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Organic Farmers, Textile Mills and Patagonia

by Jill Vlahos
Spring 2004

Agriculture and farmers are suffering around the world. Trade agreements, subsidies and a changing climate affect corn farmers in Mexico, rice farmers in South Korea and cotton farmers in the southwestern United States.

"Farmers, we are a dying breed, you know," says Ramon "Dosi" Alvarez, a third-generation New Mexican farmer. "But we are blessed in the Mesilla Valley." Even with ever-evolving challenges, this farmer has some good things to say about his business.

Alvarez farms on land that was cleared with a plow and horses and cultivated into fertile farmland by his grandfather. The Rio Grande winds through the middle of this valley like a flat, brown snake. Since 1974, Alvarez has grown both long- and short-staple cotton here. In the beginning, like any other good farmer, he had in place a pesticide plan to ensure a good harvest.

Eleven years ago, however, that plan changed. Hermann Bühler AG, a Swiss company, proposed that Alvarez grow pima (long-staple cotton) organically. That offer came at a good time. With the birth of his first child, Alvarez worried about the volume of pesticides on the ground. Cotton has a long growing season and is in the ground for at least eight months. Of all the pesticides used in the world, conventional cotton uses more than 10 percent and nearly 25 percent of the insecticides. It is common for conventional cotton growers to use some of the most hazardous pesticides available, including aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan.

As Alvarez learned more about how organic cotton was grown, he accepted the offer and planted his first organic acreage in 1993. In that first season, he converted 25 acres and was surprised to learn that he could successfully grow a crop with organic methods, without the use of synthetic chemicals. The following year he planted 50 acres. Eventually, he converted all of his 950 acres into organic production. Although the initial yields on his organic fields were lower than yields grown with pesticides, the organic yields are now up to normal production. In some lucky years, they even surpass the average.

Alvarez also controls bugs by rotating organic cotton with organically grown chiles and alfalfa. The rotation helps to break the pest and disease cycles from year to year. With the growth in the organic food industry, Alvarez has found markets for his rotational crops, selling alfalfa and cottonseed to the organic dairy and beef industries. He also diversified his cotton crops; different varieties satisfy the diverse desires of his customers.

Alvarez's blessing comes from the right elevation, the right weather most years and a little luck, of course. He has also gained a great deal of knowledge over the past 10 years.

Patagonia has been working with Dosi Alvarez and Hermann Bühler for nine years. In 1994, Yvon Chouinard said that he had heard enough about pesticides and cotton and wanted our entire cotton clothing line converted to organic. As the person responsible for Patagonia's organic cotton program, I visited Hermann Bühler in 1995 and saw firsthand its unwavering commitment to organic agriculture. (Bühler took a significant financial risk in the initial years of Alvarez's production because it was paying a premium for his cotton but couldn't sell it as certified organic until three years later.) Now Patagonia works with many farmers around the world, and Hermann Bühler is one of seven spinning mills on which we rely for yarn to make our fabrics.

Dosi Alvarez and Hermann Bühler are two partners in Patagonia's ongoing commitment to organic agriculture. Other clothing companies, including Nike, Norm Thompson, Timberland, Cutter & Buck and Hanna Andersson, have introduced some organic cotton into their lines. Mountain Equipment Co-op, like Patagonia, has converted 100 percent of its cotton clothing to organic. At Patagonia, we hope to see more and more companies take the rewarding risk of converting to organic cotton.

About the Author
Jill Vlahos is the environmental analysis director at Patagonia. Formerly the director of fabric development, she led the switch to organic cotton in Patagonia's products. She attended the University of California at Davis and majored in Textiles and Clothing.