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Larhea Pepper

INTERVIEWEE: Larhea Pepper (LP)
DATE: October 12, 2002
LOCATION: O’Donnell, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: April Marshall and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2242

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recording. Boldfaced numbers indicate 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. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. And it’s October 12, 2002 and we’re in a small town, south of Lubbock called O’Donnell, and we’re visiting with LaRhea Pepper who has been involved in promoting organic agriculture—particularly organic cotton through her work on the Tex Organic Cotton Marketing cooperative, and through businesses such as Cotton Plus, Organic Essentials, and through work on the National Organic Standard Board, and probably many things I’m not even aware of. So, look forward to hearing more about it, and I wanted to thank you for—for taking the time to explain some of your work.
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LP: Thanks. Glad to have you here.
DT: Great. I thought we might start by asking if you could give us a little context to your work and maybe go back and—and try and describe a little bit about O’Donnell, and—and its roots in conventional cotton agriculture before World War II, I think back in the ‘20’s when your family first moved here.
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LP: This land was settled in the early 1900’s and most specifically in the—the teens and twenties. So when you look at this area at that time, the population was significantly different. When this land was settled a family would live on about a quarter section of land. So when you look at the horizon and the—and the community in which we live, you’re going to see that there was a family in about every quarter section. And they were able to make their living in a sustainable way at that time. You know, every farmer
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would have their own chickens and the milk cow, and you know, goats or whatever. And a part of their farm would be in some kind of a la—a cash crop or a land crop that they would sell and then they would also have a diversity of other crops for maintenance of their family farm. But things shifted and have shifted dramatically in the past ninety years. By the time—I was born in the 1950’s—many things had happened in that time. Their family needed at least a section of land at that point in time to be a sustainable
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economic unit and that’s no longer the case. There was a time in—in this area when there were five cotton gins and about forty businesses in—in this community with—the community was still small but, there were so many other families in the country side that, you know, there was a drug store and a pharmacy and a movie house and three car dealerships, and you know, all the supporting businesses that would, you know, service a population of that size, even though it’s a rural population. At this time there’s like three businesses in our community and—and there’s about twelve hundred people and so, over the years, you know, there was a time when the family farm supported the farm, it supported the family and it sup—supported the community. But that’s no longer the
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case. You know, there’s at least one person on the farm right now working off the farm to bring income to the family. And the farm these days is not even supporting the farm. Every year with the situation where it is, you’re cannibalizing your equity—whether it be your equipment or land. So there’s been a huge shift of what has happened in this community since the early 1920’s when my family settled here.
DT: What do you think the change is due to? Why did some of these cotton farms grow larger? Why did they turn towards more mechanization, more chemicals than they had say when the land was first settled?
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LP: Part of that is the dynamics of, you know, the economic situation. In order for that farm to be able to survive on a economic basis—you know, that farmer instead of planting with two mules or a couple oxen, you know, got a tractor and all of a sudden he could cover more territory or cover more ground, and—and, become a stronger, viable economic unit. And in so doing it just started the whole deal of, you know, com—more competition with commodities, and then, of course, there was the Depression, that took a
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lot of people out and off the land. There was World War II—I and II that came along and a lot of people, you know, made the choice to move to a more urban area in order to—to make more money in the city or, you know, whatever the case may be. So, as time wore on there were less and less families farming the same amount of land and those families had to cover more ground. And instead of tending five crops with a grain drill and, you know, maybe peanuts or whatever the case may be—to become more
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economically viable they became more specialized, as well. And so what we have around us right now is about 3 million acres of cotton. We’re basically a mono-crop culture because we’ve had to g—get so efficient at doing what we do in order to be more competitive in the world markets so that’s another big shift, you know. In the 1920’s, ‘30’s, ‘40’s, what we made was for domestic consumption, you know. Now we’re competing head-to-head with farmers from Turkey, China, Brazil, so it’s a—makes a huge impact on—in defining what’s economically sustainable at the farm gate level.
DT: And so the conventional cotton is really forcing a competition on the basis of price, and—and I guess is sort of considered a generic good—it’s—it’s done…
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LP: Cotton is considered one of the major commodities along with sugar and rice and wheat and a lot of other crops that are produced in the United States in a large manner and mechanism with larger equipment, larger farms, larger firms and companies that cover a lot of ground. And it’s, you know, traded on—in the world market on the commodity exchange, so, it’s one of the commodities that’s in agriculture at this time.
DT: And you mentioned that you were a growing up personally in the 1950’s when I guess this change was first starting to take hold. Can you give us an idea of—of how you saw this change happening in your own family or in this community?
