INTERVIEWEE: Gary Oldham (GO)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 9, 2002
LOCATION: Samnorwood, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Chris Flores and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2228 and 2229
Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Boldfaced numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. It’s October 9, 2002 and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. And we have the good fortune to be in Samnorwood, Texas with Gary Oldham who’s an organic cotton farmer in this area and he also does some diversified organic work in other crops. And he’s also been involved with selling a whole slew of finished products made from his organic cotton. I just want to thank him for talking about his work and his life.
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GO: We have been in the business here for all my life. I live in a home that my grandfather built in the 20s and I was raised there and have been there forty-seven of my fifty something years and have just always been a part of this. Our family started out and the earliest records we have is, I think, the first census taken in the country was 1790. And the record shows that the family was in North Carolina and through the years they moved into Tennessee. And then from Tennessee came to Texas in about 1870 after Civil War in—in the area around Montague—Montague County. And from there, they came to the Samnorwood community or Dozier community probably around the early 1900s. I don’t have a real clear date on that. But that was kind of the time the county was being opened up and there was land available, cheap land. And—and throughout our
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history we’ve always been farmers and cotton farmers. And it’s just the way I guess the way of life to those days. Cotton farming was something that was good for this area, kind of a dry land crop. And some markets have always been up and down but family—they—well they were pretty well established through the 20s and then they had some pretty rough times during the Depression. Actually lost everything they owned and had to leave and then come back and reestablish and actually wound up buying back the same land that we lost from the bank. And—and some of that land is what we still—still farm today and—and raise our organic crops. And…
DT: Can you tell us about what it was like raising cotton in those early days, say before World War II?
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GO: Yes. Back—from the stories I hear from—heard from my parents, my uncles and when the county opened up people came—and of course this was all grassland—people broke—broke that land out. And it was fertile and cotton grew well and they made—they made some money. And then I think the land wore out fairly quickly because of this area of the land is kind of shallow. But you had—back then you had families living, basically, on every hundred and sixty acres. The family could support—support themselves on that small acreage. And in—in our—in our part of the world we’re not just flat all farming land. So a hundred and sixty acres would probably have maybe a hundred acres of cultivation and some of that would be probably on the verge of not being something you
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should farm but—but they farmed it. And then you would have some grassland so they would have some livestock and—and the cotton as well. But they could raise—raise their families on that small acreage and then when the Depression came along which was—coincided with drought and a lot of people left. And so probably you know, the biggest change from the 30s till after World War II was—was maybe starting to see less people in the area and—and less—and less cotton farming after that time, too. I think there were about twenty something thousand people that lived in this county prior to the 30s. And today there’s less than three thousand. So it’s just k—kind of been an—an exodus from that time.
DT: Did a lot of these people work on the farm or did you have a good deal of equipment back in the 20s and 30s?
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GO: Most—mostly back then it was—there wasn’t there weren’t many tractors but their—everyone farmed with teams and had large families. So they all worked the fields (inaudible) cultivated with hoe and basically and but the planning was done with—with a team, maybe two or four mules, which you know, farming eighty acres with that kind of method, that—that would be just about probably all you could do.
DT: Aside from the cotton you were raising were there other crops that you were also cultivating?
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GO: Before or are you talking about in the early days?
DT: Back in the 20s and 30s, were they pretty diversified farms?
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GO: I think yes, I think people raised quite a bit of grain crops you know, to feed their animals, of course, but cotton was mainly the cash crop; something that they would have that they could sell and have money to live on. But, they would—they would, of course, have gardens, but we raised a lot of grain in this area and cane, and you know, they would have every—there were some meals where they would squeeze the cane and get some sugar. In fact, one of the places that we own now that there was one of those way back then, I’m told. But—but, yeah they were diversified. A lot of livestock, pigs, cattle, of course, chickens and all the things that a person needed to—to get by. But I would say cotton for our area has always kind of been the main crop.
DT: And for cash, were most of the families able to sustain themselves, feed themselves from what they grew on their place?
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GO: Yes. Yes. It was mostly, the way I understand it, it was mostly that way. You know, they would grow and put things up and kill hogs and beef—best—preserve those the best they could for—and try to just live that way. So—so it’s why, you know, we had so many more people then. I just took more people to live that kind of lifestyle.
DT: And this is mostly dry land agriculture, I guess, no?
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GO: Yes. It was always dry land up until after the war when they started doing a little irrigation. But our area—the Indians lived here and they were farmers before us. And we have a lot of things that we’ve found on our property and it’s some—I guess some of the earliest dating that I’ve had done on is eleven hundred. But they were simple people, simple farmers. But—but dry land—anyway the point I was going to make is they named this area “the greenbelt” is our translation. I don’t know what it was then. But there’s kind of an area on this side of the panhandle that—that, I guess, maybe gets a little bit more rain than we do—than you do out west—west of here. So it’s—it’s—through the years it’s pretty decent dry land farming especially for cotton which is a—is a crop that’s a little more tolerant than wheat and so it’s, you know, people basically lived counting on the rain.
DT: Can you tell about when the rain didn’t come during the 30’s? What have you heard about the drought and the dustbowl from those days?
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GO: Yeah, well Hoover and the Republicans caused the drought. Those are some of the things you here. No, this—this area is always had periods of drought and—and just studying the history, I think, there was a time even back around the turn of the century where they—they had a period of drought. But then when the 30s came along, we had, I guess there was probably five or six years of—of drought. And you know, coupled with the economy and which, you know, made things worse and caused people to, you know, wonder if you really could live here and sustain life dry land farming. But most everyone
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here, I guess, suffered greatly in that time. And a lot of people lost what they had and left, some were able to stay. But after—after that people started looking into—to irrigation.
DT: Have you heard any stories of what the dustbowl looked like when you had these dust storms, dirt storms, sand storms?
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GO: Yes, our area was not—was not like a lot of stories that you here up on—on the plains. We’re kind of rolling plains here. So our land is not just a hundred percent cultivation. We have a lot of grassland, which kind of kept from being a lot of the pictures you’ve seen and the stories you’ve heard. But I’ve still—I’ve heard stories of the—the day in April—I forget the year—when the cloud rolled in from the north and it—it became as dark as night here at noon. But that dust, you know, was coming from somewhere else. It didn’t originate here. But—but you know how people just talk about—of course, the old houses then, you know, weren’t real well made and dirt was
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just coming in the house. And the—the home that I live in, which was built before—it was built in the 20s—we—it was probably twenty years ago we decided to insulate—insulate. And we went up in there and it had probably a five-inch thick layer of just fine dust. And—and I—I wondered if some of that wasn’t, you know, from those days, you know. It possibly could have been. So, but you know the people that lived through that time, it was—they were certainly—it was something they didn’t forget.
DT: I guess toward the end of the 30s and into the 40s the rains returned and I understand that also agriculture changed as well. There’s more machinery, more fuels that you could use. Can you talk about how agriculture in general and cotton farming in particular changed in the post war years from your own experience or maybe your parents?
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GO: Yes. We’ll I’ll speak from—from what I know of—of—from my parents. Like I said during the Depression, they lost their land and they went to Phoenix and lived out there for several years and worked in the cotton fields out there for someone else in—in feed line industry and other things. And—and when my dad came back—I think it was probably ’35, maybe ’36—when they left, farming was basically teams and—and not much machinery, like you said. When he came back, he started buying some land and—and was able to get some mechanization and then the war came along and they actually—they had some tractors, quite a few tractors here before the war, but then during the war,
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like, I had a—I have a cousin that still farms here that’s quite a bit older than I am but he worked for my dad, and he had—dad had a brand new tractor and cousin ran it off into a ditch and broke the axle. And this was right during the war. Well, they just had to let it sit because they couldn’t get parts until after the war. So it was like four or five years before they could get the tractor—that tractor back. But then after the war, of course we had, I guess had the industry and you know, life was good, economy was good, and so farming really boomed. And—and mechanization of farming really stepped up and, and
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most people—there were less people farming more land. You know, like we said before the 30s, maybe a family lived on a hundred and sixty acres. That kind of changed during the Depression. And the people that came back probably a typical farm beginning of World War II in our area maybe would be four, five hundred acres. And—and it’s you know, it’s increased since then. But—but the machinery part, you know, picked up a lot where you were able to farm a lot. I—I—I remember my granddad—the place I lived on is a couple hundred acres and it was all cultivation at one time. And he had—he had I think fourteen mules and he said he could drag a harrow which is probably the fastest and
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simplest thing that you could do. He could plow that place in eight days and he thought that he was really getting over it. And, of course, today there are tractors that can do that, you know, easily, in a—in a day. You know, I can’t with—with our equipment but probably a couple of days. But—but big change, you know.
DT: Did the implements change too?
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GO: Yes. You—you talking about, maybe, for conservation purposes or just general? The—the methods like in cotton farming, they had a—one of the tools was called a “go-devil” which is a kind of a cultivator. And—and they had those that they pulled behind a team. We still have some of those but then we still use that same plow behind a tractor. And—and I still use it today in—in organic farming. No one else does that anymore. But—but—but you had a lot of different machines for sub soiling. You know, as you had a tractor you were able to have more power to plow the land deeper and which would allow the—the rain to—to soak in and get more moisture in the—in your ground and
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break up your hard pan. So, you know, there’s a lot of changes of course to harvesting—still hand harvested up until the late 50s in our area. But harvesting equipment was coming along.
DT: And what about some of the herbicides and insecticides? Did you start seeing those in the 50s, maybe?
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GO: I think probably—I don’t think—the earliest recollection I have in my family was probably very late 50s into the 60s before we started using much of that kind of thing. Of course, DDT was something that people used back then. And but I don’t—we didn’t use—I don’t think we used anything in the 40s and probably at least half of the 50s. Of course, I was very young then. But—but our—our history with the chemicals really has been pretty short because I began doing what I’m doing in the 80’s, basically.
