|January 28, 2004:
Dosi Alvarez is not your stereotypical organic farmer. Stocky as the
desert mountains on the horizon of his Mesilla Valley farm, he calls
himself “conservative and traditional,” a point he makes
to explain why his farm sticks to a 900-acre cotton/chile/alfalfa
rotation, without growing market vegetables.
Yet tradition has not prevented Dosi from learning the agronomic
and human health lessons that drive the organic food and farming
movements today. In fact, Alvarez Farm has been completely swept
up in these movements, perhaps even saved by them.
“This organic cotton has been our salvation,” says
Dosi, sitting at his kitchen table munching Japanese sushi crackers
from a recent visit by one of his international buyers. Norma Alvarez,
Dosi’s wife and fellow harvester, nods strongly in agreement.
“We have neighbors farming conventionally and struggling to
make ends meet,” Dosi adds. “We get a premium for our
cotton that more than offsets our higher growing costs.”
According to a July 2003 ATTRA publication on “Organic Cotton
Production,” premiums range from $0.95 to $1.25 per pound,
depending on quality and staple length. Yet it was not money, but
an expectant father’s concern for his family’s health,
that moved Alvarez Farm to go organic.
A family concern
Raised by a second-generation Spanish mother and a Spanish-speaking
father on a farm cleared by his granddad with horses, Dosi took
over the farm in 1974 after college and brief employment with the
Swift Packing Co., in Phoenix, Ariz. “Dad got tired,”
remembers Dosi. “Profits were not always there, so he got
a job inspecting fruits and vegetables for USDA.”
Dosi spent the next two decades raising cotton, chile, and alfalfa
the conventional way, relying heavily on chemical fertilizers and
pesticides that he mixed himself out of concern for his employees.
Still, he recalls the day he found a farmhand slumped over a tractor.
“This guy was spraying Furadan on the alfalfa weevil. We took
him home and urged his family to get him to a doctor. Fortunately
Fear from the close call, however, remained with Dosi after he
and Norma married in 1992 and found themselves expecting their first
child. “I was afraid my son might be born deformed. I’d
get the chemicals all over me. There’s no time to shower during
the day. Some of these chemicals are systemic. Now that we have
a family, I feel better knowing the barn doesn’t have insecticides
the kids can get into.”
A red, white and green crop rotation
Dosi grew 25 acres of organic cotton in 1995 and 50 in 1996 before
making the whole farm organic in 1997. Starting slowly allowed him
to test the truth of horror stories about organic production. With
two seasons of decent crops and not too many problems, switching
to full organic production eliminated the expense of cleaning equipment
between organic and conventional usage.
Alvarez Farm grows 350-400 acres of American Pima, a premium, extra-long-staple
cotton that seems almost tailor-made for the climate in La Union,
on the border between New Mexico and Texas.
“We grow the S6, White, and Sea Island varieties,”
Dosi explains. “Organic Pima is a double-niche for us. Pima
cannot be grown [just] anywhere. We have hot days and cool nights,
which Pima likes. And it drops its leaves naturally as it matures,
so it sort of defoliates itself for harvest. Then we just wait for
the killing frosts to take care of the rest.”
The ubiquitous Southwestern chile is the second crop in Dosi’s
rotation. He raised it organically but sold it to conventional markets
until the organic chile market opened up two years ago. The chile’s
fine, fibrous root system seems to mellow out Dosi’s soils,
leaving few clods to work through the following year. Buyers of
Dosi’s chiles include Desert Herb in Chamberino, N.M., and
Frontier Natural Products, based in Iowa.
Alfalfa is the final member of the Alvarez Farm rotation. Easily
grown organically, it fixes nitrogen in the soil and provides pasture
for Norma’s horse breeding business, which helps eliminate
weevil eggs. With demand for organic alfalfa rising among beef and
dairy goat farmers, the crop also provides Alvarez Farm with an
additional revenue stream. Crop rotation at Alvarez Farm means three
to four years of alfalfa in one spot, followed by alternating years
of cotton and chile for the next three to four years.
Additional soil fertility is supplied by applications of aged cow
manure—20 tons/acre for cotton and 30 tons/acre for chile—which
in turn have helped bring Dosi's soil organic matter (OM) content
up to 2 percent, well above the ½–1 percent average
for the Mesilla Valley. High OM retains soil moisture, and allows
Dosi to plant cotton and chile in two rows per bed instead of the
conventional one row per hill, cutting in half the number of furrows
in each field and thus reducing the amount of water needed to irrigate
the furrows. In 2002—which Dosi recalls as the season of a
lifetime—Alvarez Farm beat its 2 cotton bales/acre average
with whopping yields of 2.7 bales/acre.
Bindweed, pinkies and bureaucracy
Naturally, two of the problems Dosi faces as an organic cotton
farmer are weed and pest control. The former is far greater than
the latter at Alvarez Farm. “We use furrow irrigation out
of canals, so there is constant weed seed infestation," Dosi
says. “It’s a never ending battle.”
The farms’ biggest weed troubles are Johnson grass and bindweed.
The solution is a combination of new and old technology—mechanical
cultivation and hand hoeing. “This is where I can fall back
on dad and my employees, who farmed before chemicals. Labor for
hoe hands is one of our biggest expenses.”