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LP: Well, in my own family was kind of interesting because part of why I’m involved in organic is part of my family legacy. So as a child we still had some of that diversity while—we—we still had some chickens and we still had, you know, dairy cows, and we had, you know, part of our land was in a crop rotation system so, you know, my family land has never had, you know, the sens—synthetic—my family land has never had the synthetic chemicals or fertilizers or chemicals like that that were put on to it because
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granddaddy felt like we’re simply stewards of the land. It’s not our land. We’re simply here as caretakers. So that concept and that philosophy and those stewardship principles were a huge part of our family. So even though granddaddy and—and daddy didn’t necessarily preach that in a direct way it was always done indirectly. Like you’d see some other farmer in the ‘50’s and I would be—I was the oldest grandchild on the farm. So, you know, I was sent to go ride with granddaddy or go ride with dad, so I was with
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my grandfather and my father a lot as a young child before I went to school and even after school or in the summers. And so I remember driving by a place where a new farmer or a farmer was, you know, putting on, you know, tanks or chemicals or things like that and starting to do the fertilizers and starting to use a lot of the synthetic chemicals that came along in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. And there would just be comments of like “they’re poisoning their land,” you know, there were these comments
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that you know, “we don’t do that, we’re not going to do that, it’s not respecting the land, it’s not right.” So there was strong, you know, strong opinions in my family growing up as to what stewardship for the land meant. And that meant that as a young girl I played in the dirt, you know. When daddy was plowing there’s nothing better then running behind the tractor and smelling the dirt just so fresh and turned and alive with life and earthworms and you can smell it. The soil smells good and healthy. You know, a lot of
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the conventional farms right now have gone out there and their land is almost played out. It’s nothing more then a sponge and they have to apply so many fertilizers and so many things to the land in order to have any kind of soil fertility. Where our land is balanced and healthy and it still smells good and it feels good to walk in it. It’s not like this hard pan of concrete. So part of, you know, where we’re at it in my childhood is—is the legacy that was passed on from my father and my grandfather as, you know, just directly has to do with respect of the land.
DT: LaRhea, you’ve talked about how you’re—you’re forbearers would look at somebody who was following the conventional dictates of how to grow cotton on an industrial scale, and they’re comment was, well you know, “he’s poisoning this land,” and—and I’m wondering if they also had any comments, or you had any perceptions that they were poisoning their family or their neighbors? You know, there were health affects not just for the land, but for the community.
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LP: I don’t have any statistical data for this specific geographic area, but I went to a workshop that was done by Pesticide Action Network and they did some really incredible overlays of cancer clusters in the United States and then they came back over and did an overlay of agricultural basins or areas. And it was really scary how some of those cancer clusters on types of cancers—whether it was lung or—or brain, or—or breast or what—there was different kinds of cancer clusters – agricultural cancers that were clustered
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predominantly in some agriculture areas and so it was pretty scary. There’s also a lot of widows in our area, which is kind of interesting that we seem to—in our community we seem to have a high proportion of more widows than—like in Riverton, Wyoming where I also have family up there too. It’s just a different percentage. And I don’t know that I can quantify—quantify some of that. We also have more allergy doctors than we used to
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have. There’s people with all kinds of skin disorders and more people on allergy shots and breathing and asthma. So—and a lot of the doctors in this area, be it the allergists and the MD’s, especially, you know, especially concerned and they see a rise in illnesses and problems every year when—when the—the growing season begins and especially around the foliation time—this time of year when there’s a lot of chemicals spread in the air to defoliate the cotton.
DT: I guess in conventional cotton raising and harvesting there are a lot of fertilizers and herbicides and defoliants used, do—do you find that—that many of farmers, you know, find that it’s a tad—a large expense for them? Is there an economic reason that—that this conventional agriculture is tough on them?
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LP: It is—it’s one of those treadmills that you get on that this year it takes this much fertilizer to get this boost and yield and they may have installed a sprinkler system or an irrigation system—you get to the point where you almost have to have those yields in order to be an economically viable unit. So you’re going to be pushing that land and pushing that plant to produce as much cotton as you possibly can, and so there’s been this—to offset the lowering of the com—commodity prices, there’s almost been an offset in increase and yield. (Coughs).
DT: LaRhea, do you want to complete your thought about the cost—the financial cost of some of these…
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LP: Like I was saying, it’s almost like the conventional farmer’s on this treadmill and it’s been interesting that the yields of the cotton and things like that have had to be increased on that same piece of land in order to compensate for, you know, higher prices of fuel, higher prices of equipment and things like that. So, for example, in 1926, ’27 my granddaddy bought a tractor—or a pulled tractor and a plow for about $400. When my dad started farming in the 1950’s he spent about $5000 for a small tractor with a couple
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pieces of equipment. When my husband and I started farming in 1979 we cou—we bought a new tractor for about $25,000. Well, it wasn’t a new, new top of the line, but now if you wanted to buy a new tractor, you’re going to spend about $100,000. So there’s been a huge increase in all the inputs that go into a farm. At the same time, granddaddy sold cotton in the ‘20’s for like 34 or 35 cents a pound. In the ‘50’s it was selling for about 50 cents a pound. In the ‘70’s it was somewhere between 60 cents and
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70 cents and it was a great crop in 1973 because we got 73 cents, you know, a pound for our crop. But now, conventional cotton prices today are about 35 cents. So the price of cotton—of conventional cotton—has no basis in the cost of production. It all has to do with world prices and things like that. So right now part of the issues with conventional farmers is so much of conventional agriculture is subsidized by the United States in one form or another simply because in order to have this parody with the world price, it
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just is not a dynamic that works for the American farm. So how chemicals play a role in that is they’re trying to offse—instead of just having just a half a bale an acre, they’re trying to have a bale and a half per acre in order to offset for, you know, the higher inputs. And that has worked for a long time, but now we’re on a treadmill—the conventional farmer’s on a treadmill. There’s no way to keep up. You can just only push that land so far and you can only push that plant so far and then it becomes almost like a drug addict, you know. It just needs more and more and more chemicals in order to have
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that same kind of production. So the land is not a living, growing, breathing, you know, land any more. Its just become this sponge, a medium for use without any respect for the inputs that it needs as well.
