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I was on a train going from Philadelphia into the Amish Country of Central PA when I overheard a woman, clearly a tourist, begin to narrate her sightseeing. As we chugged by a series of farmland (Which is pretty much all Central PA is), a couple of young Amish kids were out performing their daily chores.

“Oh, look at that!” lady tourist exclaimed, jewelry rattling. “That little Amish boy is working the plow.”

It was true; the kid was laboring intensely with an antiquated plow, and I suddenly realized how much of my life at his age was based around Nintendo.

Poor guy.

The older of the two was riding a motorized piece of farming equipment, getting the job done twice as fast. He threw a quick wave to the train car full of gaping city folk.

“Hmm, that one’s got a tractor,” the woman considered out loud. “I guess he’s only half-Amish.”

Not a solid theory by a long shot, but her statement clearly indicated a romanticized vision of farming that those outside of the industry depend on for nostalgia. The scenes painted in childhood picture books and post cards show red barns, farmers with pitchforks, and cows jumping over the moon; hardly the mechanized, processed, hormone-driven farming that is currently overtaking the industry.

However, there are some places in this very country that are looking to thrive once more by putting into action the very farming methods which have become archaic; a return to seeing the farm as a whole system that works best when it is tended to with natural care, rather than merely issue after issue being fed into a machine. Perhaps even a combination of the new and old schools of thought in the farming industry would bring about the best of both worlds.

Nestled in the sun-soaked terrain of central California, cotton fields reach for the horizon, destined to one day become a t-shirt or a plug for a bloody nose. Cotton farmers work to keep their crops free of pests and disease in order to provide the world with this commodity.
These are the most agriculturally viable lands on the planet, so if they’re growing cotton, you can bet they’re growing a lot of it.

But, in protecting their crops, a new nemesis clawed its way out of the soil, seen in the many small wooden posts decorated with a menacing skull and crossbone.

Pesticides.

Sustainable Cotton on Tango Echo

Meet the Lygus bug, a tiny insect that has routinely caused the cotton industry $30 million dollars in damages. A young cotton seed pod, or boll, will be spending a serene afternoon, drifting in the Central Cali breeze. The generous sun beams decorate it’s innocent existence, waiting merely to be harvested for the sake of the farmer.

And then… they come.

The vampiric Lygus swarm descends on the cotton fields with the hunger and might of a barbarian horde. Sinking their tiny, jagged teeth into the bolls, they suck out the nutrients, leaving it an empty, lifeless shell; an excruciating reminder of what the pests in this world are capable of.

It has become common knowledge in the past decades that pesticides, designed to poison the life out of cotton boll-devouring insects, do more harm than good. Local wildlife inadvertently suffers from the chemical sprays, and the plants themselves are far from pure, with remnants of the toxic fumes infiltrating them irreversibly. With 25% of the country’s pesticides being used on cotton, all the Zooey Deschanel ads in the world wouldn’t fix the damage they’ve caused.

In fact, with the rate that chemicals were being sprayed, the pests they were meant to kill were merely building up a resistance. Within four to ten years, depending upon the frequency of pesticide usage, insects are able to work right through the murderous toxins and continue making a feast of the cotton crop.

Employing Pest Control Advisors was the next step. These officials observe the cotton fields, checking for which areas are in the most need of pesticides. Through this method, PCAs will prevent the abuse of such techniques and reduce the amount of damage done to the environment.

However, like most good ideas, this one was penetrated by corporate greed and shifty dealings. Chemical companies and banks successfully bored holes into the PCA effort, paying off the advisors to recommend further pesticide sprayings, though they may not have been necessary (Which is not to say that all PCAs are evil).

Cotton, Inc. claimed sustainability was “balance between growing and profitability, protecting the environment and promoting social responsibility,” and according to this, their “conventional” cotton now qualified as “sustainable” cotton.

Well, sure. When you change the meaning of a word to fit neatly into your own intentions, it makes total sense that you’re fulfilling your environmental duties.

Sustainable Cotton on Tango Echo

“These arguments are only Cotton Inc.’s way of saying that cotton production is just fine; just a smoke screen to try and say that all their cotton growers are good guys who do the right thing,” Marcia Gibbs, program director of the Sustainable Cotton Project replies.

Cotton companies said that organic cotton could never be maintained, as the price tag was too high to produce it. They began putting a lot of their eggs into technology’s basket, claiming that biotechnology and genetically modified cotton were the wave of the future.

The companies behind bio-engineering, such as Monsanto (the Darth Vader of the food industry), began developing cotton strains with insecticide built right in, as well as other strains that would be resistant to chemicals entirely, allowing for crop-dusting to occur without the need for accuracy.

