Profile: Terry Pepper
Terry Pepper, O'Donnell, Texas
|In 2000, the Peppers and their cotton co-op produced one-third of all U.S. organic cotton. |
Photo by Gwen Roland
Drought has brought challenging times for west Texas cotton grower Terry Pepper. But thanks to membership in an organic cotton cooperative, he is able to keep a lighthearted approach.
'The drought is so bad, any boll weevil who wanders this way better be packing a lunch,' he quips.
Pepper, who farms 1,400 acres near O'Donnell, Texas, about 200 miles west of Dallas, is coping better than most. He and his wife, LaRhea, manage a growers' cooperative they helped establish a decade ago. Even if his yields are down, many of the other 30 members have had sufficient rain or irrigate. That means they will have enough cotton in the fall for clients such as Patagonia, the outdoor clothing manufacturer, and Esprit clothing.
Pepper also has some assurance that once the rains return to his part of the highlands, he'll go back to bringing in his regular yields of about 600 pounds per acre. That's because he has learned how to grow cotton without synthetic inputs, even in semi-arid territory, and even under pressure from pests like the weevil, beet armyworms and aphids.
'All I need is rain,' he says. 'Everything else I can pretty much keep ahead of.'
It wasn't always that way, not for Pepper and not for the 50-year history of cotton production in west Texas. Both Peppers' grandparents used herbicides. After a time, though, diligent farming practices and a flair for thrift led even conventional area farmers to reduce their dependence on chemicals. Pepper says weed control in particular was not overwhelmingly difficult in the highlands for the same reason that raising a good crop can be - limited rainfall.
'Our families learned how and when to cultivate, and pretty soon they found they could get by with single applications of a pre-emergent herbicide most years.'
It wasn't that much of a leap, then, for Pepper himself to decide to try doing without even that initial application, and then to forego synthetic pesticides and fertilizers too, about 10 years ago.
The system he has devised for controlling weeds and pests includes mechanical cultivation, cover crops, frequent rotations and attracting beneficial insects, as well as purchase and release of pest predators on an as-needed basis.
It's a lot of work for Pepper and his family, including such onerous, time-consuming tasks as hand-hoeing. 'I get my two boys out in the field and get it hand-hoed in a day,' he says. Getting it done, and done at the right times during the season, keeps weeds in check.
Pepper also credits his cover crops and the sandy loam soil of the highlands with keeping weed pressure to a minimum. The soil responds well to green manure and has improved quickly in the years since he began setting a third of his acreage aside each season for a cover crop.
Corn is his cover of choice. He plants it in strips throughout his cotton fields, where, in the fiercely hot weather of August, it is usually stunted and produces only small, insignificant ears. Pepper shreds it late in the season, leaving the residue on the ground to hold moisture, suppress weeds and add organic matter.
Corn cover also helps attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings, Pepper says. They eat the aphids that can do a lot of harm to cotton. He is also helped by a parasitic North American wasp called Bracon mellitor, which feeds on beet armyworm and boll weevil larvae. When he feels the need, he purchases small shipments of a Central American wasp called the Catolaccus Grandis to combat weevil infestations.
He says these efforts are usually enough to guarantee a healthy crop and to continue improving both his soils and his bottom line. CottonPlus organic cotton, after all, is commanding about 90 cents a pound compared to about 37 cents a pound for conventional. Prices like that are icing on the cake for Pepper when he thinks about all the other benefits he's recognizing from his decision to grow cotton without synthetic inputs. Now all he needs is one wholly natural input to return him to peak production.
'If we get a little rain,' he says, 'I can grow the best organic cotton you've ever seen.'