Jimmy Wedel was tired of growing cotton for little, if any, profit. He was frustrated that herbicides, insecticides and other chemicals weren’t doing their jobs. And, he was concerned about the potential exposure to his family and wildlife. With a little gambler in his blood, he went all-in with what was then a fairly new production technique--organic.
That was 25 years ago for the Muleshoe, Texas, grower, long before “organic” was vogue. Like his hometown’s name, Wedel was stubborn enough to make organic work, even during the advent of Roundup Ready cotton that saw his neighbors embrace the herbicide-tolerant technology. Since then, he has worn out many cultivators, kept hoe hands on overtime and hasn’t given GMOs a second thought. All of his 2,500 acres of production are organic, including 500 acres of cotton.
EMERGING TRAILBLAZER. Meanwhile, Wedel has become a leader in U.S. organic cotton production and marketing. He heads a marketing co-op and regularly addresses organic issues before congressional ag committee forums and government policymakers. Corn, soybeans, wheat, sorghum silage and other organic crops are also in his rotation, depending on availability of irrigation water. Like cotton, they also have markets that cater to fastidious consumers.
“Cotton is the main crop on fields with limited irrigation capability,” says Wedel, whose southwestern Texas Panhandle farm receives an average of only 16 to 18 inches of precipitation annually. “It’s normally rotated with winter wheat harvested the previous year. We plant in mid-May and don’t let a drop of any chemical enter the field.”
That’s no synthetic fertilizer, no Bt genes, no herbicides, no fungicides--no nothing. Instead, Wedel’s arsenal of cultivators, rotary hoes, other weeding tools and an army of cotton chopper hoe hands take the crop from cotyledon to cutout and beyond.
His reward is an organic cotton price that’s up to $1.20 per pound or more, usually double the price of December cotton futures.
PLENTY OF PASSES. For Wedel, it’s a rare day two or more tractors aren’t running during the growing season. Precision autosteer eases some of the burden. Still, it’s pass after pass everyday.
“All production years can vary. But, typically, cotton preparation begins with applying dried manure or compost from area dairies as organic fertilizer after wheat harvest, then moldboard it in,” Wedel says. “We then bed up the rows in the fall.”
Winter moisture dictates early weed control. “If we get enough moisture to sprout weeds, in late March, we may run a rod weed plow to condition soil and prepare beds, or run a knifing rig to kill weeds,” Wedel says. “We prewater with about 2 inches applied by a center pivot in April, rod-weed again and plant into clean fields in mid-May.
“We plant into wet soil,” he explains. “That’s the key. If you have to water up the crop, you’ll get weeds. Ideally, you get zero rain the first few weeks after planting. When it rains, we start running a rotary hoe again and again, depending on rain frequency and difficulty in breaking up the soil’s crust.”
After a hard 2-inch rain, it may take more than one pass to break the crust. “On our sandy loam soil, we may have to ‘sand fight’ to initially break up the sandy soil with the rotary hoe before we can actually break the crust,” he says. “Depending on the field and rainfall received, we may run a single or double rotary hoe only once or even seven to eight times in a season. We literally rotary-hoe the heck out of cotton and other crops to kill small emerging weeds.”
Once cotton reaches a height of 6 to 8 inches, weeds get cultivated. “This year, we cultivated everything twice before late July,” Wedel explains. “Once we get into more routine irrigation, where we’re applying watering at peak growth periods, we may cultivate another time or two. As with all farms, different fields have different weed situations.”
Weed escapes must be hoed. That usually begins in June after the first cultivation and in July and August, if needed. Each field may require two rounds of hoeing. If it’s a wet year, probably once or twice more. The hoe bill is easily $50 to $100 per acre.
Timing is critical. “If it rains, you rotary-hoe or cultivate as soon as you can get into the field. You have to kill weeds when they’re small or just emerging,” Wedel says. “You’ll miss your kids’ or grandkids’ tee-ball games, soccer, birthday parties or trips to the lake. Unless you have a well-experienced farm manager to make weed-fighting calls, it’s on you.”
INSECT CONTROL. Wedel basically acknowledges, “whatever the insects don’t get, we harvest.” But he doesn’t worry about it. “In 25 years of farming cotton organically, I’ve rarely lost any significant yield to insects,” he explains.
“Two years out of 25, we took more bollworm damage than I would like. Thrips get our cotton every year. But, all thrips do is delay the fruit set by two to three nodes. I don’t have the irrigation water to make four- to five-bale cotton. We can produce 1½ to two bales per acre, three if we have above-average rain. So thrips are a nonissue. Cotton may only set 30% of its squares anyway, so we don’t worry much about fleahoppers or plant bugs, either. If I get a bollworm infestation, it can cause some quality loss. But, we typically have not had many years with bollworm pressure.”
Wedel’s not against regional farmers using chemicals, especially if they have enough irrigation to make large yields. “But, in my case, when you get totally away from chemicals and look what they’re actually doing for you, I’m not seeing much benefit,” he says.
PRODUCTION COSTS/MARKETING. Wedel admits he spends more on equipment usage, fuel and labor. “For my 2,500 acres, it’s me and two employees,” he says. “A conventional farm of the same size would probably have one employee along with the farmer.