Now, you may think that tampering with genetically-modified cotton crops would lead to some sort of beastly, half-man, half-cotton plant creature terrorizing the California countryside. But Monsanto was sure to conduct some studies that proved their new GMO cotton was the way to go, as farmers in Brazil and Burkina Faso came out of the harvest season with a drop in cost and rise in productivity. In these places, where farmers suffer from immense poverty, they are more likely to adopt strategies like this in an attempt to keep up with wealthier cotton farms all over the world.

Yet, when Friends of the Earth performed a study on Monsanto’s findings, it was discovered that enhancements to local irrigation and positive weather patterns were to thank for the good news. And, thanks to the higher cost of Monsanto’s GMO seeds, farmers would actually be spending more money with each passing year, and their fields needed more spraying with more expensive pesticides.

“More needed in California are ways to farm using less water and probably implementation of more drip systems, and possibly a GMO variety of cotton that uses less water,” Gibbs claims. “Growers are slow to adopt new technology unless they see it can save or make them money.”

It is difficult to implement new farming strategies no matter which side of the fence you’re on.

Sustainable Cotton on Tango Echo

This is where the Sustainable Cotton Project has stepped in and launched their BASIC (Biological Agriculture Systems in Cotton) campaign. They provide the tools and knowledge to run a successfully sustainable cotton farm, even taking the act on tour once a year for the benefit of local farmers.

“The tours educate participants about the importance of reducing chemical use in cotton cultivation, and how every company and consumer can help promote sustainable cotton production,” Gibbs explains. “We invite brands and folks from the textile industry to come along and meet the farmers, see the local community and try to get them to commit to using the Cleaner Cotton that our growers produce in their product lines.”
“This one-day tour of the San Joaquin Valley challenges perceptions of what agriculture is, and what it could become.”

The Sustainable Cotton Project appeared as an alternative for farmers who were interested in becoming more environmentally conscious in the best way they could: through their jobs.

Transforming a cotton farm to reduce its damage to the water, land, and those inhabiting it is no simple task; in fact, it can take around 10 years for a farm to be entirely converted from one form to another. But the SCP’s programs include enough environmental fire power to make life-shattering chemical sprays a thing of the past.

The SCP has proven that a cotton farming problem can be solved without dumping a bucket of poison on it. The Lygus bugs who so mercilessly assault the crops are now dealt with through natural, healthy means: Insects higher on the food chain have been released into the fields, and take out the pests while leaving the crops alone. Some farmers have also purposefully grown alfalfa to act as a distraction to the Lygus, who descend on it rather than the cotton plants.

Now, instead of relying on it, farmers have pesticides as a last ditch effort, and only after careful consideration is given to the alternatives.
“One of the primary goals of the BASIC farmers is to use nature to grow their crop as much as possible,” says Dr. Peter Goodell, in a video on the SCP website.

Marcia Gibbs agrees, saying “SCP is advocating that growers monitor carefully, spray only when economically threatened and learn to once again see their farms as natural ecosystems.”

Cotton farmers under the guidance of the SCP have seen increased returns on their crops, moreso than their neighbors who are not partaking in the campaign. Clearly, the combination of old-world, natural farming techniques and a smattering of chemicals and new ideas when necessary are paying off, which is good news for half-Amish teenagers everywhere.

Sustainable Cotton on Tango Echo

If the results are a cleaner Earth, a larger crop, and a lower cost of production, what’s stopping the SCP practices from becoming widespread cotton farming techniques? Again, Marcia Gibbs lays it out:

“First there has to be a need, then proven methods that don’t bring huge risks to the farm; next, farmers who recognize the need to make a change, willingness to implement practices, dedicated staff on the part of SCP, willing partners in UC Cooperative Extension and UC Integrated Pest Management.”

“Guess the bottom line is it takes a committed chain of folks and funding to make projects like this happen. SCP has years of experience working with growers and achieving the results that funders are willing to continue to fund.”

Every victory for an environmental cause is a big one, like an endangered species coming back from the brink or some ragtag group of teens saving the oldest tree in the neighborhood from a nefarious construction crew. The cotton crops and Central Valley were suffering, and ideas like those sponsored by the SCP’s BASIC strategies and their partner, the Community Alliance of Family Farms, gave the community hope.

Hope can come in many forms, and in this case, it came back to the Central Valley… in the form of a small, ground-dwelling bird.

“One of our young farmers, third generation grower who has been in our program for about eight years has recently seen quail back on his farm,” Gibbs says. “They have not been seen for 30 years, back in his grandfather’s time. He is really convinced that learning to farm with a more biological perspective is good for the land and for its people.”

Photos by Megan Bruce