DT: Is it dry enough and cool enough most of the year that you don’t have the insects that you might have farther south?
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GO: We have a little different situation here. The boll weevil is—is—throughout the years it’s—he’s—he’s been bad here sometimes and sometimes not, because of the climate. Normally we’re—you know, we have cold enough winters that—that you take care of some of the insects. But we—we go through periods were we don’t experience much of that. And we’ve had that here in the last six or seven years where we haven’t had cold enough winters to—to kill over wintering insects. And—but I would say we have less problems, definitely, than they do south of us.
DT: What were people’s attitudes when some of these new chemicals were introduced? Was it a lot excitement or was it sort of indifferent?
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GO: I think mostly people were always, you know, excited about having something to—to help—help them out. You know, there are insects, I know, can completely wipe you out. And we’ve experienced that, and we had a lot of—I know, with my father had a lot of trouble with worms different times. Not every year, maybe, but—but they were, you know, they were glad to have something to kill—to kill those, you know, to preserve their livelihood, basically. Because if you lost your crop, you know, that was just it. So—so I would think they welcomed—they welcomed the chemical technology.
DT: For those who aren’t in farming, can you sort of describe what it would be like to go out one day and see an infestation and see the progress of it through your field?
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GO: Well, generally of course, people, I guess, have learned more through the years about how to watch and monitor and know what they’re looking for. A lot of times when you see it, your—it’s almost too late. And there’s—the boll weevil is very hard to kill. Even with—even with the harshest chemical. And same way with the worm because of the way they burrow inside and it’s hard to get something to them to kill them. But it’s kind—kind of a sickening feeling to see—to see your crop being destroyed by pests.
DT: One other change that was happening in the post-war era was that people started irrigating more, as I understand it. Is that fair to say? Did that happen around here?
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GO: Yes and my dad was one of the first to do irrigating here in our county. And I think he started out by just kind of damming up a little creek and pumping some of that water out onto a small acreage. And then in—I believe it was ’51—he drilled an irrigation well. It was one of the first wells in this county. Maybe not the first, but—but—it might have been. I don’t know. There was—I know there was an article about him in some magazine back then, but—but they, you know, started wanting a way to have a little, maybe a little insurance, I guess you’d say. And of course, fuel was cheap back then. And we still had a—a good labor source for—you know, irrigation required quite a bit of labor the way they did it then.
DT: How did they do it then?
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GO: Well, we had just what they call ground line pipe, which is thirty-foot sections of aluminum pipe with a sprinkler head. And you would—twice a day you’d go and carry those over sixty feet, put them—take them apart, carry them over, put them back together, you know, run your water. And—and it was something you did, from generally, late June till late August. And it was—you’d wade in mud up to your knees and carrying these pipe, getting up very early in the morning to do it. It was a real character builder. But that—we—our—our land here is not real level so there wasn’t a lot of row—row watering which, you know, is a lot easier kind of an irrigation. But so the sprinkler irrigation with the ground line was basically the way it was done.
DT: Did you use center pivot irrigation?
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GO: Center pivots didn’t come in until—let’s see, I think we bought—we bought one in 1982. So, when I—when I left to go to college in the late 60s, we were still doing—carrying it by hand. And you know, when I came back—during the time I was going to college and worked briefly in—in the industry I was educated in, they went to what they call a side roll irrigation, which is a—it’s still a pipe with the sprinklers but they’re on wheels and they have a little hydraulic unit in the middle that you start up the little motor and it—it rolls and moves its—moves itself that way. And then center pivots came in—I think they had some probably in the 70s but we didn’t—we didn’t get into that till ’82.
DT: I suppose another thing that changed since the pre-war days is the focus on one crop. Is that true? Do you think you see more of a monoculture operation in post-war days rather than more diversified like in the early days?
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GO: Yes, I think so. And a lot—there’s a lot of things involved in—in that. And a lot of it has to do with the farm programs. Cotton is a—was a program that of course, during the Roosevelt years when they came out with a lot of our farm subsidy programs that help people get through. Cotton was one that was—it had good benefits. And, plus, you know, being good for this area people would farm the cotton and so then it got into you know, sometimes you couldn’t—your banker wouldn’t loan you money to farm unless you were going to farm cotton. Even though, maybe, cotton price wasn’t very good, you
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still had maybe the subsidy to go along with it. So—so a lot of things involved in—in—in having maybe one crop over the other and I would say more of it was—would be due to government policies and—and your financial backers. And—and then you were getting into a time there, too, where your original generation were retiring so they were renting their land to the next generation. And—and you know, cotton is what we made it on, so by golly, you’re going to plant cotton, you know, on my land if you’re going to farm my land. So, you know, you had—you had a lot of that too. So there’s a lot—a farmer is not a hundred percent free in his decisions on what he plants, you know. We all have somebody to answer to.
DT: Sometime during the 80s, I understand that you started to have some skepticism about the conventional way of raising cotton and started looking for some alternatives. Can you help explain how you started to change and what it was about the conventional way of raising cotton that gave you pause?
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GO: Well, I’ll back up a little bit. I was—when I left, you know, I didn’t what to come back to farm and have anything to do with it, didn’t what to move any of those irrigation pipe. So, I went to school at Texas A&M, and received a Masters Degree in Aerospace engineering and worked in that industry a short while. And in the meantime, my mother had some sickness, and—and I needed to come back to the farm. So, we came back in ’76, I believe it was, is when I came back and took—took it over on my own. Well, we
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were still, you know, kind of doing things the way they were done, and it was just—just kind of spinning your wheels, you know, fighting—fighting pests and weeds. And the land was worn out I felt like because, it’s—just you know been the same crops for so many years. And I just I think it was in ’81—I remember walking out into the cotton field and the crop was struggling to come up and it shouldn’t been having any trouble but because of the way the soil was and I had a certain weed problem there that was—that was—kind of made it sick. And I just—I just thought then, you know, I’m going—I’m going to do whatever I need to do to change this, you know, wh—whatever it means.
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If—if I have to change everything completely and—and cost me for a while and, you know, I’m going to do that because I was at a point where I wasn’t doing any good at it anyway because our crops just weren’t making what they should—should make. And there’s—there’s a Scripture verse, in Ecclesiastes that says everyone benefits from the increase of the land, even the king. So feel like what’s good for the land is good for man. And I decided then to put our crop—put our land into some crops that would build it up. So I started planting alfalfa. And I had no idea of anything about alfalfa. How you could sell it. How you could even make a living off of it. But through the 80s, I got into the
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alfalfa business, got into a good hay business. And actually, it was one of the best things I ever had going in agriculture. And it was a good market and it was a market that was not a world market because you sold hay to somebody that was raising horses. And, you know, they’re—and your competitors—you didn’t have world competitors because you
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can’t ship hay from China to—so—so that crop was good and it was good for the land. And during that time we just completely quit using any kind of fertilizers or—or herbicides or anything. So I—I learned to kind of take care of that crop. Like, if we had pest problems, instead of spraying the pests, we’d just go cut the hay. And maybe it would be a little early, but you’d still do away with the infestation of the worm, so. So, that—that worked and was really going real well. And then the alfalfa, you plant it and it lasts about six or seven years and then you have to rotate it out. So at that time it was
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time to start rotating some of that land out of alfalfa. And, of course, we knew that, you know, that cotton following alfalfa is great because it’s fertile and you’ve cleaned up the—the weed problems. And just about that time is when the Texas Department of Agriculture had started an organic certification program and there was talk of organic cotton in the markets for organic cotton. So—so we kind of, basically, began back in the 80s trying to—to make the switch. And then it just it made a real—made a real easy flow into the—into the organic cotton after we cleaned up the land with the alfalfa, so.
DT: Mr. Oldham, I was hoping you could go back and give us a little bit more detail about what you saw and thought in the early 80s when you decided that you needed to change your practices and maybe go towards alfalfa and try to restore the land so that you could get into a more sustainable kind of farming.
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GO: Well, I think generally the thinking of farming, back in those days, is that you could accomplish anything with the chemicals. You could, you know, accomplish the fertility level that you need to. And certainly people do. Maybe—maybe they’re a little better at it than I was. But—but the problems that I saw was that, um, my land had a lot of problems with—with weeds that were hard to control. Johnson grass at that time was hard to control. Now—now they have a way of doing it pretty good. And we had another weed called—we—well, we call them horse nettles, silver nightshades. And
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those usually appear when your land is needing something. And—and I was having a lot of that. And when we would plant our crop, and maybe get a little bit of rain before the crop comes up, the soil would get very hard, of course, cotton comes up like a bean with a—with its neck crooked, so if it pushes very hard it basically breaks its neck and can’t come out of the soil. Not like a grass plant or something. So, we were having a lot of trouble with that which indicates that you have a low organic matter in your soil. And that with—and we did irrigate. We irrigated a lot. And you know, it would—basically the crop would just—you couldn’t put enough water. I mean, you had to keep it constant.
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And that had a lot to do with the—with the, I think, the organic matter in the—in the soil. But just having the same crop year after year after year you have—you have of course, insect build up because they—they winter there and that’s just their lifecycle. You don’t break it up and the same way with the weeds. But, I think probably the—the weeds and just the general all—general getting the crops off to a good start and—and being able to produce a lot of fruit, I could see that it was just really lacking. And felt like we just needed to just to start all over and rest the land or do something. Some of that land had had cotton for—probably since it was broke out—broken out from grass back in the tens—teens.
DT: Was any of the concern, not so much for the soil for the crop, but for you and your family and exposure to the chemicals?