“But, I save tremendously on seed and don’t have fertilizer and chemical costs. I don’t pay for seed technology. A bag of cottonseed with the latest herbicide-resistant and Bt technology costs about $400 to plant 5 acres. My seed cost is $40 for 5 acres. I can afford a lot of diesel and hoe hands for that.”
Seed is usually purchased from private delinters, which have some non-GMO varieties. “It’s either that or plant seed that we’ve caught after ginning,” Wedel says. “Most of the caught seed is from the old FiberMax 958 variety.”
He figures his overall cost of production is about 10% greater than conventional/GMO farmers. “I have higher labor costs, and capital costs are little higher,” he says. “But, since my organic crop prices are about double that of the conventional market, I like my ability to increase my bottom line in the long run.”
When Wedel is farming corn, soybeans and wheat, he takes the same approach with weed and insect control. “Again, we harvest what the peril of Mother Nature doesn’t get,” he says.
GROWING TREND. When he started in 1993, annual organic sales were only in the millions nationwide. Now, they top $50 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association, about 5% of total U.S. food sales. Wedel makes corn sales that typically top $10 to $11 per bushel. His organic soybeans bring $16 to $21 per bushel. Food-grade wheat went for about $9 per bushel this year, with feed-grade wheat sold for about $8.
All those prices are about double Chicago and Kansas City futures. All payment is not received immediately. “We’re usually paid in quarterly increments. It can take over a year. We didn’t receive our final payment for 2015 cotton until March 2017,” Wedel says.
“Our Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Co-op is a marketing tool to help spread out pricing. However, we get paid the cotton loan rate up front, about 53 cents a pound. Hopefully, by the time all cotton is marketed, our price is at least double the loan.”
The co-op consists of about 40 West Texas growers. They produce 14,000 to 18,000 bales annually, merely a thread of the 19 million bales projected by USDA for 2017 production.
“It’s a small amount of cotton, but it also represents 90% or more of the total organic cotton grown in the U.S.,” says Wedel, current co-op president. “Along with U.S. markets, we market cotton to Japan, South Korea, Mexico and other countries. Along with textile mills for clothing, we sell to manufacturers of bedding, mattresses, facial pads, feminine-care products and other fiber goods.”
He points out that most of the organic cotton in the world is produced in foreign countries, with India being the largest producer. “Their production cost is much lower than ours,” he explains. “I market my cottonseed through a regional organic dairy. It gets down to economics for them. I typically get paid the price that’s equal to what the dairy can ship organic feed products to here from India.”
For the cottonseed sales to the organic dairy the past two years, Wedel received about $500 per ton, more than double the price of the conventional cottonseed.
His grain sales are made to local millers and dairies. Organic silage is also marketed through the organic dairy. There can be cases in which the organic crops must be marketed through conventional markets.
“Price, supply and demand can force me to dump some cotton on the conventional market,” Wedel explains. “That doesn’t happen much, but it can.”
UNWANTED CHEMICALS. Unintentional chemical drift is among an organic farmer’s worst nightmares. It was difficult enough to battle drift when Roundup Ready cotton and other crops were introduced in the mid-90s. Wedel dodged it. He’s concerned the new dicamba- and 2,4-D-resistant varieties may present a new challenge.
It was an unintentional release of a then-popular insecticide that helped sway Wedel toward organic farming. “In 1993, my dad was planting cotton near my house,” he remembers. “He came across a pheasant nest with eggs. He stopped the tractor, raised the planter and saved the nest.
“When we looked at the nest the next day, the mother had died. A slight amount of Temik dropped from the planter when dad raised it. It had killed the bird. We took the eggs to the house, incubated them, and they later hatched. I started thinking, ‘Maybe we should do things differently.’ I started switching to organic that year. It took five to 10 years to go completely organic, but we did. I don’t regret it a bit.”
LEARNING CURVE. There were plenty of obstacles at the beginning of Wedel’s organic odyssey. “Fortunately, my dad farmed before Treflan herbicide and other chemicals were available. He knew how to farm organically,” Wedel says. “Dad never lost a crop to weeds. He learned that timing was everything. So did I.”
Weeds were the biggest challenge. So was market development. Wedel learned to handle both, and the importance of cultivation was ingrained. He had to search for markets for cotton. “There weren’t many,” he says. “That’s why we eventually formed the organic cotton co-op.”
There were second-guesses. “In the first year, by mid-June, fields were solid pigweed after big rains,” he says. “I was ready to plow it up. Dad said ‘No, let’s rotary-hoe it.’ We did, and it nearly made two bales per acre. Worries about insects caused me to think twice about organic a time or two.
“I worried that yields would suffer. But, they didn’t drop much at all. With good weed control and the limited irrigation water, yields of 1½ to two bales were comparable to our neighbors.”
Wedel doesn’t preach politics when it comes to organic. He’s a longtime member of the Texas Corn Producers Board and has served on various committees for the National Corn Growers Association. He has also been involved with his regional Plains Cotton Growers Association.
“I know organic isn’t for everyone. But, it provides me with better profit potential by serving niche markets. And, I feel my farm employees and family are safer. It’s the production system I prefer.”
Expect to see more attention paid to organic farming by Congress. Before leaving office, then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, “Organic is not the ‘same as.’ It is its own separate commodity and needs to be treated as such. I’m committed to that.”
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