DT: Can you help me understand a little bit more about why it is that—that you’re more exposed to role prices then you were say in the ‘20’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s, I mean is it—is it due to free trade and gas and…
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LP: Yeah, political climate has a lot to do with it. A lot to do with it also has to do with the American standard of living. There, you know, we cannot compete with a cotton grower in Turkey that $2 a day provides him and his family with supposedly a living wage. You know, that living wage does not include running water. That living wage does not include education for his children or health benefits of any kind. And so we’re competing in the United States with that type of economic dynamic and it’s just a—it’s a
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travesty for the Turkey—you know, the farmers in Turkey as well as the American farmers as well. So there’s a big discrepancy in the American standard of living and their standard of living in a lot of third world countries. And the same thing has happened in the ‘20’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s, we—and ‘50’s, even to the ‘60’s, we had a very robust textile industry in the United States. A lot of spinning mills all along the, you know, east coast to—through the north and through the south. Last year alone in one county in North Carolina the, you know, 17,000 people lost their jobs because the textile industry has
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basically moved offshore. So where before we had a ready available market for the cotton that was grown here through the domestic, you know, the domestic textile industry—that is no longer the case. You know, the majority of the textile industry right now is offshore because, again, they can pay the Mexican labor or Guatemala or the sewers in China or Taiwan or Thailand or whatever, you know, two or three dollars a whole day to, you know, make all the garments. And, you know, go to your store and see
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how many garments that you can find that say made in the U.S.A. It’s just not here anymore, so, that’s another, you know, what’s happened to the American farmer and especially the cotton farmer is a dynamic series of, you know, world issues, textile and labor issues, so it’s all interrelated, so it’s just not one thing that’s happened, it’s layers of things that have happened—some of the economic, some of them political
DT: What I’m seeing is that you and your family have tried to go a different route then the conventional cotton monoculture with the chemicals and stuff and carve out a niche in the organic world and I was wondering if you could explain how you came to that and how it’s different then the conventional model?
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LP: In granddaddy’s time it wasn’t any different, you know, the new settlers a lot of times had come from Europe or other places where agriculture has been in existence for thousands of years. So this plan in agriculture, you know, commercial agriculture is a really new thing, you know, a hundred years old or so. And there’s land in Europe that’s been in production for, you know, hundreds and some thous—and in cases thousands of year. So some of those ol—early settlers and everything, you know, came with respect
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for the land and they always used crop rotation as a—to dress soil fertility and to keep health in the soil, but again the dynamics changed to the mono-crop culture. When that happened our family was different. We always used crop rotation even when I was a child and a—a young woman. Our family was different. We didn’t do, you know, some of the things that were that way and we used respect for the land and always had crop rotation. So when my husband and I started farming in 1979 the re—the realities of the
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economics of the farm really hit us as a young family because at that, you know, at that point in time we started a family—we have two boys—and we just really started looking at the future of the family farm with the realization that this is not working. The inputs are going up, diesel costs more, labor costs more, you know, and the—and the price for the cotton is simply not there. So we looked at what do we need to do to diversify. A lot of families diversify by initially the wife gets a off farm job and in order to support the
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family for the farm. And we looked at that and over the years I’ve taught school and done different things, you know, depending upon what the crop year was looking like. But that’s not a long-term answer for what was going on at the farm gate level. So we just really did some serious talking and in the back of my mind my—the first degree that I have from college is in fashion design and textiles. And when Terry and I were dating, that was before we decided to farm, I just always had dreamt of something involving
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fabric and textiles. I’ve just always loved that—and then he decided to farm with my granddaddy and I could not believe, you know, that I was moving back to the farm. It’s a mixed blessing kind of thing. And I’m like, boy, this degree in fashion design’s going to do me a whole lot of good in the middle of the cotton patch. So when we started looking at it, we realized—two things happened kind of at once. In 1990, the enabling legislation for certified organic products came into being and a lot of public and private certifying
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groups started developing standards to be organic. Those were words that had been floating around out there for a number of years, but there wasn’t a set of standards that you could come in here and apply those to your land to do. The other thing that happened was we saw a need to diversify our farm base. Out here we get about 17 inches of rain. So we don’t have a lot of cash crop alternatives and that’s on a good year. We—we’ve had three years of droughts right now and we haven’t averaged over about 7
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or 8 inches. So this is a very tough climate in regards to rainfall and there’s just a limited number of crops that can grow in this area on a limited amount of rainfall. So when we looked at diversifying other cash crops didn’t sift to the top. There just wasn’t anything out there that you consistently grow on an annual basis in some kind of a crop rotation basis that could be the cash crop that cotton is for us. The other thing that happened is with the organic standards I found out that we basically needed to change a little bit of