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GO: Yeah. Yes, that certainly always worrisome. And I—and I, of course, grew up there in the sixties. And, you know, it’s when oh, I guess, we were really becoming more aware of things in the environment. And—and having lived in a different part of the state, you know, got exposed to some of that. And—and it’s just you know, really—I like to think that we’re better off doing things, using common sense. People don’t use common sense a lot of times today. But, you know, that’s one thing that is just really common sense. You know, you don’t want to be in a chemical. You don’t want—you wouldn’t want your children making mud pies out there and eating the mud pies. And
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so—so it was—really our family and the way I farmed—I never was—I always looked how to limit the chemical use; but even though we did use a lot of it. But, you know, a lot of that was because of fear of it, but also—but also financial. I mean it’s you know, it’s expensive thing to—to do. There’s a lot of—a lot of people that advise you like your crop consultant that’s looking for bugs. You know, if you did what they wanted you to do, you’d—you’d spray the crop every week and it would cost you a small fortune. And then I’ve—I’ve had neighbors that they did that and at the end the guy said, “Well,
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you’ve lost it.” It’s too bad, you know. You spent this hundred dollars an acre. So—so that’s not always effective. You know, a lot of that is timing. But—but you know, certainly, we—I didn’t like being around the chemicals and—and just would like to have a better way—the way—you know, actually the way my dad and granddad did before—before they came along with these things. You know, they—they were able to farm without chemicals.
DT: Can you give us an idea of the scale of chemical use in conventional cotton farming?
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GO: Yes. We have a—we have a—we haven’t talked about the T-shirt business yet. But, we have a thing that—when we changed from conventional to organic, we eliminated four ounces of concentrated chemicals per eight ounce T-shirt. So, in other words to raise a bale of cotton—which is five hundred pounds—you’re going to be using about two hundred and fifty pounds of chemicals. Or at least that is on my farm, my calculations. Of course, higher yields, you know, make those figures different. But—but most of that comes in—in the form of your fertilizers which is, you know, use a lot of pounds of fertilizers. And the—I lost my train of thought there, David.
DT: You were saying you use a lot of fertilizers and other chemicals to produce a pound or bale of cotton in a conventional form?
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GO: Yes. Okay. I was—I was—we were talking about how they did it now. It’s changed, I mean, it’s changed now some, but. But in—in the 70s and 80s there, you would use a herbicide that you’d pre plant and put down to kill emerging weeds and, of course, your fertilizers. And then there would be some sprays that you would put on the early cotton to take care of the thrips and those kinds of pests. And then sometimes through the year you might want to fertilize again and then you would get into your other spraying as the crop progressed for—for worms or weevils. And then when it come time to harvest, if you wanted to get it out early and avoid wet weather, you’d put a defoliant
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on to—to kill it and get it—to get it out. Today that’s changed even more with—with some of the genetic developments in the crops where they’ve made a crop that is not damaged by chemical roundup, which a roundup would kill anything, which is growing. So—so a farmer, now, puts down—he does the pre plant herbicide but then, also, when the crop’s young, they’ll spray over the top with the roundup, which will kill weeds and then they could do that again. And but—but the seed for that is—is very expensive, too. So that’s—that’s a big cost.
DT: So, in conventional Ag, how many times do you think a typical farmer can be back out into his field applying…
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GO: Applying chemicals? I would say if you—if you look at, today, the people that are not dry land farmers, but the people that are irrigated shooting for top yields, you have a—you have a pre plant, you have a chemical with the herb—I mean, you have a chemical that you apply with the seed when you’re planting. Then you do a roundup spray. You probably do that twice. Then you—and then you sometimes maybe have an early bug spray, which there’s five applications, another boost of fertilizer or—or two, a lot of that’s injected through—through irrigation. And then depending on your insect troubles, you might have four applications there and then maybe a defoliant. So, and then
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also they have a growth regulator that they—that I like to use. So put water on to make a crop grow big, put picks on it to make it stay small, you know. So it’s probably ten, eleven shots of—of applications. And—and that’s—it’s very expensive. The—typically what some of those your roundup applications are about ten dollars. Your—your herbicide—pre plant herbicide is probably, um, a little less than ten, just the seed costs on the roundup ready, is about thirty dollars an acre, which is also is a—is a—most of those have a bug resistant variety, too, that you’re paying for part of that. So that’s
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about thirty dollars over what your normal seed would cost. And then your defoliant is about twenty dollars an acre, your fertilizer is—is probably thirty, forty dollars an acre. The insect sprays, probably ten dollars an application. So, you know, you’re getting up there, hundred and fifty, two hundred dollars just in those costs per acre. So, what that does, I mean, you know, that’s fine if you—if you make a big yield and a big crop. But if you have a bad year and something else goes wrong, like you have an early freeze or hail or, you know, there’s a lot—there’s a lot of things that can go wrong with a cotton crop.
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So then, you know, then you’re—you’re exposed. And that’s—that’s the tough part about the farming, is you have a lot of money invested there and, you know, it might not turn out.
DT: You’ve added up some of the expenses if a typical cotton farmer went to market and had a good yield what might he or she get?
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GO: Well the irrigated—the established irrigated yield in our county is close to nine hundred pounds per acre. People—and the conventional price today for cotton is—the loan price, which is about fifty cents. So you’re looking at four hundred and fifty dollars an acre. You know, they have—if you can—if you have all your costs in there, you know, that’s—that’s real marginal. Of course, people like to make—there’s a lot of cotton being made this year; three bales to the acre, which you know, will work a little better. But—but typically, irrigated cotton, you know, needs to make two bales to the acre. And that’s—back in the late 70s, you know, you were hoping that you’d make a
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bale to acre irrigated. So—so, I guess, the need—the need for making more, plus, you know, that maybe a little better genetics on cotton crops, earlier maturing have helped increase the yield some. But and—and probably the chemical maintenance maybe has helped those people establish that. Now, I don’t know that—that it has been—to me, I don’t think that you’re necessarily getting a—a—a good return on your money. I think
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it’s more swapping dollars. I mean, you spend two hundred, yeah, you’re making twice as much cotton but, you know, you’re not making any more money. And it’s something we’re looking at; we’ve—is irrigation costs. You know, irrigation costs have gone up, where it’s, you know, it’s—it’s a terrible expense. Back when my dad started it was—fuel was cheap, labor was cheap, you know, it was cheap. And I’m really trying to get away from irrigation and trying to get back to dry land, which is—you know, irrigation is a pretty good insurance on a dry year but if you can establish yourself where you could make, you know, a dry land crop—I’m not sure that the return maybe, somewhere in there, it might be a better deal.
DT: Where is the expense in the irrigation? Is it just the fuel for running these pumps? Or is it the fact that the aquifer is lower that it used to be and there’s more lift cost? Or is the labor of moving it high?
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GO: Well, the of course largest cost now is—is equipment. You know back when I was talking about moving the hand move pipe. You know, the pipe was—that was cheap. Now if you’re looking at a center pivot, you’re looking at fifty, sixty thousand dollar investment for a hundred and sixty acres of land or—or a hundred and thirty acres of land. So—so pretty large amount per acre there just on that. Okay, well—the well, now. It costs so much for the pump, for the drilling; it cost about twenty thousand dollars to put in a well. And then, that’s—that’s just your, you know, your equipment. Of course
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fuel prices now are—are expensive. So it costs—our—our water here is—is relatively shallow. When you talk about the aquifer on the plains we’re kind of in a different situation. Our water—we don’t lift it that high. But still the—the fuel cost is, you know, it’s expensive. But just paying for the equipment and this equipment, about the time you get it paid for it’s worn out. So you—so you, really, you can just figure that cost is just a yearly cost of what—what oh, you could say sixty, seventy thousand dollars for a hundred and thirty acres. You’re just going to be, basically, making that payment forever because, you know, by the time you pay it, it’s time to replace it. So that’s—to
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me—that’s the expense is the equipment. The fuel—the fuel is not—not that bad when you compare that. Of course, then you have a motor to take care of, you know, to pump—to—to pump the water. It—it wears out, lots of moving parts.
DT: Well, it sounds like there’s lots of input for conventional cotton farm. I mean, from the tractor to the implements to the irrigation equipment, to the seed, to the fuel and all the chemicals. Do you find that the typical cotton farmer is sort of surrounded by numerous salesmen that are trying to push a certain technology, a certain product, promoting a certain way of farming?
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GO: Yes. You know, it’s you see—you see that a lot in our industry. That like most of your suppliers, of the chemicals or the seed or whatever, they have programs where, you know, they feed you and bring you down there and show you stuff. And—and it’s—it’s not like a high-pressure type sales, but—but people are drawn to it. And you know, I—I—I don’t want to crit—I hate to say anything. I don’t want to be critical at all of anyone because on a large—on a large scale there’s not really any other way of doing it but—but the way that people are doing it. By just for instance, the roundup ready cotton. That just—that deal just kills me, really. Because it costs a hundred and seventy-nine
00:45:04 – 2228
dollars for a bag of cottonseed. Now I bought cottonseed this year to plant my crop with for nine dollars, just regular seed. Hundred seventy-nine dollars. Well, this is—this is supposedly is going to help you with keeping your weeds down and it’s going to have a boll worm resistant gene in—in the cotton. So, that bag of seed will plant about five acres of cotton. So you have about thirty-five dollars an acre there in that seed to take care of your weed control. Plus you have to spread the roundup twice, which is twenty more dollars. Plus you put down the herbicide to start with, which is ten. So you spend about sixty-five or seventy dollars on your weed control. And then I would say, almost
00:45:53 – 2228
every year, they still have to hoe the crop a little bit because there’s weeds that escape. Well, this year on our organic crop, we—we didn’t have any of that expense. The hoeing is the worst expense in organic. And I had one field that—that I—I knew didn’t need to be in cotton this year but I—I had to because of some other reasons. But it was—it was foul. And I spent fifty dollars an acre on that one field. Well, my other field I just spent about twenty on weed control. So—so, I, you know, I—I don’t see—I think people are
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kind of duped by—by these companies thinking you have to have this great technology, you know when—when really, I, you know, I don’t know—I don’t know that it does them that much good.
