Growing up in Lubbock, Texas, Lacy Cotter Vardeman never saw earthworms in the ground, not even when she was hoeing cotton on her future husband’s farm during her summers. Now the land on which they raise the fiber is wriggling with the critters. For the fifth-generation cattle rancher and farmer, it’s all the evidence she needs that the regenerative techniques they adopted a decade ago have pulled their formerly depleted soil back from the brink.
“That’s the main thing that you see in healthy soil,” Vardeman said. “Is your earthworm activity coming back?”
The proof was in the cotton itself, too, with 2022 ushering in one of Lubbock’s worst droughts in decades, complete with punishing heatwaves that shriveled the delicate plants. Though the Vardemans’ nearly 7,000 acres received practically “no water whatsoever,” the crops continued to thrive. Photos that the couple’s daughter snuck of neighboring farms, where industrial practices continue to degrade soil quality, however, told a different story. Cotton yields in the Lone Star State, which generates one-third of the nation’s total, are down by roughly 65 percent this year.
“You can tell the difference in regenerative farming, especially when it comes to years like this when everything’s stressed, versus conventional,” Vardeman said. Official testing has borne this out: Compared with dirt from other farms that she uses as a control, the Vardemans’ has “so much more organic matter in it.” It’s also teeming with beneficial bacteria, fungi and insects, which have flourished under a blanket of multi-species cover crops like sorghum, cowpea and rye. Instead of synthetic fertilizers, manure from 200 grazing cattle feeds the fields.
Deep tilling and extensive chemical use, which underpin conventional farming wisdom, are simply incompatible with what the soil craves to be healthy, Vardeman said. Another benefit of healthier soil is its ability to draw carbon from the air, sequestering it in plant roots and tissues so it doesn’t escape back into the atmosphere. By her estimate, these tweaks have slashed the farm’s carbon footprint by at least 50 percent.
When J.Crew Group, which owns the J.Crew, J.Crew Factory and Madewell brands, offered to pay the farm to do what it was doing—and then some—Vardeman leaped at the chance. Making farming improvements is neither cheap nor easy. She and her husband want to grow additional cover crops that will attract more bees, butterflies and birds, as well as replace their pivot irrigation with drip systems that suck up less water, but cost has been a barrier. While most of the cotton the Vardemans grow ends up in clothing and textiles that trumpet their American origin, the brands that have been willing to split the check have been few and far between.
“Everybody else just wants to tell our story,” Vardeman said. “It’s rather disheartening when everybody wants to take your work and then not pay you for it.”
J.Crew has a good reason for wanting to shell out. Cotton makes up 70 percent of the company’s material footprint. Despite pledging to source 100 percent of its key fibers sustainably by 2025, it wanted to do more, not just for the environment but for the people deeply involved in its supply chain. That’s when J.Crew decided that zeroing in on soil health could tackle both.
“We started [building] this idea [of] supporting farmers making the transition to sustainable farming practices,” said Liz Hershfield, senior vice president of sustainability at J.Crew Group and senior vice president of sourcing at Madewell.
At first, the company looked at “everything,” including organic certification, the current poster child of sustainable agriculture. It settled on regenerative, via Regenagri—a Control Union-backed regenerative agriculture program that has since spun off to become its own entity—as the best approach because it appeared the most scalable. The point, she said, is not only to purchase more sustainable cotton but also to expand its production. This way, J.Crew wouldn’t be the only one to benefit.
“We really want a collective here,” she said. “We would love other brands to join us because it would be more impactful for the farmers if we had brands collectively supporting not just us.”
The pilot started in 2021 and has quickly grown to cover 27 farms, amounting to 79,513 acres, across Alabama, California, Louisiana and Texas. J.Crew has committed to 3,000 bales of cotton from American farms, which suppliers such as North Carolina-based denim producer Cone will purchase through merchants who represent the growers.
“It’s very different for them—they have never had a brand nominate a farm for them to purchase cotton from before, but the ones that we’re interested in are very excited about it,” Hirschfeld said of choosing which mills and spinners to work with. “Because they know sustainability is really important and they also understand [that] traceability is incredibly important. This actually ticks both those boxes.”
Next year, the company’s first products derived from regenerative cotton will filter into stores. There will be polo shirts and knits on the J.Crew side and woven dresses and shirts for Madewell. Blue jeans will feature prominently in both.
Regenerative agriculture, which has been practiced by indigenous and Native communities for centuries, is far from a new concept, though its profile in fashion is building as concerns over the climate emergency increase. Unlike schemes like organic, however, brands lack a shared formal framework for regenerative, which allows for more flexibility for adopters of the scheme—or too much latitude for interpretation, depending on whom you ask.
