those can be devastating to a crop. My plan there is, next year, working with and trying to learn from organic producers of other crops of using trap crops. We really think that with the proper application of trap crops in the proximity of the cotton, those can be effective, but that’s yet to be proven. So, typically, my notion on insects I just have to take: accept the damage, and that’s unfortunate. That really decreases my yield, which makes my environmental footprint go up because I’ve got to take in more acres to get the same production. That’s a challenge. I’m fairly confident that technology can help us with some really good, organically-approved products for insects.
TOM: So, Andy, I know it depends on what the infestation level is. But in a typical year, what kind of yield decrease do you think you would see with insect populations?
ANDY: In a typical year, if I’m doing a side-by-side of organic and what we call conventional, insects itself probably cost me 25% of my yield. And I have some side-by-side — and not designed as a side-by-side experiment — but I have, also, some plots, which I call the regenerative plots. We use cover crops to the maximum, cutting down my nitrogen rates to what is needed, really building the soil up. And we are finding early on that we can reduce our inputs through regenerative agricultural practice, using good cover crops, burning bugs down with herbicides, which is not organic approved. But I’m keeping that residue in the soil, building the soil. We’re seeing the soil microorganisms really flourish in this environment, so I’ve got to find a way to make that work in organic.
Robots & Autonomous Tractors
TOM: That sounds like a real challenge. But back to the labor issue: what is the status of robots or autonomous tractors or anything in the cotton world? Where are we at, to be able to scale some of the organic production in cotton?
ANDY: There are new technologies available. I was working with a young engineer out of the University of Illinois. By the way, putting on a different hat, I’m also involved in an entrepreneurial program where we have tried to find the latest technology, helping companies get started with new developments. To get into this, this young man developed a robot. It’s a very small robot. Well, it goes on four wheels. It’s not something that looks like a little man walking around. But this robot is designed to stay underneath the canopy of the crop, and it was designed primarily for phenotyping for geneticists. Phenotyping means it looks at the leaves. It looks at the character, and it characterizes the morphology of the plant — what does it look like? — in collecting this data. And these robots, you turn them loose, and they go between the rows. They look up at the plant, and they map this plant. Now, in talking with this young engineer, I’m saying: ‘What I want you to do is teach this robot, with its optics, to understand the plants — the difference between a cotton plant and a pigweed plant — and then provide some type of mechanism for controlling that.’ So that’s on the drawing boards. Whether we get it in the next five years or not, I hope so. There are other technologies that are using lasers. It’s in an experimental phase now. There are some fields in New Mexico that are using lasers, which, again, is now of pattern recognition. And our pattern recognition: let’s face it. You go to Facebook, and it sees Tom Buman, and it can identify you wherever you are.
ANDY: Instantaneously. So that’s where we’re going, but we’re not there yet. Now, when we talk of robotics, a lot of the things we do already are robotic. We just don’t think of the mechanical cotton picker being a robot, and that’s essentially what it is. But I’m going beyond using technology or machines for controlling a problem. I’m also looking at technology and machines for prevention. For example, we are doing some developmental work. Now, when I say ‘developmental work’: all on paper. No machine cutting. To use what I would call a super mulcher, such that, when the cotton is small, we can go in and mechanically provide a mulch of some type, such as wheat straw or something. To put something on the surface of the soil, you cover the soil. That will prevent most of your weeds from coming up. Some will get through. If they do, then your labor issue is not that big a deal: to take out a few hundred plants per acre, rather than a few thousand or 100,000 per acre.
TOM: Right, so it’s coming, but it’s a ways off. Robotics.
ANDY: It’s probably here faster than we think, but for me, time is running out. I want it done now.
The Growth Potential for Organic Cotton
TOM: Well, that’s a good attitude. That’s a really positive attitude. So, in your mind, what is the growth potential for organic cotton? If we can figure out some of the soil health issues — the weed issues, the insect issues — what’s the market potential for organic cotton? Is that something you can speak to?
ANDY: Yes. I’m not an expert in this, but in a given week, I will talk with a brand and retailer about sustainable cotton. And they usually want to start with: ‘Well, what about organic cotton?’ And: ‘When can I get it?’ And: ‘How much does it cost me?’ Of course, I can’t tell them prices. I don’t set prices. So that is an indication that there’s a great interest. Again, because of the halo effect of organic, because of the positive attributes of organic foods and others, there’s a demand. And I’m convinced that we would have more organic clothing if there was a supply that could make it. This past year, organic cotton really got a bad rap for two reasons. One: the GOTS certification, which is the best certification in the world. They made some mistakes in India and certified some organic cotton, which was not organic. That was a big mistake. GOTS admitted that. They didn’t mean for that to happen, but bad things happen sometimes. The other thing that happened is that much of the Chinese organic cotton is coming from the Xinjiang province — the Uyghur area — and we all know the bad stories behind that. So a brand or retailer, they are absolutely paranoid about getting any of the cotton from that area because it’s likely from forced labor. So those are some issues that affected the supply of ‘organic’ this year. I’m hearing offers of organic cotton for next year being $2 a pound for organic in upland cotton. Upland cotton is different from long staple cotton, and I can discuss that later if you’d like. But upland cotton: that’s the typical cotton that you and I are wearing in our shirts today. Two dollars a pound: that looks favorable over 70-cent cotton that would come from the rest of the cotton in the world. But can two-and-a-half times the price really offset our costs? Right now, it’s marginal.
TOM: That’s interesting, yeah.
ANDY: And my statement to brands and retailers is: ‘Listen, we’ve got it. If you want it, you must be willing to pay for it.’ That’s the challenge.
The Positives & Negatives of Organic Cotton
TOM: Right. Understood. Well, Andy, I want to be respectful of your time. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today, but I have one last question. You have a farmer who wants to raise organic cotton, right? And you have two minutes with him or her alone. What are the positives and negatives that you want to convey about the production of organic cotton in those two minutes?
ANDY: Okay, if this was cotton being planted today, the positives are that there’s opportunity for real profitability if you can make it work. Second: the negatives are, right now, today, the environmental footprint of organic is not as good as I would want it to be. Our greenhouse gases are higher because of the tillage, because of the reduced yield that you get. So, on a per-pound basis, you’re going in the opposite direction of companies with a science-based target for reducing greenhouse gases. That’s a negative. The positives are: you can reduce your inputs, and if we find a way to make it work — control weeds — you can save some money, as far as your inputs. Labor is a negative. The availability of labor and timing of it to get the labor: that’s a negative. So my recommendation there — I don’t know if my two minutes are up — is: plan ahead. Plan like we did in the ‘50s. Be sure you have the right equipment for cultivation. Be sure that you have planning for insects/trap crops and planning for how you’re going to harvest this crop. Make sure your fertilization program is not excessive. You put just the right amount with good nutrients and build this soil health.
TOM: Well, thanks, Andy, for your time. Obviously, you are passionate about making organic cotton work. You’ve talked about your test sites and doing that, and it would be wonderful if we could get it to be a little more effective and on a more equal footing with some of the commercial fertilizer. But I trust, in time, you’ll figure out the better ways of doing that. We all appreciate your efforts of working in the sustainability and the organic world, and I appreciate your time.
ANDY: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
TOM: Absolutely. And with that, thanks to the listening audience for tuning into another episode of Organics Unpacked. Be sure to tune in every week when we’ll unpack another facet of organic farming. Thank you.
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