DW: Well, that interests me because I think that what we have found in a lot of the places we go is the prevailing myth that to go organic is going to be this Hercules size struggle to try and get a handle on these things and you’re asking for trouble. And it probably won’t work out. So, while they paint a very negative picture of the hardship of organic; but you paint a pretty optimistic economic picture, if nothing else. It always seems like organic is going to cost us more and we won’t be able to get as much for our crop. Therefore we won’t try it. But your story seems to defy that?
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GO: Yeah. Yeah, really a lot of my—a lot of my interest in organic is lower input, but the only problem—I guess, the only is if you’re talking about scale. You know, I’m small. I—I farm less than a hundred acres of cotton so—so it’s easier to do that. If—some of my neighbors farm three thousand acres. I don’t that you can get the manpower in to do some of the things that they have to do. You know, I don’t know that it could be done. But, on the other side of that, is there’s no market for cotton. The market for cotton right now is thirty cents a pound. The government allows us to put in loan for fifty on a conventional crop. So—so basically you’re growing a market that—you’re growing for—you’re growing something that no one wants. So, you know, maybe you don’t
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need to do that. Bu—but there’s so many other things involved that—that keep—probably keep people doing what they’re doing. Like I say, a lot of that is your—your landlords, your—your bankers government programs, you know. There’s just—there’s just—it’s complicated, really. And for everyone to grow an organic crop, it would be—it would be difficult but people can do it on some scale. I mean, maybe a—maybe a farmer can farm one circle of organic and maybe he can have some of his others crop, you know. It’s—it’s—it is complicated, but really to me, organic farming is—is a whole lot cheaper. Because I—I basically farm with just not having to put a whole—a whole lot of
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input into it. It’s—I guess that kind of goes along with the low input stainable agriculture that a lot of people talk about. It’s not necessarily chemical free, but it’s—you—you lower your inputs. And that’s one of the reasons that we’re looking at irrigation. I think the irrigation is similar to the—similar to the—the troubles with chemicals. You have a large input there and I don’t know that you’re not just trading dollars. You know, maybe I can grow—maybe I have a—a nine hundred pound cotton yield but maybe my three hundred pound dry land yield makes me just as much money, you know. Except for that one year, maybe, when—when it doesn’t rain at all. So but…
DT: So you’re thinking that it may make more sense to look at your net revenue instead of your gross.
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GO: Well it definitely—definitely. I—I mean, that’s—that’s what I’m interested in. As—as farmers, that’s what makes the difference. And it’s—it’s something that you just—it’s hard to go against the grain, I will tell you. You know, like I have a lot of irrigation wells. My family feels like that they really through the 50s and 60s, that’s what separated them from a lot of other farmers and actually made them—we had a bad drought in the 50s here, too. And a lot of people left here then. And it probably kept our family here. So now for me to just abandon those wells, and you know, it’s kind of—it’s—it’s a little hard to do, to sit back and do that. So that’s—that’s something we’re
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just kind of working on right now. And—and maybe the answer is limited irrigation. Maybe not full blown maximum yield production but maybe just kind of a limited irrigation. But—but if you think about organic farming, one thing we probably do more than—than the conventional guys do, is maybe we make more trips across the field with our tractors. Well, when you do that, you know, you’re—you’re burning fossil fuels, so—so some of that, you know—there’s some trade-off there. You know, is—is—is that worse than—than using some of the chemicals that go into the soil? I—I don’t—I don’t
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know. I—I really—another thing that I would like to see allowed probably, is there’s—there’s a lot of technology that’s—that’s come about through plant genetics. And one of them is—is the cottons that are resistant to the bollworms and things like. Well, we’re not allowed to use that. As organic farmers and to me I, you know, I don’t really get that. I—I, you know, I think that if technology has something to offer us there that is—maybe—maybe it is harmful. I don’t see—I haven’t seen the connection on that. But I would think that it would be great because that would encourage us to use less chemicals,
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you know, if we could do that. And the conventional guys get to do that. You know, it does help them probably eliminate some of their spraying. But if we could do that, boy, it would be a whole lot easier to—to do organic because the worm—the worm is more of a problem for us than the boll weevil.
DT: You mentioned boll weevil. Can you talk a little bit about the efforts in the conventional cotton business to eradicate the boll weevil; I think it’s called the Boll Weevil Eradication program?
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GO: Yes. Our—we’re currently in the fourth year in—in this section. It started out in ’99 and you—if you farm cotton then you’re under their guidelines. They monitor—they monitor boll weevil populations and spray accordingly. In 1995 we harvested zero cotton because boll weevil completely wiped us out. In 1997, basically the same thing happened. I think I harvested maybe eight bales of cotton. But the conventional crops were seriously hurt too even though they spent a lot of money spraying. I actually had one field that made better than—than a neighbor that sprayed several times. But so they came along with the Boll Weevil Eradication where they monitor and they—and they’re going to spray every acre of cotton that’s planted every week, once a week.
DT: Conventional and organic?
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GO: No. They had a—they had a—they had a provision for the organic, that you could—they would set you out a year. Now, you couldn’t—if you—if you planted organic and they had to spray it, they would spray it and you would lose your certification. Of course, there would be the chance that they might not have to spray. But we knew that we had enough weevil population that the trigger levels were going to make it where they sprayed. So we opted to not plant. And they had—they had a program where they paid us some money to—to lay out. So we—we actually had to lay out two years while they sprayed everybody else around. And but—and it’s been
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effective because this year—this year we got to go back into planting and found no boll weevils. So, they basically you know, have they killed them out. But I don’t know how much that had to do with the dry weather. And we had a pretty good winter last year and, too. But my idea is that they—they ought to just pay all the farmers a hundred dollars an acre not to plant cotton because no one was making any money anyway and it would have been cheaper. And it—once you, you know, if you had the county laid out for a couple of years, the boll weevil was going to starve out anyway. So—but they didn’t ask me. So, anyway, we’re in this program and now we’re in it for ten years. And we have
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to pay—I have to pay ten, fifteen dollars an acre, depends on dry land or irrigated, per year for ten years to help fund the program. And then, I think, the state actually probably matches half of that. It’s a very expensive program. But, you know, it—it has taken care of the weevil problem right now.
DT: Are there any problems with overspray? Or maintaining your organic certification?
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GO: They—they’re real good about monitoring. They put up—I don’t know if it’s kind of a litmus paper or something that they put around all my fields so that if the spray hits it it’ll show up. And, you know, they’re—and they’re real careful about the wind. They won’t spray a crop next to me unless the wind. So, you know, they’ve been very, very, very good about watching the organic fields and preserving those fields. But we did have a bean crop a couple of years ago that—that they detected some overspray when they did a leaf sampling of the crop. But it turned out the crop that the crop didn’t make anything anyway so we didn’t harvest it. So it wasn’t a—wasn’t a problem. But it—it’s, you know, it’s hard to keep overspray out. But—but they—they do a real good job of it trying.
DT: What are they spraying? How do they do it?
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GO: Well, they spray malathion with planes. And they have—I think the—the planes are fitted with GPS instrumentation so they know exactly where they are and putting exactly the—the right amount. But it’s—it’s a bad deal. We have a little school here. We have kids that run cross-country. And I know they were training one day and they got sick just from—just from being around where they’d sprayed. Running—running down the roads, you know, around those crops.
DT: Have they found any traces of pesticides in the groundwater around here or in the surface water?
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GO: The only think that we ever see that shows up is a—is a nitrate level that might be just a little bit high. It’s not—it’s not beyond what’s acceptable. But—and don’t know if that’s attributed to farming. Like I say, our area is I would say if you grassland to cultivation, I would say that we’re probably maybe twenty percent cultivation, eighty percent grassland. So—so we’re not—you know, that might not be as big a problem here as it would be, like, on the plains where—where there’s nothing but kind of a cultivation. But our ground water, you know, it looks—it looks pretty clean.
DT: And so most of the—if there is any significant contamination it’s probably from the fertilizer?
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GO: I would think so. We have a—we have an oil industry in this area, too. And they were drilled back in the 30s and they weren’t real careful with casing off of the ground water; so some of the trouble may be from that area, too. But—but, yeah, that would be from your fertilizers.
DT: I’m intrigued by the dilemma you’ve talked about where you put a lot of effort into cultivating this cotton, spraying it, fertilizing it and then you go to market and there’s very little price for it. Why is that? Why is it difficult to demand, to get a good price for cotton?
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GO: Oh, that’s a big question. Cotton is—first of all, cotton is a world commodity. So—and it’s easily—easily shipped because it’s not perishable. So it’s you know, it’s easily grown in places like China. And I think, prior to the 70s, China raised basically no cotton. And now they—now they grow twenty, thirty million bales a year, or they can. So—so the—the price part of it is so affected by the world market and—and the supplies. But, you know, our own regulations, I think, somehow come into that. We used—we used to—the farm programs used to be geared where, you know, they subsidized the farmers, which is a good thing, because, I mean, it’s basically, a consumer subsidy to keep prices at a level. But they also can, you know, control maybe what you were able to plant. Well, the programs the programs today still leave the decision of what to plant
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to the farmer, which the farmer likes to have that freedom, all right. But it allows—it allows a boom or bust kind of a cycle in a product. So, you know, if the market for cotton gets pretty good, well, what do think everybody’s going to do next year? You know, it’s going a—they’re going to break the market by planting too much of it. So—so I—I feel like, you know, that if you’re going to have a farm program that you—that—
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someone needs to kind of have an idea of controlling the supply a little bit. But—but then you have the people involved that make money off the supply being large, the people that trade the cotton and, you know, they—they do better if you have lots of stuff. They don’t care what the price is because you make, you know, commission or whatever. And I really think more—more of those kind of people really control what goes on than—than we do. You know, the farmer—the farmer is pretty low on the food chain.
[End of Reel 228
DT: Mr. Oldham, we were talking earlier about what happens after you’ve raised cotton, whether you’re a conventional grower or an organic grower. You go to market and you try to sell your commodity and you find that it’s not as much as you like. I was wondering if you could speculate a little bit about what presses these prices up or down. What generally has kept them at a similar level for many, many years, quite low?
