Converted to organic cotton, for health and profit
A third-generation New Mexico farmer finds environmental benefits and eager markets with certified organic Pima cotton.

By Dan Brannen Jr.

Farm At-A-Glance

Alvarez Farm
Dosi and Norma Alvarez

Location: La Union, N.M., about 30 miles south of Las Cruces on the New Mexico-Texas line

Size: 900 acres certified organic

Products: 400 acres of cotton, 10 acres of pecan trees, balance of acreage split between alfalfa and chiles

 

 

Resources

Organic Cotton Production
A 24-page survey of fertility requirements, weed and pest management, markets, processing, and profitability information for prospective organic cotton growers, compiled by the good folks at ATTRA.
attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/
cotton.pdf

The website of the Sustainable Cotton Project, with a wealth of links and data for producers, processors, consumers, and educators.
www.sustainablecotton.org

An international directory for the organic cotton sector, including growers, suppliers, processors, brokers, retailers, and more.
www.organiccotton
directory. net

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 he recovered.”

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 pest cycles.”

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.

Among friends

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 by farming.