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our farming dynamics as far as how we did crop rotation and fill out a stack of paper about this deep to—to become certified organic farmers. And then a whole other dynamic opened up. It’s one thing if you’re a strawberry grower or a green bean grower. You can take your crop to a farm stand at the edge of your farm or in town to a community farmers market and you can sell your organic crop to the people that you know or who come by your farm stand and that you can be an organic farmer and they
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know you grew it and they trust you and everything’s great and wonderful. No one, no one wants to buy a 500-pound bale of cotton. No one. You know, people were calling us wanting organic cotton tee shirts or tote bags or sheets or—or, you know, all kinds of different things. Nobody called wanting a 500-pound bale of cotton. The market simply wasn’t there. So it presented us with both some opportunities and some challenges when we started looking into the fabric side of it, which is my love. We found out that the
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mills had 4,000 yard minimums. No wonder all these different manufacturers who were interested in making jeans or making tee shirts or making tote bags or making sheets or making linens or making baby clothes, you know, they were just trying to get into that. They didn’t, you know, have what it took to meet the 4,000-yard minimum at the mill. So off the 1991 crop that we had gotten certified organic, we took some of our bales down to New Braunfels, Texas and had 4,000 yards of denim made and that was just a riot. I remember Terry and I driving back thinking, what have we done, you know, so. Anyway, three months later, by the time it got spun and woven and finished and our—
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in our family room we had 4,000 yards of denim and before the delivery was made I started calling all those people back who had expressed an interest in some organic fabric and I said, I’m making some denim are you guys interested and they were. I had all that denim sold before it got delivered. So then we ordered another round of denim, added a chambray, added a twill, added a flannel and now Cotton Plus has celebrated its 10th birthday. We have about 40 different fabrics in our inventory and we service about—
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between six and seven hundred accounts and so, people are interested. You’ve just got to get the product. Nobody wants the 500-pound bale, but they certainly want all the different products that are available in organic cotton. And from that came the formation of our cooperative because it’s so important when you’re growing a market that you have stability and consistency and supply. And so it’s really difficult for one farmer to do that, plus we had other farmers in our area who were interested. So the co-op has also
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celebrated is 10th birthday this year. We have 30 families involved and about 10,000 acres in our geographic area that are organic and about half of that is in cotton. So we’ve got a strong rotation program going, strong families, strong commitment and—and that provides a stable foundation for the organic industry.
DT: Well, tell me about how you—you first put together this co-op with the help of these other families.
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LP: It kind of was something we fell into. In our geographic area we live in such a rural area that in the 1950’s when everybody else had phones, the phone companies didn’t put in phones in our area. It was just not enough people for the value, so, our phone company is a cooperative phone company. The people got together and formed a cooperative for the phone company. Our electric company is a cooperative, you know, our gins are cooperative gins. So the cooperative mentality is very strong in this area
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that, you know, a company won’t do that. Fine, we’ll just do it ourselves. So that—that mindset comes with being from here to some degree. So when we—people were calling and I was selling our bales and then I was helping selling my brother-in-law’s bales and the guy up the roads bales, but you know by the time you start talking to those guys over in Brownfield and Muleshoe you just don’t know who they are. And it’s one thing to sell your neighbors cotton, but it’s another thing when it’s people you don’t know that
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well. And you need to start having some kind of a legal entity or a manner in order to facilitate those sales because the mills would pay me for the cotton—because they want to write one check and then I would disperse the funds based upon the bales in that shipment to the farmers. Then there was a question of, are you selling my bales first or his bales first? So we all got together in my living room one day and we just put up all these different charts of what kind of legal entities we felt like needed to be there; a broker model, a merchant model, you know, whatever. And at the end it sifted out that
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we needed a cooperative and so the cotton goes into a blind pool. It doesn’t matter whose cotton it is. It’s sorted out according to quality and we sell the bales to the mills based upon what types of fabric they’re making. For example, this fabric is—is, you know, pima—ring spun cotton from very long staple in—in a fine count yarn. That’s going to be one type of fiber quality. The type of cotton that goes into our cotton balls—you can’t even spin it, it’s unspinnable it’s so short. So we have a range of cotton in the
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cooperative. So depending upon the kind of cotton you have it goes into these different pools. Those different pools have different markets based upon their quality. Then so as I sell the cotton in those various pools, depending upon what cotton—your pool—you know, what pool your cotton is in, then you’re paid based upon your participation in and where your cotton fits into those various pools. And its been a successful model for all the farmers having fair and accurate and adequate representation and it doesn’t matter what size a farm you are—if you have ten acres or 3,000 acres.