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GO: Yeah, it’s always been—it’s always a—a bad—a bad thing in farming is so many times you—you—you finish your harvest you finish all your work and you go and, you know, the crop—maybe you didn’t make as much as you thought. Then the price is bad and it’s just, you know, it’s—it’s a shame. It’s really a lot—I would say more times than not, it seems like it’s a disgusting, depressing time of the year for farmers. And I—I hate to see that, and—and my neighbors and ourselves. Especially it comes about Thanksgiving, you know, when you should have a different attitude. But—but just talking about the price disappointment only, you know, it’s—it’s hard to say on the price. But I—I feel like cotton is world commodity and because it can be shipped anywhere.
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And so—so we have a lot of countries that grow cotton that have a whole lot less input than we do. China, India, they’re some of the big cotton producers. And now Brazil is—is coming on line. They have excellent land; it’s new land, breaking it out and a perfect climate. And their input costs are—are a whole lot less than ours. And so, you know, they can grow it cheaper so they can sell it cheaper. And since it’s a world commodity basically there’s—there’s nothing that says anymore that our price should be higher. And I, you know, really think we as consumers in this country are—are to blame. I mean, we’re—we’re really basically greedy people. We want—we want the cheapest
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thing we can buy. So if you—you go to the store, are you going to buy the—are you going to buy the cheap shirt that’s made from cotton from somewhere else? Or are you going to pay extra for USA? You know there’s not many people anymore that pay that premium for USA. So—so really I blame a lot of it on our—on ourselves. We want—we want cheap goods and, you know, that’s what we demand. And that’s—and there’s somebody out there going to produce them. And it’s—it’s hurt—it’s hurt our farmers and the textile industry of the United States, which is related to the cotton industry, of course; because basically—we’ve basically lost it. And you know, I guess
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that’s fine as long as we can trade worldwide. But you know, I always wonder what’s going to happen one of these days when we get in a world situation and—and the doors close and we’ve lost our industry. And it’s not just—you know, we can get into a lot of things—but it’s not just—not just this industry. It’s so many industries that we’ve done the same thing to. So—so I feel like you know, the cotton is—the cotton price is—is basically—people want something cheaper and there are people out there that can grow it cheaper. And so to survive and if you’re going to be a U.S. cotton farmer, you’re either
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going to have to figure out how to grow it cheaper. And we obviously don’t have the labor breaks and some of the other breaks. And we have more regulations. So we’re going to have to rely on technology continuing to increase. And of course a lot of that’s being presented to us through—through the chemical industry. And some of it’s real; some of it’s not real. But there’s just—there’s lots of challenges there.
DT: Can you talk a little bit what has happened to the economy and the population of the communities in the Panhandle as agriculture has hit these flat spots or else are in decline?
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GO: Yes. We were talking about like the population of this county back in the 20s. I think that was when—was when it was at it’s maximum, we had twenty-seven thousand people here. There were fifty-four schools in this county. Now there’s only two, our little school, Samnorwood in Wellington, which is the county seat. So—and a lot of that goes back to—back to when you have a family living on every hundred and sixty, maybe even eighty acres. So you just had, you know, gobs of people that were making their life off the land. And we were a rural America, rural Texas. And as the Depression came along, people left because they needed jobs. And, you know, they couldn’t make—
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couldn’t make it work anymore. And that just continued through the 40s and the 50s and it continues today. So the population in our county today, I think I’d say, is less than three thousand. And it’s the same why all over the Panhandle. We have—all the little towns are—are hurting for—just—they’re just losing their young people. Young people are—are going somewhere else because, basically, there’s nothing to come back to. And just to look at the agriculture as—aspect, which is what most of our job opportunities have been here through the years. If you could make a living on a hundred and sixty acres back then, now a conventional farmer, really, he needs two or three thousand acres,
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you know, to justify, because if you’re going to buy an eighty thousand dollar tractor, you’re going to have to spread that cost out over a lot of acres. Like even—even myself, I farm about four hundred acres. I can’t buy an eighty thousand dollar tractor and—and justify paying for that. You know, so I have to use old equipment, used equipment. So for a young man to want to start into farming today and have to go into that kind of a level, you know, you’d have to—you’d have to go in debt probably a half million dollars plus be able to borrow that much every year to—to operate and—and maybe—maybe get seven or eight percent return on it, you know, if—if—if you have a good year. So—so
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it’s basically impossible. And, of course you have—any young person that comes back to—to farming is you know, going to maybe be with his dad. But even then, it’s—it’s hard for a dad to be able to transfer that to the son or even wanting to—to be into debt, to put him into debt. So, you’ve, you know, you’ve had an exodus of—of people—the industry here in the Panhandle, you know, it’s agriculture related. And there’s certainly still things going on but not just in a great enough number to—to keep more people here. But we would—we would like to see people that would like a better lifestyle maybe come here because it is—it’s cheap to live here, land’s cheap, taxes are cheap. It’s a
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good way of life. We don’t have much crime. We—I got up this morning and realized our front doors were open. We didn’t worry about locking the doors. But, it’s attractive—rural life is still attractive if a person maybe has something he can bring with him. Maybe he could still farm that eighty acres but maybe he could have some other
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kind of a business. That so many business today, I know that people can do from their homes or telephones or—so that—so really the future of farming, I, you know—I was kind getting off of a little bit what you asked. But I think the future of farming is you have the very, very big guys and then you’re going to have people that—that maybe kind of do it on the side. And actually our own state, has during Rick Perry’s term as head commissioner their policy—and they told me this directly—that is not to save the family farm. You know, they realize it’s gone. You know, our—our policies and objectives are going to be directed towards marketing Texas products and helping, you know, our—our
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agriculture people through that. And, you know, and really, they’re probably right. You know, I don’t know that—I don’t know that a government agency can put all their efforts into just keeping a—a small guy going on a—on a one-to-one personal basis. You know, maybe their efforts of—of trying to promote the products and helping you out that way, maybe that’s the best way to go. But it—it was really kind of shocking to me when I—when I heard that statement. And you really—you see that nationwide, too. I believe that—that our policies in agriculture are—are changing to not focus on serving the small guy as much as trying to let everybody either sink or swim, S.O.S.
DT: Let’s talk a little bit about S.O.S., S.O.S. from Texas. You are facing this sort of commodity, price problem. And you’re interested in doing things in a more sustainable way. You’ve gotten into organic cotton. And not only that, but also using the cotton you’ve raised to produce various value-added products. I was hoping that you’d be able to start at the source and talk a little bit about how you farm cotton organically now. What’s the typical process through the course of the year and how does it differ from the conventional cotton raisers?
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GO: Well, we like I say, we basically farm like—like my grandfather did with—well, we have—we have modern technology that they didn’t have. But—but we plow our land subsoil our land, typically in January or February. And that’s just to kind of break it up and allow it to receive moisture that comes through that time of year in the spring. And then before planting, we’ll—we’ll usually disk the land to smooth it out and break up the clods so that it is easy to plant. And then we—and then we plant right after we do that. We—I try to plant kind of in late May which is probably maybe a week or so, two, later than—than you would if you were doing chemicals. And I do that for weed control because you can plow that. One plowing will kill that—kill those—one more crop of
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little weeds. So we typically try to plant about the twenty-fifth of May. And then the cotton comes up just maybe less than two weeks old. We go back in there with what they call a go-devil, which is a little knifing rig that travels real close to the cotton. And—and it has sweeps and things that kill the weeds. It’s—it’s very slow. And the—one reason people don’t use it mostly today because it’s tedious and slow. You have to be careful because you’ll plow the crop up. I usually do that about two or three times, two times. And then as the cotton grows go onto a cultivator, which is a little faster and it has sweeps. And—and usually in between there we’ll—we’ll hoe the crop, try to kill the
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little weeds. We’ll have people come in and do the hoeing. And sometimes we have to hoe twice depending on if you get—you know, when the rains come. And when the crop gets a certain stage it kind of shades out the little weeds and you don’t worry about it as much anymore. So, typically we’ll hoe once—one to two times and cultivate two times and—and run the other cultivator, the go-devil, couple of times. So about four plowings for weed control. And then the crop is basically ready if you’re going to irrigate. You know, you have your irrigation through the summer. And—and that’s about all you can do. And then toward the end you—you know, we wait for a freeze to—to drop the leaves
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and pop the bolls because we—we don’t defoliate. And you know, there’s some years that waiting like that makes you get into the winter situation where you have weather troubles. But—but mostly, you know, it works—it works out okay.
DT: Do you do any composting or mulching in the beginning part of the year?
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GO: I don’t do any—I don’t do anything like that. I—I strictly do rotations. I—I say I grow my own fertilizer. I just—composting is very expensive because you have to—it’s—you have put out a whole lot of it, which—then you have expensive—the trucking it in. It doesn’t really cost much for the compost. But—but the trucking cost generally cost more than—at least where I live— costs more than what it actually costs. And then putting it down is kind of a problem. But so I’ve just—the years that I’ve been doing it, I just have been on a real strict rotation schedule, which…
DT: What sort of crops do you rotate with?
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GO: Well, wheat is—is a good crop that we used because we graze it. And then it—we have decent harvesting of—of wheat. We’re not a big wheat yielding area but—but there is a little better market for organic wheat. So—so wheat is—is probably one of our basic best ones. And—but we also—depending on different markets and what’s going on, we had one year where we did some noto soybeans for a Japanese co—company that had a very good contract, but unfortunately they didn’t do very good here. So it wasn’t something we could—were able to keep doing. Peanuts—it’s a pretty good peanut area. We’ve done some organic peanuts. The problems I’ve had there is they’re—you surely
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have to rotate those every year. The land gets really foul because you can’t plow them. They’re a vine. It spreads out. So you don’t have much control there. We’ve done—when we had alfalfa we’ve had alfalfa seeds, selling the seed for—for organic sprouters. And I’ve tried some pinto beans and never have harvested a crop. But they’ve been a good late summer soil-building crop that plant and then plow under.
