BASF’s e3 Sustainable Cotton “Farm to Fashion” tour was a journey through the U.S. cotton supply chain that demonstrated the raw material’s intricate path from seed to finished article of clothing.
Along the way–in this case country roads and rural highways that connect the farms, gins, warehouses, research facilities and factories in southwest Louisiana–experts and entrepreneurs in the field explained the methods it takes to cultivate the cotton boll and execute its transformation into yarn, fabric and ultimately a shirt or pair of jeans.
Setting the seed
Jennifer Crumpler, director of fiber development at BASF, explained how the seed from e3 sustainable cotton creates a record of the farm’s name and exact field in which a bale of cotton was grown. The cotton is subject to random third-party verification that is essential to the program.
The verification system includes data on the environmental impact on areas such as water efficiency, pesticide management and usage, soil and fertility management, greenhouse gas reduction, energy conservation, worker health and safety, and identity preservation.
James Harp, seed advisor for BASF’s Agricultural Solutions division, explained that cotton is a drought-resistant crop, providing reliable income to farmers in areas like Louisiana and Mississippi, where the tour took place.
On the farm
On farms like Hardwick Planting Company in Newellton, La., modern farming methods range from engineered seeds like BASF’s Fibermax and Stoneville allow for traceability and more sustainable crops, to highly efficient planting and cultivating machinery and field management, all of which allow farmers to grow bountiful and competitive crops.
Brothers Mead and Marshall Hardwick run a 20,000-acre, fully automated, GPS-enabled and computerized operation that produces 36,000 bales of cotton annually, in addition to growing corn, soybean, grain sorghum and wheat. Mead told a group on the tour that innovations such as an $850,000 John Deere automated picker, and high-speed planters and tractors have changed the way cotton is grown on the fourth-generation family farm.
Mead noted that his picker can cultivate 16 rows of cotton in one sweep, while Harp pointed out on the road trip that other farms use older machinery that have half the range, taking more time and manpower to turn over fields.
However, Mead said he would be looking to add around 2,000 acres next year to make the farm more cost-effective–the more land that can be cultivated from the expensive machinery, the more their cost can be amortized.
“Our productivity has quadrupled over the years,” Mead said. “We use advanced technologies all controlled by GPS that allow us to operate 24 hours a day if necessary. This reduces our team, but it also reduces overlap and saves money. We’re miles and miles ahead of how past generations worked a farm.”
Marshall explained how sensors implanted in the soil help the farmers and their workers determine the moistness of the soil, and therefore the best time to set the machines in motion to plant, fertilize and pick the crops. They also help determine the need and timing for irrigation.
Marshall said such sustainability is baked into efforts on the farm. He noted, for example, that Hardwick farm plants cover crops in the off season to maintain the ecosystem and introduce nitrogen into the soil to improve seasonal crop growth and reduce fertilizer use.
Ginning the cotton
Once the cotton is picked, it’s sent to a gin, in this case Tensas Cooperative Gin, where ginners break down the raw plant and basically “clean it up” by removing stalks and husks and byproducts such as cotton seed and short-staple fibers that have a myriad of their own commercial applications. Harp explained that the cottonseed is used to produce oil and meal used in food products, and in livestock and poultry feed.
At the gin, the cotton first proceeds through dryers to reduce moisture content and then through cleaning equipment to remove foreign matter. The cotton is then air conveyed to gin stands where revolving circular saws pull the lint through closely spaced ribs that prevent the seed from passing through.
The lint is removed from the saw teeth by air blasts or rotating brushes. It’s then compressed into bales weighing approximately 500 pounds.
Mead showed how the cotton bales are marked internally and externally to show from which farm and on what day it was picked. This is for traceability and commercial purposes.
A typical gin will process about 12 bales per hour, while some of today’s more modern gins may process as many as 60 bales an hour. Tensas processes around 70,000 bales each annual season that generally runs from early September through Thanksgiving.
The processed cotton is then moved to a warehouse for storage until it is shipped to a textile mill for use. At the warehouse, it was explained that the bales are further marked for storage and sale to textile mills.
Doing the research
Along the way, research facilities are constantly seeking new best practices and innovations for growing cotton and other row crops.
At the nearby Louisiana State University Ag Research Center in St. Joseph, about 500 acres of land are used to conduct soil and farming management research on cotton, soybean, corn, rice, grain sorghum and sweet potato, Harp said.
The LSU Ag Center has launched a project with local farms such as Hardwick to study practices farmers can implement to decrease the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous, fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs needed to grow a successful crop; and reduce the environmental impact in the Mississippi River Valley; and minimize nutrient runoff that contributes to hypoxia, or inadequate oxygen, in the Gulf of Mexico.
Melissa Cater, director of the AgCenter Northeast Region, noted that awards—such as the first Hardwick Family Internship Awards that included a $500 check for students who worked on the station this summer—are a way to help young people with their school expenses. The program is also meant to encourage and instill best practices in farm management.
At the mill
The fruition of the cotton supply chain is seen when the raw material is manufactured into a finished product.
That’s about to happen at Vidalia Mills, where the tour culminated in the official opening of the denim fabric and yarn facility.
Vidalia Mills CEO Dan Feibus, flipping the switch on a selvedge denim weaving machine from the famed and now-closed White Oak mill—one of more than 40 purchased from Cone Denim that will be used by Vidalia Mills—said the company has invested $50 million in infrastructure and retrofitting its 900,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.
Vidalia Mills will only use 100 percent certified sustainable e3 cotton from farm-direct sourcing in its denim, with production set to begin next month on what Feibus said will be a cutting-edge yarn and denim manufacturing facility.
Mead Hardwick summed up the supply chain tour when he said: “As a whole, the [U.S.] industry has several large objectives–to be the world leader for sustainable cotton production, be the supplier of choice for companies that want to source sustainably grown cotton and also just make a difference, and make the world and our farms a better place.”