DT: Do you have to have a cooperative gin to help you out with this or…
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LP: No, any gin can work. Some of the cotton is ginned at cooperative gins, but some of it’s at private gins as well. The main thing is it has to be a certified gin.
DT: And can that be a gin that also operates with (she coughs) conventionally grown cotton, but then they have to clean their operation before…
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LP: Exactly. Most of the gins are larger plants, larger facilities and in order to have the quality there to clean the fiber. So what that means is whether it’s a cooperative gin or a privately owned gin, you go through a process of becoming certified and the gin facility is cleaned out prior to the organic cotton being ginned and then the first bale through the system is called a clean out bale and it’s sold on the conventional market.
DT: And then do you have to have certain vendors that will help you with carting and spinning and weaving? Can you talk about how you were able to locate these people who were also willing to also go to an alternative kind of route?
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LP: With the mindset of the textile industry in the United States like it is, you almost have a mill that is so hungry that any order is a good order because you’re dealing with smaller quantities or you have to have a mill that’s very strong and very stable and is willing to put the organic into the system because they’re investing in a future program and their future. So we kind of are walk—are working with a whole spectrum of different mills. Different mills have different machinery, you know, a—a mill that makes cotton balls has special equipment that makes cotton balls and they don’t make yarn for tee shirts and so a lot of it’s just leg work and phone work of calling different people and
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different mills and—and—and saying would you be interested in—in starting or initiating a program? Or you get a vendor that comes into play and they have an existing supply chain. And so they may be a sports manufacturer and they already are making cotton shorts and cotton tee shirts and cotton pants and cotton dresses and cotton socks and whatever. And so they will have an existing supply chain of spinners and weavers and knitters already in place and a strong relationship with them. And so they will go to their
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supply chain and say, we want to do an organic program and they will insert—just take the conventional cotton out and put the organic cotton in as an input and get them certified and—and begin the processing. So that’s where a lot of the dynamic changes have begun to happen—is because we’re getting stronger manufacturers that are playing a leadership role in the industry that have strong supply chains and they’re converting those supply chains.
DT: And then what about the wholesale, retail customers? How do you find them and how do you develop relationships with them?
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LP: For organic fiber you basically have three types of consumers. You have the person who has allergy sensitivities that needs the organic cotton products: beds, sheets clothing in order to have a higher quality of life. You also have the—the consumer that is wanting to support alternatives sustainable organic agriculture and then you have the third client that feels our flannel or uses our cotton balls and feels our cotton balls and they’re the most wonderful, softest cotton balls and flannel that they’ve ever, ever had,
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and, oh, by the way it happens to be organic. So we’re doing quality products. And the venue to find those, ironically, is in alternative distribution systems. For example, organic food up until just recent years was not found in any mass markets. They had to have their own health food store, they had their own distribution channels of health food stores and wild oats and whole foods and—and grocery stores that only were designed around natural and organic food and products. As those stores have become stronger,
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now there’s mass market stores that are starting to offer some organic selections in their—in their stores or are creating a little organic store within their store. For pro—organic fiber products that are easily put into those type of retail environments, a grocery store type environment, or a health food store—a lot of the socks, sleep wear, tee shirts and our personal hygiene products have a ready access to this distribution system through the health food stores. For the other up-scale garments and products, most of that is
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happening through either web or catalogs because there’s not like a store where you can go downtown and find an eco-store that carries all these different varieties. So that parallel distribution system that has happened in the food industry has not happened in the fiber side, but we are is having retailers and catalogs that are providing that distribution system for fiber products.
DT: I guess one of the things that you have to demonstrate is that your products is truly different and is truly organic and I was wondering if you could talk about some of your work with the organic standards board?
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LP: That is one of the dynamic challenges and opportunities and excitement of—of this type of work. Again, going back to the strawberries and green beans, it’s one thing for me to grow that, you to buy that, you know me, you know how I farm and nobody, you know, nobody needs to have a seal of approval or a third party inspector between that transaction. But when you get to where you’re shipping your product further away or there has to be processing or whatever, I think it’s critically important for that consumer
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to know and have the confidence and the integrity in the market place that when they buy that organic apple, they’re buying an organic apple. If they’re buying organic cotton balls, they’re buying organic cotton balls. So to have that confidence in a growing market place, it became increasingly important to have some kind of third party verification. So that’s when USD—in 1990, the Congress put in an act to enable organic standards to be in the U.S. and where—they actually go into effect October 21 of this year. So like, you know, nine days away, which is really exciting times, but its taken a long time for a formulation of all those standards and rules to come into play.
DT: Can you talk about the—some of the controversies and debates in trying to develop these standards? I understood that there was some discussion about the role of using municipal sludge, for example, and I’m sure there are many others that you’re more familiar with. Can you mention some of those?