DT: So you try and plant a lot of legumes? Is that…
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GO: Try and get—we try and get a legume, like—generally I don’t like to have cotton on the place maybe two years at the most. And I think maybe the new organic standards may require maybe every year. I’m not sure what those are going to look like. But—but two years is kind of the most I want to do cotton. And probably weed control affects more my decisions than—than anything that I—I see that as the largest problem that we have. But try to rotate—try to rotate that out and either use a wheat or even—even a sorghum which, you know, we might bale for hay for cattle. But it still—it’s a good—has a lot of little fibrous roots that, you know, that is good for your soil. So…
DT: Do you use BT or any other kind of natural…
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GO: No. No. I just—on the—the insect—the insect thing too again, rotation kind of has been our best—best luck. I—I—those things are—you know, I—the people that have—I know the people have tried and there’s been some success with different levels and the beneficials. But a lot of it is—is timing. Of course, it’s an expensive item too. But I just—I’m just really sold on this rotation for all your problems. Of course, I told you about the year that we had the boll weevil and, you know, it completely wiped us out. But I don’t think there was—there would have been anything you could have done about that, anyway. But—but in the—I guess this is our eleventh year as an organic cotton. And really, boll weevil is probably the only problem we’ve had in that area.
DT: What have you seen in the soil or in the crops you’ve raised since you’ve gone organic?
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GO: Well, the soil is, you know, it’s—it smells good and it feels good. And you know it—if you’ve never farmed and plowed on a open top tractor on a spring day and the soil’s wet and you turned it up, you know, it just has that great smell about. And—and, you know, you see—of course, when you have a lot organic matter, you see some fiber content in the soil and—and when it rains it doesn’t just plaster like cement. It you know, has there’s a—it’s problem around here. A lot of times the plant—if you get a hard rain, for the crop to come up and they have a machines that actually have to break
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that—that soil. And but we—we don’t have near as much trouble with that as we used to. So, if—if the crop is kind of not planted too deep, usually it’ll come on up just because the soil is not going to pack together.
DT: You’ve mentioned how the standards may change and require you to rotate out every year rather than the two years now. I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about the organic certification programs and how you’ve gone and gotten certified and if there’s any way to appeal or change those standards; how the standards were developed? That would all be interesting to know.
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GO: Well, I talked a little bit about being in the alfalfa business and when we came out of the alfalfa it was time to do something with the land and—and just at that time, which was ’90—’90, ’91, I guess, the Department of Agriculture had started an organic certification. And I was of course, hearing about cotton price. You know, a dollar a pound for organic cotton, which interested me in getting into the program. And it fit—it just fit real natural into what I was doing because the land was already clean. So, basically, the Department of Agriculture required a three-year history of non-chemical use to become certified. And—and we had that. So—but they still had to start you at
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what they called a transitional just so they could monitor you that first year. So, to start out with, it is a lot of paperwork, you know, filling out records and of what your—your history of what you’ve done with the farm, putting in the application. And then you have soil samples and water samples if you’re irrigating that they have to have on file and record. And they—they actually, I guess, analyze those. And then during the growing season they come out and take leaf samples that are very sensitive. They—in fact they told me that through those leaf samples they had found traces of DDT at some fields that they knew had been out in over twenty years. Not—not in our fields. But—but the
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inspector told me those tests are, you know, that accurate and that sensitive. So—so we have you know, this—the application and their guidelines that basically no synthetic chemicals are allowed to be used at any point in the growing. And they monitor that. And the state of Texas, I guess, probably has the best reputation for organic standards. In fact the national standards, I believe, were—were modeled after Texas. And a lot of the language in there came from—from our standards. So and you know, there’s a—there’s
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a fee every year, which is a very reasonable fee. But—but Brent Wiseman was one of the men that started a very, very energetic and had a lot vision, I think, and did a lot for the—did a lot for the—the program. And the—the people are—are still expanding, I think, you know, the crops are expanding and the growth, maybe not so much in the cotton part of it, but—but the food crops I know, those markets and—and growers are expanding.
DT: I understand that there’s going to be a beef program that’s slated to come on line soon. Are you going to be participating in that do you think?
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GO: Yes. We are very interesting in the beef program. We been in—twenty years ago we tried to get into marketing hormone free beef and—before they used the term organic much through health food stores. But—but Texas is I think waiting on approval or the national standards or something, but it’s—they’re—it’s here just maybe the next month or so or whenever. But we have plans and a very large interest in being into that and a lot of interest to me in the organic farming. I mean, you know, we’re—we’re—we’re environmentalists, but to—to be truthful we’re good capitalists, too. You know, we want—we want to do well, make money and provide a way for our family. And we talked a little bit about marketing conventional crops and those markets are so erratic because the world thinks—the organic crops, though, are—are one of those things that that they have an established market and you can count on that market. And to me, that is very important. The cotton—the cotton market is—is very stable. It may be, you know,
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you may have to wait around a little while if you’re just selling a crop. And, but the food markets and the beef market I think it’s a high demand and it continues to grow. So—so you’re in a—you’re in a niche that the competition, you don’t worry about some of your foreign producers on these markets.
DT: I understand that one way you’ve helped yourself, insulate yourself, from some of these foreign competitors and commodity pricing and so on is do a lot of value-added work where you actually produce, have commissioned yarn and have fabric woven and have products made. Can you talk a little bit about that part of your organic cotton business?
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GO: Yes. And that’s a—that’s pretty interesting the way it happened like I said, my family’s been—they’ve been cotton farmers forever. And—and I’ve been exposed to it my whole life. And when we got into the organic farming they said you know, “You can sell organic cotton for a dollar a pound.” Well, I think, at the time, probably the markets in—were about like they are now, forty, fifty cents for a commissionable crop. So that was very interesting. So I raised that first crop, got certified. And I raised that first crop in ’92 and got ready to sell the crop and I was just—just like all farmers, we get a crop out, we go to the gin, we say, “Here it is.” You know, “Give—give me the money, whatever it’s worth.” Well, the organic markets were not quite that way. It’s like well there’s people that want it but you have to go out and find them. So, TDA, had a list—
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Brent sent us all a list of some people that expressed interest in organic cotton. So I started calling these people. I mean, they were—they were all over the world, all over the country. And, you know, it’s—maybe—maybe somebody wanted ten pounds to make a pillow with, or something. You know, and here—here we had, you know, fifty thousand pounds, or something. So there was this one lady in Sweden that—her name was on there, and—and got a hold of her. And she said, “Yes, I’m interested.” And so we faxed back and forth, talking price. And I thought well, a dollar, maybe can get two dollars out of it, you know. But, after a few weeks she said, “Well, I really don’t want
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the raw cotton. What I want is a T-shirt. Can you make a T-shirt?” And—and it really cau—caught me off guard because I thought, you know, here I am, I’ve been in the cotton business my whole life. And I don’t have clue of—of what you do with cotton after it leaves the farm, you know. I—I really didn’t know anything about spinning or knitting or—and it. I—I said, “Well, I don’t know, but I’ll try.” So—so I just got on the telephone, basically, and starting calling mills and you can imagine the reaction of a large textile mill in South Carolina, with some dumb farmer in Texas saying, “Can you spin some cotton for me and make some—make a T-shirt?” And, you know, most people
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wouldn’t give you the time of day. But I—I kept after it and—persistent and finally found a place in Alabama that expressed some interest. And he said—of course, I could see—you could see the dollar signs in his mind. He said, “Oh, this will be a very expensive product.” You know, so—so they agreed to make a little yarn and knit the
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fabric and they actually had the whole thing; they were vertically integrated company. They had the knitting—spinning, the knitting and they actually did the sewing. So they—so they made T-shirt for me. We didn’t—we didn’t do a very large run, a couple thousand pounds, maybe. And he charged me six bucks to make the—the T-shirt. Well, I was just tickled, you know, to get it done to start with. Well, my—my client, she was working on a deal for Volvo that was hosting the Winter Olympics in Norway—in I think it was ’93 or four—and—and they were wanting to use organic cotton. It was a new
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thing. Well, they needed to buy the T-shirt for four dollars. So, you know, we were—we were pretty far apart there. So I kept on, you know, trying to find more people and just called, called, called. And turned out there was—there was a company here in Texas at Graham that—that had just come over here. They were—they had a factory in Tennessee where they did sewing. And this—this man is actually from Graham and—and the Department of Agriculture had kind of talked him into bringing some industry into Texas. And they opened a dye house and through some investors and different things. So—and—this—this guy, he was an older fellow and he was just the nicest, most honest
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fellow. His name is Norman L. Carpenter. And he just kind of took me in. And he showed me—he’d been in the business his whole life. And he just—he laid out all his business to me. And his computer programs of how he figures costs and he agreed to make this shirt at exactly, you know, what it costs plus a reasonable percentage for his company. So, with him, I—I came in with a three dollar T-shirt, so I was able to offer a
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four dollar price and have a good profit. Well, it turns out the—the whole deal didn’t come through with Volvo, which looking back was the best thing that ever happened to me because, it was like, two hundred thousand shirts. And—and seeing all the—the troubles I’ve gone through in the business since then, you know, it would have killed me. Because I would’ve had—there would have been so many problems, you know. So, but anyway, it launched—it launched me into selling this cotton to—to a value-added product, a T-shirt. And there’s a good market for T-shirts. And like I said, you can—it’s harder to sell the raw cotton. So—so this looked like a perfect—just a perfect fit
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for us. You know, we’re a small—small farm and we can take—to kind of give you an idea of how the value adds up, conventional cotton is fifty cents, organic raw cotton, a dollar, if—if you find a market. If we make it into yarn, we can sell that yarn for three seventy-five a pound, verses a dollar a pound. If you go from the yarn—if you go to the fabric, we sell that for about six dollars a pound. If you make a T-shirt—we sell the T-shirt, just a blank T-shirt for someone that’s a screen printer that buys, you know a reasonable volume, four seventy-five a shirt, which is about a little over nine dollars a pound for your cotton. If we put a print on a shirt and sell it wholesale to a store, that
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goes up to about sixteen dollars a pound. And then if you’re able to sell it at the retail level, like we do some, a little bit, off our Internet site and other areas, you can double that. So—so you get up to about thirty-two, thirty something dollars a pound if you take it all the way to the retail level. Well, one bail of cotton will make about seven hundred
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T-shirts. So—so bail of—five hundred dollar—or two hundred and fifty bail of conventional cotton if you have it organic you know, you could say that it’s fifteen thousand dollars at the end. Of course you know, you’ve—you’ve got a lot—you’ve got lots of expenses along the way. But—but it’s pretty amazing how—how a little can turn out to be a lot.