In fact, weeding labor can be $30 to $100 an acre, making it the
single largest component of Alvarez Farm’s average cotton
cost of $80/acre, up $30/acre from the farm’s experience with
conventional growing. Dosi admits that being a short drive from
Mexico gives him a good labor source; if he were one hundred miles
north, some of his employees might not travel there for the work.
As for cultivation, it has been the farm’s only major new
equipment requirement since going organic. Dosi bought an eight-row
Sukup cultivator last year. When the cotton plants are young, V-shaped
blades keep weeds at bay. As the plants mature, wire weeders can
be run extremely close to the cotton’s woody stalks without
doing harm, allowing thorough cultivation.
“One day I saw one of my employees cleaning his nails while
running the cultivator,” remembers Dosi. “I said, Guero,
what are you doing? He said, 'Dosi, this thing is great, it runs
itself!'” Norma kids that Dosi and the farmhands bow down
to the Sukup each morning before work.
Asked about pests, Dosi responds with a calm enthusiasm one might
not expect from an organic cotton grower. “A lot of insects
don’t like Pima,” says Dosi. “It’s not as
lush as upland cotton. My beneficial insects take care of the bollworm,
and our killing frosts kill a lot of the insects.”
The red tape of state government in Santa Fe seems to challenge
organic cotton farmers in New Mexico more than the pests. “Five
years ago there was a boll weevil eradication referendum that required
widespread spraying,” remembers Dosi. “We went up to
Santa Fe trip after trip asking, what about the organic farmers?
Everything is a battle there.”
Working with the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission, Dosi
hammered out an agreement under which organic cotton growers could
avoid spraying by promising that if the boll weevil appeared in
a cotton field one year, they would cut off its food supply by not
planting cotton there the next year. “We had weevils in some
fields, but today there aren’t any in the whole valley,”
says Dosi with a smile. “And the year off didn’t bother
us anyway, because that’s part of our rotation to break up
Today, it’s not the boll weevil but the pink bollworm that
threatens southwestern Pima, nesting inside the bolls, where it
is hard to get. A local referendum has Dosi and his neighbors in
eradication mode for the pest, using pheromone disruptors to interfere
with mating. According to a USDA study cited in ATTRA’s “Organic
Cotton Production,” “pink bollworm mating disruption
trials recorded higher yields (1864 lbs/acre) than control fields
with no mating disruption (1450 lbs/acre).” After the pheromones
reduce the pest’s numbers, the farmers will introduce sterile
moths to try to eliminate it. Funding for the $10/bale eradication
assessment is a current challenge for Dosi, whose organic commitment
prevents him from qualifying for an exemption by planting Bt cotton.
Dosi admits that the pink bollworm is one of his greatest frustrations,
reducing yields in infested fields to ¼ bale/acre. Yet on
balance, Alvarez Farm averages 2 bales/acre, well above its initial
target of 1½ bales/acre and at least equivalent to the yields
on neighboring conventional cotton farms.
Having a story to tell
So where does Alvarez Farm go to sell its harvested, ginned cotton?
“The buyers have come to us,” admits Dosi. “It
started when Buhler Mills in Switzerland approached SWIG looking
for organic cotton.”
SWIG is Southwest Irrigated Growers, a marketing coop that has
been the funnel for almost all of Dosi’s buyers. Buhler Spinning
Mills buys 10,000 to 15,000 bales of extra long staple Pima cotton
from American growers each year to spin into premium yarn in Winterthur,
Switzerland. Just 300 of those bales are organic Pima, all from
Dosi’s operation. Athena Mills in Richmond, Calif., is another
buyer at Alvarez Farm.
Yet if the mills are the customers that would-be organic growers
need to land, one way to get to them is through the product manufacturers.
“Establish relationships with the end buyers,” Norma
recommends. “They are craving that. It gives them a story
to tell when they market their products.”
Take organic outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, for example,
which buys from Buhler and plans to start a line of women’s
clothes made of Pima cotton. Patagonia visited Dosi and Norma recently
for a photo shoot for its upcoming spring catalog. So did a nine-person
film crew from Taishobo Industries of Osaka, Japan, which makes
towels and fashion apparel. The three-day shoot included fashion
models, plus footage of Dosi harvesting cotton by hand into an old-fashioned
burlap sack. According to Dosi, Taishobo plans to make a documentary
for environmental education back home.
Asked about other marketing opportunities, Dosi says ranchers are
buying his organic cottonseed for feed. He doesn’t think anyone
is doing fresh-frozen organic chile sales over the Internet. For
Alvarez Farm, marketing success has meant watching the symbiotic
development of different organic markets and going with the flow.
Reflecting on nine years of organic growing, Dosi recalls that
like soil fertility, which took five or six years to build up, the
acceptance of neighbors required time too.
“During the boll weevil eradication, I talked to a friend
about our no-spray plan. He just looked at me and said, all I can
say to you is you better do your homework. Well, that was the best
advice he could have given me. I did my homework, we avoided losing
our certification to spraying, and in the process our fields became
a refuge for a tremendous assortment of beneficial insects.”
Acceptance followed success as Dosi was elected chairman of the
local gin, Mesa Farmers Coop, a few years ago. Area farmers closed
six gins to consolidate operations at Mesa Farmers, which processes
over 30,000 bales annually. To minimize the cost of cleaning between
conventional and organic runs, it does all of the organic cotton
at the end of the season.
And at the end of the day, Dosi and Norma rest knowing that children
Dosi, Seth, and Michele are growing up without the toxic chemicals
of conventional agriculture, snug in a home supported exclusively