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LP: Well, organic and the word organic and the concept of organic agriculture has to do with a method of farming. And this method of farming has been implemented through ideas and ideology of going back to have the most natural, purest form of inputs—healthy inputs and natural inputs that keep the soil to be, you know, living soil and keep the food or the products as pure as they possibly can be. At the same time, you know, we live in an impure world, that there are chemical drifts, there’s GMOs now, there’s a lot of
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things, and so organic is not necessarily a product purity claim. Organic farming is a methodology of farming of what kind of inputs and what kind of things you’re doing on the farm gate level, you know, with the soil. So, there was this existing form of agriculture and some of the meanings of that and what it meant already out in, you know, in the fields and in the towns and in the communities of what that meant and what the expectations for that should be. When it went through the government process of
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becoming regulation and becoming something that the community as a whole had input into, there was a lot of political pressure put into it for eradiation or for salt-water defoliation on cotton because it’s commonly practiced. Salt water is a—is a natural ingredient, but how soil—salt impacts the soil and the health of the soil is not organic. It may be a natural input, but it—it’s not a healthy practice for the soil. So it’s not just about inputs. It’s about methodology and concepts and that’s a little harder to define, so
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city sludge was a big deal, you know, it may help soil fertility and they’ve show that to be the case in some—a lot of land in Arizona where they’ve brought that out there and it’s more organic matter, but—but there’s a lot of other things in there. There’s heavy metals in it, there’s a lot of other things in there that, you know, it may improve soil fertility for a time, but it doesn’t really improve soil health. So there’s some issues like that, that were not acceptable to the organic culture of the time nor the organic consumers, so when
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political bodies put some input into the national organic standards for inclusion of that as an okay thing, then you had a record, you know, the largest number of ever public comments went into USDA on the organic regulations then ever. And they, you know, the consumers and the growers and whatever said no. No sludge, no radiation, it’s not organic, no GMOs, it’s not organic, that’s not what organic means and that’s not what the philosophy of it means. And so it’s—it’s a methodology and it’s a philosophy as well and that’s a little bit harder to define sometimes.
DT: When we broke you were talking about the organic standards that are applied to the cotton and to other crops, and I’m curious if you could discuss with or different standards for different kinds of crops that are used in different kinds of ways, in other words: there are a large number of organic crops that are produce or, recently, meats that are for eating, and there are other kinds of crops like cotton that are for wearing, and so, the toxicity issues are probably different. And I’m wondering if you see a difference in the standards for each?
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LP: Basically, you go back to the concept of organic is also a philosophical basis as well. So when you have cotton and pecan trees and cows and wheat and corn, the basic philosophy of organic governing all those different things is going to be the same—healthy inputs, you know, the elimination of synthetic chemicals, pesticides, and—and I should—and there’s different types of those that you could quan—quantify like insecticides or pesticides or fungicides or, you know, in the case of animals, it would be
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de-worming them or de-ticking them or, you know, some things like that, but the basic philosophical approach is going to be the same; responsible stewardship, long term health of the animals or of the crop or of the land, but it all starts with the land and how the soil health is because those animals still have to be eating something. So philosophically, it’s going to be very the same and so some of what organic is, is going to be very open and maybe—and not necessarily big, but very open because how organic is implemented on
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a west Texas dry land farm with less then seven inches of rain a year and how that’s implemented in Oregon on a vegetable farm with forty inches of rain is going to be different. So the standards have to be broad enough to be applied in a lot of different applications besides specific. And so what you’ll have is an open concept idea of what those things should be and what the philosophy should be. And then there’s going to be a list of things that are allowed and there’s going to be a lot of—and a list of things that are
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not—not allowed or prohibited. And it’s ironic, I don’t care what you’re doing whether you’re a parent or a business or government. It seems like too many times you put too much emphasis on, don’t do this and don’t do this and don’t do this, don’t do this, instead of, you know, provide a healthy environment for the animal, provide health for the plant, you know, provide all those different things. Those are givens, you know, but too many times I think we put a list, don’t do this, don’t do this, kind of thing. But that—when you
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you come together in a universal way to try to put together standards that apply in Japan as well as the United States as well as in Sweden have reciprocity, you know, across nations and around the globe, which is what we’re trying to do now. We just finally got the United States to kind of agree on what the standards should be and now it’s going to be the challenge to do the reciprocity around the globe, so that, you know, the organic apple or organic wheat that’s going to Japan has the same meaning and the same quality and that same assurance and integrity for the consumer as it does for the consumer here in the United States.
DT: I think you mentioned earlier that the standards excluded some of the genetically engineered seed and crops and can you explain what the rational was for that?