DT: You mentioned this one fellow that who was in the knitting and T-shirt making business. Have there been other mentors or teachers who have helped you learn about all of this? Or is it self-taught?
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GO: It’s pretty well self-taught. I mean, you know, the people—of course, you know, I make connections, business connections and these people teach me a lot. You know, I’d say Norman L. was the first person that really helped me on that end of it. And then but—we have, you know, I have a lady that now our business contract sews and she’s been in it all her life. So she knows a lot about that part of it. Well, and through—through some efforts of West Texas Utilities, they had some programs where they sent me to some trade shows. And—and I made a contact in Atlanta with a—with a company in the Carolinas that is into the knitting and finishing part of it and have a real good business relationship with him. He’s the fellow that now makes our—our cloth because there’s—that industry doesn’t exist in Texas anymore. So probably Mr. Blackman has helped me on that end, teaching me a lot. But you know, a lot of it’s just school of hard
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knocks. You—you learn by lots of mistakes. And—and when you have personal finances involved you—you learn a little quicker. But, we formed a—we formed a company, SOS from Texas, to market our cotton through our T-shirts so our—kind of our logo byline there is “we grow T-shirts”. We just have the idea that that the shirt you’re buying is something we knew when the life started because we planted it. And it’s you know, it’s kind of an interesting little story. And of course every year is a little different growing. Just tell people it’s kind of like wine, you have some good years cotton, where the—where the fiber maybe is just a little stronger, a little whiter; some years where it
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show up a little differently. But—but it’s a real interesting story and people are—they’re interested in buying when they know the story. We have—we’ve had our products in some large stores, Penny’s and didn’t do very well and I’ve—I’ve decided it’s because—we do better in smaller stores because smaller stores you’re more likely to have a salesman that’ll kind of tell you the little story about the T-shirt where in a big place, you know, you’re just walking through just buying just what you see maybe don’t get the inside story.
DT: What do you mean by S.O.S. from Texas? Where did the name of your company come from?
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GO: Well, the name—the name started as Save Our Soil. And the idea was S.O.S. is kind of a signal from Texas. You know, the farmer—the farmer here, we’re trying to do something a little different. Kind of sending out a distress—distress signal, I guess you’d say. To—to—like we talked about the way our land looked at one time. We just needed to make some changes here. So, S.O.S., “Save Our Soil”.
DT: And have you found that that message is getting to any land grant colleges? Are you getting any help from them?
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GO: I haven’t received—no, we haven’t received help from land grant colleges. We’ve had a lot of help from TDA. And I—like I mentioned, West Texas Utilities was—was more from an economic development standpoint that we received help from them. I—you know, if there—if there is something that—that we needed probably from A&M or something on growing advice I’m sure we—we could—we could have it. But there’s there’s—there’s been nothing—well, I would say now Texas Tech—I don’t know if they’re a land grant—but they do have a textile research center there that—they’re kind of affiliated with the university and kind of not I think. But now they have—they have helped me a lot because they have—they have every piece of equipment there ever made, I think, in the textile industry and they do a lot of research on—on different projects. So they’ve done—they’ve done some knitting work for me and advice and spinning. And just—so th—that branch, it probably has helped a lot.
DT: Do you find that the schools in the state do much research on organic farming?
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GO: I’m not too aware if they do. I’ve never had any contact on—on that aspect of it. I think in California, maybe, there’s—we have—we’ve done some things with Chico, which is a division of the University of California, I think. And but we probably have had more contact maybe with West Coast universities in Texas.
DT: What about some of the federal agencies? Do you get much loan help from the Farmer Service Agency or any of the other sources of support?
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GO: Nothing for the organic side of the business, there’s—there hasn’t been anything like that. Of course, our—you know, an organic farmer is eligible for all the USDA services just like a conventional farmer. So we, you know, we participate in all those programs, the subsidies and—and whatnot. But—but as far as just for organic no there has—there has not been anything. The—the Texas Agriculture Finance Authority, they—they financed a—a Lone Star Knitting, which was a knitting and—and dye house which was part of the Carpenters that they actually put here in Wellington. And I was, unfortunately, a small investor in that. But that help came from TDA. But it did not—it did not last. Now, it wasn’t for—it wasn’t made, you know, strictly for organic. It was just for—for doing just T-shirt type textiles for nationwide. But it just, you know, came in at a—at a bad time when the industry was leaving the United States. But—but that—that funding was through TDA.
DW: We’ve heard TDA mentioned quite a bit and I don’t know if we’re going to get back to that historical part. How much of this marketing and promoting of organics started under the Hightower Administration and were you there at the outset of that type of thing?
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GO: Yes I’m not sure when—when the cha—what year the change was made. But I—I don’t think Hightower was there when we started. But I—but I—I’m sure that he laid the groundwork just because of, you know, who he his and—and the direction he was heading in trying to—to promote to value-added and—and those types things. But I—I think maybe when the program finally came in and we got in, which was in ‘90—I guess ‘91 was when we signed and the first crop was ’92 that I think maybe Perry was already Ag commissioner. But—but I think the whole change in the Ag department came during Hightower. I mean, it used to what was Ag commissioner, he checked the gas pumps,
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you know, he put his name on it. That’s all anybody knew about it. And, you know, it—it really changed through Hightower’s time there. But you know, I think it’s carried over. Because it’s—I think our Department of Agriculture is probably unique in the United States in the things that they do for these Texas companies. It’s just—just—I’m really grateful to them for all they do. And we participate—we’re a GO TEXAN member and they just—they have something going on all the time for us and helping us with promotion and shows and, like right now, we have the state fairs going on and they have
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a general store and a mercantile store that they sell the GO TEXAN products. So we have our T-shirts down there. And they’re—they’re doing quite well with that. And it’s you know, we pay—we pay some rent. But it’s certainly a subsidized rent because it’s—it doesn’t cost us very much to be there.
DT: I’m trying to find out what other people or places you’ve gotten some promotion from. Have you found that any of the local banks have been interest in what you’ve been doing as sort of an alternative to the conventional way of growing cotton and selling it?
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GO: Well, you know, people are—people overall are interested in what, you know, I’m doing. But it’s and—and we talked—we talked one time with our local coop gin about maybe trying to do something a little larger and together and it’s—it’s hard—farmers are hard to get together to do something. And—and a lot of that is independence but a lot of it is you’re not free—you’re not free to make those decisions because of some of the things we’ve already talked about, your financiers. And—and it’s you know a banker likes to know everything exactly when he loans money that he’s going to get so much and—and the organic is like we talked about, its—the marketing is different. You know, you may—you may have to have a little flexibility there. You may have to wait a year. When I first started, I—the first crop, it took me like, maybe two or three years to get that sold through the product just because we didn’t have the business. But—but now when my crop comes out in November, it’ll probably be made into yarn by December. It’ll be
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into—some of it—we won’t use it all at once, but, probably it’ll be a T-shirt by February and the T-shirt will be gone by March. You know, so—so—now it’s—it’s happening pretty quickly for me. But—but it’s—it’s a little slower, a little harder so it’s—there hasn’t been anyone just running over saying we all need to do this. No. But everyone’s interested because it’s, you know, it is interesting.
DT: Do you think you’ve made any converts among some of your neighbors? Have some of them turned to organic?
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GO: Most people are just skeptical, you know, and don’t like to change. So I had a couple of neighbors that—that raised a crop or two. But, when things didn’t go exactly the way they should, they got real disgusted real quickly and dropped out, you know. And—and so—and I’ve had my experience—there’s been where, you know, I don’t even really want to even encourage anyone else because it seems like they—they get a little disheartened and maybe you get—it doesn’t work out just the way they want it to when it does. Do you know what I mean? I don’t know. So, people are interested but. If you could—if you could write a contract for the crop ahead of time, people would be interested. But the markets, right now, are not such that anyone’s willing to do that.
DT: You mean a given price for a given amount of cotton?
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GO: Right. You know, you—you take almost every industry in the world, they’re not going to—they’re not going to build something until they’ve got it sold, but yet farmers, we grow it without a clue of what to sell it. But, on conventional cotton, you know there’s a market and you know there’s a price even though it may be below production cost. You can’t get some of your money back. But with organic, you know, if someone—if there were someone out there and if S.O.S. continues to grow, you know, I may get to the point were I might want to contract some cotton from someone else and say, “You grow this for me.” But then, again, you have to make a three-year
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commitment to get certified. So then you’ve got—you have two years there you’re farming organically so you’re—you may be losing—you may be losing yield from what you’re used to and you’re still having to sell the crop at the—the other price. So, it takes, you know, it’s—it takes a long—it takes a big commitment to—because it’s going to be three years before you can actually get to that point. So it’s—it’s hard to get people involved. So really, the organic cotton industry has not grown much as far as producer rights.
DT: Do you think that there are any organic techniques that conventional farmers are adopting?
