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INTERVIEW:

THE ARIZONA FARMER

By Claire Whitcomb

This Arizona farmer grows some of the finest cotton in the world, including ours.

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Why does your organic cotton cost more?
I can give you three reasons. The first is labor. When I get ready to weed, I need a crew of forty to fifty employees. If you're growing conventional or genetically modified (GM) cotton, you just use chemicals. The second reason is the materials. What I use for fertilizer and insect control is two or three times as expensive as conventional chemicals and fertilizers. Third, I don't get the yields farmers of GM cotton get—their methods are pretty much bulletproof. I've got more variables to deal with.

You've farmed your whole life. Why did you switch to organic?
I grew up on a farm in Texas. I know the stuff people use on those fields and it's not good. I've seen a bunch of workers inhale chemicals and have health issues. I've gotten it on my skin and broken out in a rash. I've felt sick to my stomach from sprays. Organic is a different style of farming. You're completely dependent on the health of the soil and the viability of life in and around the farm. For all practical purposes, a conventional cotton field is sterile. On my farm, we have ducks, lizards, coyote, deer. And bees. Bees love organic farms because on conventional farms pesticides reduce the nectar.

But isn't organic farming a lot more work?
It's a hell of a lot more work. A conventional guy gets a problem, he can spray. We get a problem and we basically have to shoo the bugs out of the field. Neem, cedar and the oils we use don't kill per se. They retard. They do things the bugs don't like. One of us—me or my foreman—walks the fields three to four times a week looking for bugs. You have to be ahead of the problem. If the bugs get a foothold, they're going to do a lot of damage until they decide to pick up and leave.

Can you take a vacation?
I just went to Lake Powell. I was intending to stay for three or four days. Dumb me, I picked up my phone. Something came up on the farm and I cut my trip short. Farming isn't something you start at 9am and quit at 5pm.

You're farming in 110-degree heat.
A lot of people don't think of Arizona as farm country, but there's probably a million acres or better of irrigated farming right here. We grow all kinds of crops—lettuce, corn, wheat, barley, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, carrots, you name it. There are pistachio trees, pecan trees, date trees. I used to work in melons before I went organic.

If you're growing extra long staple cotton, this is the right climate. You need a long, hot growing season. You can't grow this cotton in Georgia or South Carolina. You need a climate that's more like Egypt. Because it's so hot here, you have to be smart about water. My expertise is in subsurface drip irrigation. We run drip tubing right to the plants' root zone so there's no evaporation loss, even when it's 110 or 115 degrees.

Do you plant organic cotton if you don't have a buyer for it?
In general, it's a fool's bet to plant organic cotton if you don't have a contract for it. There's such a small demand for the fiber that you need to be sure you have a home for your crop.