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LP: There’s a lot of debate surrounding the conclusion or the exclusion of genetically modified organisms and just to really simplify it, the people that are doing the genetic modification have made a lot of claims as to what the benefits of that type of seed or that type of food or that type of potato or that type of rice may be—even claiming that it’s going to reduce the use of pesticides and things like that. The actual, you know, the jury’s still out on whether those claims are true or not. The jury’s still out of what the long-term ramifications are, of what GMOs and the introduction of n—things that are
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not—would not otherwise naturally occur. It’s one thing to escalate the process in a natural breeding situation, but, you know, a horse might breed with a mule or a donkey, but you’ve never see a horse breed with a cow. And what genetic—genetics are doing, they’re actually cross-pollinating different types of species like a fish gene in a tomato to keep the tomato fresher. Well, what kind of reaction or what kind of long-term issues might there be surrounding the nutritional value or a lot of other things? The jury’s still
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out. So in the organic community, that is something that is not natural. It would never be naturally occurring and, therefore, until there is a lot more data and a lot more study and a lot more other things, the choice is going to be to exclude something rather than embrace and include it. So the conventional farmer is going to almost embrace anything that might help him be econ—more economically viable and might embrace new
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technology. The organic farmer, on the other hand, is going to try to do what he can do in order to preserve the purity and preserve the integrity of his crop. So it’s a big, huge, philosophical difference. And you can order the—argue the pros and cons of GMOs all day long and, you know, some of the nutritional value of the rice going to third world countries, you know, to prevent blindness in children is really hard to argue. On the other
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hand, you know, maybe we should just give them healthy, nutritious rice in the first place or teach them how to farm and—and—and to treat their land in such a way that it can grow the rice that they need. I think there may be other ways to approach that problem, but then that’s just my opinion.
DT: Another thought that came to my mind when reading about organic standards and how they were developed, I understood there was one constituency that was not just thinking about the crops and the soil, but was also thinking about the farmers and the communities that rely on them and was hoping that organic agriculture would be a—a smaller scale agriculture that contributed more to the communities that were actually in the farming business and the ranching business, and—and I was wondering if you could talk a little about that, if you were engaged in any of those same discussions?
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There are always social ramifications at every step of the way and the family farm is definitely in a crisis place in—in the United States simply because it goes back to economies of scale. You know, go back to the 1950’s or the 1930’s when there was a family on every quarter section. Now there’s a family on every four or five sections. It goes back to economies of scale to try to be more productive and, you know, cut your costs, and—and different things like. And so you’ve got corporate agriculture making big end roads instead of there being a farmer that’s providing for his family and making a
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living on the land and having input into that community. You know, that land may now be owned by a corporation and that guy’s getting paid minimum wage and whatever profits that might have been in that—on that farm that would have stayed in that community are now going to a corporation in Chicago, or wherever. So it changes the whole dynamics of the community. So, yeah, there is a definite strong movement within the organic community to preserve family farms and preserve the rural landscape and—
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and for small communities to be profitable once again. And so much of the agriculture that organic is more management intensive and it may be more difficult to incorporate on a large-scale basis—some of the principles that are there. So it—the system itself lends itself to be more able to be adapted to a smaller farming unit. Not that it was custom tailored to that, but just the dynamics and the philosophy of organic, you know, fits that model better. So yeah, there’s a secondary and a primary goal here of, you know, saving
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agriculture in the United States and in so doing, you know, saving the family farm as well. And one of the tools that can be there and be very effective is, you know, going to local markets—developing a niche market, finding a way to treat your land with respect and have a way to—to sell your crop in a way that’s differentiated from whatever el—whatever else is out.
DT: I understand that one of the big proponents of the family farm and of organic agriculture in the early days was Jim Hightower and I was wondering if you could talk about any dealings you had with him or with the Texas Department of Agriculture at that time?
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LP: Yeah, it’s kind of exciting when USDA and—at the National Level they came out with, okay, you know, organic just doesn’t need to be something that’s too, you know, it needs to have more definition to it. The Texas Department of Agriculture was actually one of the first people on the block going, yes, we’re going to do this for Texas. We’re going to be a leader in the nation for this and we’re going write those standards and
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incorporate those standards and make those standards work and really look out for the best interest of the farmers in Texas. And I mean they were right on it. They developed standards that for even now are some of, you know, the leading in the world for the integrity, the consistency, throughout all the different types of—and components of agriculture. And they really got the word out there and the Texas standards were used as a model for a lot of the national standards that went into place after that, and now as
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we’re developing processing standards for fiber, the Texas Department of Agriculture’s fiber processing standards are again being used as an example for more standards to follow. So the work that was done by Jim Hightower and the people and the resources he brought in to do that at that time have provided great leadership not only for Texas, but for the rest of the United States as well.
DT: You started talking a little bit about the fabric and the spinning standards I guess…
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LP: Processing.
DT: …yeah, processing of the fibers and I guess also the dye stocks that you can use. Do you have any thoughts about that and how those can be done in a more sustainable way?