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GO: Well, I think—you know, there’s a real large movement on the no-till but the no-till only works if you have the chemicals to kill the weeds. But—but it’s a good thing as far as putting more organic matter in your soil. But probably the only organic things that I would say that people use would be things that maybe they would do to save some money; like maybe waiting to a freeze, not defoliating the cotton because they didn’t want to spend that extra twenty dollars. But, you know, that’s just kind of a year-to-year call. But—but crop rotations—no, you don’t see that much because, like we were talking about these irrigation systems, you spend all that money. You got this set-up there. You can’t—you can’t pull out of that and plant wheat there for rotation because wheat brings
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two dollars a bushel. And even with irrigation you might make fifty bushels, which is only a hundred dollars. You know, that’s not even going to pay the—that’s not even going to pay your payment. So once a man makes a commitment to that, you know, he—he pretty well is locked in with having to stay with—with a higher dollar crop.
DT: What can you say from your experience getting into organic cotton, organic agriculture, for the larger future of agriculture here in the Panhandle. Do you think that organic ag is going to remain a small niche or do you think that there’ll be changes in the future? Or do think people are going to tend towards dry land farming? Do more step-wise changes? What do you foresee?
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GO: Well, I think the organic business is going to be market driven which, you know, really, I feel like it should be versus regulations. I mean, you know, the government can regulate us, don’t use chemicals, you know, do this. But it’s—but it’s better if—if the public wants these kind of products then they need pay for them. And—and farmers are going to get real interested. I mean, if—if there were markets out there, if someone walked into our county and said “We need to contract ten thousand bales of organic cotton”, you’d have a lot of organic cotton farmers. For a dollar a pound, you’d have a lot of organic cotton farmers. So I think the organic industry is—is market driven, so
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as—as the markets grow, people are going to be interested in it because that’s, you know, that’s what attracts the farmers. You know is making some—some extra money doing—and they can figure out, you know—people figure out ways of doing it if—if it’s market driven.
DT: When you talk to customers, why are they interested in you growing organic cotton and selling it to them?
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GO: Well, we have kind a—our markets are kind of twofold. We have a—we have a big part of our—our—probably half of our business is just selling a blank T-shirt. And this goes, normally, to screen printers or groups that are doing some kind of event. And they just—they like the idea of organic cotton. Organic cotton has finally gotten to where people know about it. When I first started, most people didn’t know, you know—organic. What does that mean? It’s alive. You know, or whatever. But people know
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now that there’s a product available and—and they—they’re not buying it—they’re not buying it because they have trouble with chemical sensitivity. Although we do have a very—probably less than one half of one percent of our customer base are people that—that can’t wear anything but these kind of clothes. But—but they like the idea that it’s—you know, cotton farming is chemically intensive and this is an effort that is being made to—to have a little better product. And they like to participate in that. And they don’t mind paying a little extra for the shirt. And then we have another line of our product where we put prints on and we sell—wholesale these into stores, mostly gift stores. And
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probably your customer there, they’re buying a shirt because it looks nice and it has a nice print. And then the fact that it’s organic is maybe is just an extra. That’s not the—that’s not the number one reason they buy it. But then they get it and we have a little tag that tells the story. And, of course, it’s very nice, feels nice. And you know, they—they like it. We get—we just get so many positive comments from our products. And but people, you know, there—there is a large consumer base that supports the organic industry and not only in this country but other parts of the world. We have some customers in Japan, Canada, Hong Kong. Europe is a real big market. We—we do not have any customers there right now. And we—we don’t know why. But it’s—it may be something to do with the—the extra cost of getting it there.
DT: You mentioned the logos and images that you put on these? Do you use aniline dyes or are you exploring using some organic natural dye…
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GO: We—we haven’t. We have—one of our largest customers is a screen printer in Florida that has a—has a patented printing organic ink process. And they—they buy blank shirts from us and we do their label. And they’re the only ones that has the process of doing it. And, but most of our—most of the things that we do are—we buy prepared art from other artists and then it is not organic printing. If we do a large a number of shirts for someone that we could, you know, have the—the company to print it that way, we do that. But most of our printing we use is not. And I’ve had people ask about that and I’ve said, “You know, I’ve—I’ve done everything that—that I can do. This is something that—I just can’t do that.” You know, if the technology becomes available and I can buy it. I can do it. But you know, it’s—with—with the growing and the processing and we’ve just—we feel like we’ve done our part.
DT: Well, maybe in the future.
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GO: Yeah, and it will come in the future. Yes, it will.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about the future? What do foresee as being the big challenges and opportunities for conservation or sustainable agriculture?
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GO: Well you know it’s like we were talking about the young people coming back. And I really think if—if a person wants to be involved in farming, he’s going to have to look for a niche or something, you know. And—and organic offers that, I think, in a lot of different—different ways, different areas, maybe not necessarily the cotton but some of the foods. But I think there’s—I think there’s a large potential for our company. I don’t know—I’m not real interested in being, you know, necessarily corporate, real big. So I don’t know if my interest will carry us you know, a whole lot larger than we are but—but I think the potentials there because we just—this past year—there’s basically
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only three companies in the United States that produce organic cotton T-shirts and the other two or are pretty large concerns; Patagonia. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, large company. But the other two companies, just this year, took their business out of the United States. So they’re—they’re doing foreign production. And so there’s some questions there about maybe the purity and the certification. So it’s really thrown a lot of people that want, you know, a U.S. product, plus knowing the certification, to us. So our business has really—really boomed this year. And—and there’s—to me there’s a lot of potential out there for even more. And like I say, I don’t know, you know, how willing personally I’m going to be to—without some help, you know. So—so there’s some—there’s—there’s a lot out there I think. There’s a lot of potential. And…
DT: What sort of advice would you give to young people about how they could help? About how they could support what you’re doing and maybe carry it forward in the future?
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GO: I think, you know, the—the things that young people are doing—you know, I think young people today are very aware of—of the things that are going on. And it’s just—to me it’s all consumer driven, I think. You know, if—if you—if you’re going to talk the talk, you know, you need to walk it. You need to, you know, you need to be willing to spend that extra money and maybe instead of having three T-shirts, have one, organic one, you know. So I—I think young people, from a consumer standpoint, you know, there’s lots of power there as—as a consumer. Now, if a person wanted to be in the—be in the business, there’s—I think there’s a lot of opportunities to. You’d have to be, you know, entrepreneurial about doing it and finding—finding ways of markets and different things to do. But—but it’s out there. If someone like me can do what we did, you know, I feel like anybody could.
DT: Speaking of the cotton business, I was wondering if you could read one of these poems that I think one of your forefathers wrote.
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GO: Okay. Well, let me see here.
DT: Now, I’d like you to read some of the poems that you have in your lap. Maybe you can tell a little bit about where they came from and what they mean to you.
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GO: Okay. This poem was written in 1873 by my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, and it says—it’s titled Six Cents A Pound. “To you my fellow farmers, I sing a brand new song, although my tune is doubtful and often slightly wrong. The words, however awkward, with simple truth are crowned, ’tis about our raising cotton, at just six cents a pound. Set out the old sour buttermilk, we’ll drink to all the land, and make some good brand coffee, quite strong enough to stand. And make a yellow corn dogger and bake it devilish brown. I am a man who raised cotton at just six cents a pound. March out to pick—to picking cotton, strap on a ducking sack. The cotton limbs flying at
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your face, another at your back. Pick cotton on ‘til doomsday, ‘til Gabriel’s trumpet sounds, the poor man’s curse is cotton at just six cents a pound. Old man of the farmer’s alliance, drudge on with all your might. I’ve listened to your speeches and hoped you’d set things right. But in spite of all your boasting of turning the tables around, today you’re selling cotton at just six cents a pound. But do not be discouraged; you’ve made a great uproar. Your leaders have entered politics. They’re stumping the country o’er. But to pay your leader’s salaries, the money must be found. Can you raise it making cotton at just six cents a pound? If my enemies were in my power, their doom I straight would tell. I would not wish them to be hanged nor put beneath the millstone in pieces to be ground. But I’d put ’em to raising cotton at six cents a pound.”
DT: Thank you.
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GO: My grandfather, they said that once in a while he’d drink a little bit. And he had a bad year that year and came in and wrote this—wrote this poem. But what strikes me is that it’s just so true. Even today, you know, we—we still—you go around the gin and people complain at thirty cent cotton or fifty cent cotton. But it’s the same old problems, politicians. But he had written several of these poems. And it was all about the struggle. I had a—my grandfather on my mother’s side, now he was a—they really tried—he was really a true cotton farmer. He—they lived down by Denton. And he would—he loved to farm cotton. And he came out—he come out to this part of the world and had to buy a
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cotton farm and farm cotton. He’d go broke; he’d go back and buy a store. He—he did real good at the store business and make enough money to come back out here and do it again. My grandmother says he bought and sold the same store three times. And each time he’d come back out to farm cotton, go broke and go back. So, it’s something—I—I guess cotton farming gets in your blood and maybe—maybe sometimes it’s a curse, you can’t get it—you can’t get it out.
DT: Well, we often conclude these interviews by asking people if they have a favorite place in the outdoors that they enjoy visiting. And I wonder, in your case, is it the cotton farm or is it something else.
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GO: Yes. We’re probably all that way. But I have a—I have a place that’s kind of a little hill that looks over a creek. And it looks over, actually the—the farm where my family came and had a dugout that they lived in when they first settled this area. And it’s very good land. And, of course, it has a lot of stories there of my dad growing up and—and his brothers and all. There were seven boys there. And they had two other families that had seven boys. So there were like twenty-one boys in this little area here. And they—they grew up together and fought and were friends and these families are all still here today. You know, but—but anyway, that—that place is a real peaceful place. It’d probably be a nice place to be a final resting place if you—if you wanted it to be.
DT: Well, I think this might be our resting place. Thanks very much. I appreciate it.
[End of Reel 2229]
[End of Interview with Gary Oldham]