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LP: It has been a real challenge to cross over into—it’d be one thing if, you know, I were hand spinning and hand weaving because I’m just using a low speed and so you really wouldn’t have to have anything on this fiber to facilitate weaving it. But when you go into a commercial application with high speed spinning and high speed looms, number one you’re going to have to have something to keep the static electricity down. You’re going to have to have some kind of wetting or moistening agents or a wax to protect that
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fiber because when this yarn goes through this shuttle right here, there’s a lot of friction that’s going to be put on this yarn and in so doing, you’re going to break all your threads if you don’t have something on this yarn to protect it from the weaving process—it’s called slashing. But then you’re going to have to wash that out because you don’t want your fabric all stiff. You want it to drape and to feel good and be comfortable and so you’re going to have to have a finishing agent in a soap. And not everybody’s going to wear just plain beige, you know, cotton. They want color and they want dynamics and so in the philosophical value of organic we needed to come up with processing aids
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just—just like they’ve done in food of things that are considered healthy and natural, low impact and food had to be developed for fiber. So there’s a lot of things that are—have been incorporated into fabric finishing like, beeswax, or water soluble products or things that are recycled or reclaimed or like the colors that are used in our dyes that we’re using right now don’t have metal mordants or they use a lower water temperature or they eliminate a lot of the salts or sur—salt fillers that are used. So they have a lower impact on the environment. Not that they’re where we want them to be, but we’re trying to reduce the impact on the environment. So the philosophical values still apply in the processing standards.
DT: Where do you think that that whole trend is going to go—you say that you’re not there yet, what would be—what would satisfy you to have the best finishing process imaginable?
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LP: You know, I think it would be so incredible at one level to go back to some kind of plant based natural dyes; roots and berries and barks and things like that. And there’s some limited applications where that works right now in a small, hand sown, boutiquey type environment where you know what you’re buying—that works. But on a large commercial scale, unfortunately, the natural dyes using, you know, plant matter or—or different things like that, are not at this point in time commercially viable. They don’t
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have the color fastness or the light fastness qualities that you as a twenty—you know, twenty-first century whatever consumer would expect. You want to throw all these clothes in the washer at one time and expect them to come out exactly like they looked when they came in—at least the stripes are still stripes, and the, you know, solids are still solids and different things like that. So right now we’ve got a long ways to go developing the technology on the natural dyes.
DT: Is that where you think that the major challenges and opportunities lie for organic agriculture and particularly cotton? Is that where it lies or is it more of a sort of structural thing trying to get these marketing co-ops in better shape?
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LP: I think it’s going to be a parallel path. Not only are there going to have to be the technologies that are available for the production of, you know, more environmentally responsible dyes, but the main challenge right now is that if—if we’re really going to convert acres into organic production—sustainable production that respects the land, then we’re going to have to develop more markets for this cotton to go into. Because even though we have ten thousand acres here on the high plains of Texas, we are still less then one half of one percent of the cotton that’s grown right here. So, opening new markets
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and getting the volume of production of the number tee shirts, the number of jeans, the number of garments, the number of sheets, we’re going to have to increase the volume in order to really make the strides to have the volume of production that we need. Then, that will simultaneously encourage companies to develop the dyes that we need. Right now its still such a small market no one’s willing to spend their resources developing new technology.
DT: What do you think the most compelling argument is to consumers of today or—or some of the processors and merchants that you have to deal with to try and convince them to go the organic route?
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LP: I think a lot of consumers just need to be aware. Skin is the largest organ on your body and you should care what you put on it just as much as you care what you put in it. You sleep on a bed, you know, for—hopefully several hours, maybe eight hours a night, you know, if you’re sleeping on permanent pressed sheets, there’s a good chance you’re sleeping on formaldehyde. You know, in order to improve your overall health you need to reduce the areas where you have toxins in your environment and clothing is a big thing. Because, like I said, skin’s the largest organ in your body.
DT: Say you have a market in Houston or Dallas, or—or cities abroad, how do you make them do the consumers or the factories that are in those locations connect with O’Donnell and understand the impacts that organic verses conventional cotton have on a town like that?
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LP: We try to have—we have active websites for all the companies. We’re part of the organic trade association. We participate in every educational opportunity that we can in order to increase awareness for consumers and, of course, we have website addresses and phone numbers and all that good stuff for follow-up and to let people know that we’re here.
DT: I guess I have just one concluding question. We often ask people if there’s a favorite spot in the outdoors that reminds them of why they’re working so hard for some sort of conservation effort—is there one that comes to mind for you?
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LP: Hmmm. I was going to say, it has to be in the hammock in my backyard with clean, fresh air, you know, and just knowing that it’s a safe place for—to raise my family. And I wish more farmers and their families lived on their land. So many of them have moved into cities, you know, because—and the farmer commutes out to farm, and I know why—they don’t want to live out where the chemicals are being sprayed. So I’d hope that, you know, the heritage that I have from my father and grandfather, and the love of the land that I’ve had the opportunity to have and I just wish more people could experience that
DT: Do you think your sons will follow you into this business?
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LP: It’s hard to know about my sons. I have a seventeen year old and a nineteen year old and they both have a love and a respect for the land. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with their lives. The farm’s always there for them, but just like my husband and I had a choice—we both have—Terry has a degree in accounting, I have a degree in
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fashion design and textiles and education. I’m on the farm because that’s where I want to be. And I want my sons to go to school, get some education, live someone el—somewhere else for a while and if they come back to the farm, it’ll be because that’s what they want to do with their lives and that’s what they—where they want to raise their families. So, we’re not there yet. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the future.
DT: Thanks very much.
[End of Reel 2242]
[End of Interview with LaRhea Pepper]