For Hershfield, it’s the former. J.Crew tapped Regenagri because of the verifiability of its carbon standard, which adopts a tiered system based on a “continuous improvement” approach. The company also works with the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, an organization that seeks to deliver full transparency—and improved sustainability—of the cotton value chain through quantifiable metrics.
“You have to be very specific,” she said. “You can’t use these broad terms that could mean anything.” And if a mill is blending the regenerative cotton with something else to create a certain look and feel or to stretch out a limited fiber supply, that needs to be called out to the customer, too.
The adaptability of the regenerative model turned out to be a boon, particularly after J.Crew started engaging with farmers about what they needed.
“I went into this thinking, ‘We cannot use GMO seeds; they’re terrible, right?’” Hershfield said, using an acronym for genetically modified organism. “And as we became immersed…it became clear that it wasn’t possible in the United States. You can do it on a small scale but farmers actually need to have the option to use GMO seeds because of climate issues and to regulate insects to ensure they can grow their crops consistently.”
Hershfield described it as meeting the farmers where they are as they progress on their regenerative journey from different starting points. With climate change happening “much faster than anyone expected,” the important thing, she said, is to make the “biggest impact in the fastest way.” And as the growers move up Regenagri’s grading curve, they can start weaning themselves off synthetic inputs. What’s important, she said, is to support farms as they make this transition. J.Crew is doing this by doling out what it calls an “impact credit” to provide that extra financial push for regenerative-curious farms to make the leap. And as the initiative gathers steam, it plans to continue onboarding more participants so that the initial three years it’s committed to could extend indefinitely.
Gaining the trust of farmers isn’t the easiest thing to do. “Farmers are approached by a lot of folks and over-promised and under-delivered quite often,” said Brent Crossland, founder of 5Loc Cotton, a California-based consultancy that helped J.Crew connect with growers like Vardeman. What he likes about the company’s approach is that it doesn’t want this to be a “J.Crew program per se” but is genuinely trying to change the landscape. Any time farmers modify their systems, they run the risk of producing less, increasing their costs or reducing their margins.
“And to that point, they are in sending the farmers with an impact incentive to do the step change and step off the curb to do things differently,” said Crossland, who was previously the science and conservation lead at Wrangler. “This is a way to try to keep them going and hopefully get to where we want to go with full regenerative practices over time,” he said. “It’s not a one-and-done. We’re trying to do something for the long term.”
J.Crew, he said, is aware that it’s taking on the biggest risk—Mother Nature. There’s a chance that a yield might not be up to snuff in terms of quality. Or, as Lubbock experienced this year, extreme weather might cause widespread crop failure. Certifying a network of farmers across different parts of the country helps mitigate some of that uncertainty. Also helpful is the fact that J.Crew and Madewell have an extensive collection of products that can accept varying qualities of cotton, depending on how the harvest pans out. Denim, in particular, is especially forgiving.
Still, giving American farmers a leg up was only the start of J.Crew’s plan, said Nicole Moses-Milner, director, of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) at J.Crew Group. The company also wanted to apply an “equity lens” to sustainability, as well as tackle some of the root causes behind inequality in the farming sector. So it helped Regenerate America develop a diversity, equity, inclusion and justice working group to ensure that underrepresented voices are “elevated and supported” as part of the coalition-based campaign’s policy platform for the 2023 Farm bill.
Meanwhile, J.Crew reached out to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, or FSC, an association of Black farmers and landowners that serves the southern states. The intention was to center a demographic that is frequently overlooked in a proactive and practical way. With the racial reckoning that the murder of George Floyd ushered in 2020, this seemed especially urgent.
“For us, it’s about how do you embed DEIB in the product life cycle itself?” Moses-Milner said, using the acronym for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. “Where are we getting the product from? Who is supplying the product to us? Are we selecting suppliers in an equitable format? It would be an incomplete story if we were only selling you a diversity strategy about what it looks like inside our stores or who works in our home office.”
At first, J.Crew was eager to bring the FSC into the regenerative program’s fold. “I was ready to go and ready to get everybody signed up,” she said. “And Cornelius had to say, ‘slow your roll, Nicole.’”
Cornelius is Cornelius Blanding, executive director at FSC, which is headquartered in Georgia. Founded in 1967, the organization sprang up from the civil rights movement, when 22 different business cooperatives across the South decided to pack a collective punch on the issues that mattered to them. Today, it focuses on cooperative economic development, land retention and advocacy.
Black and brown farmers run up against systemic barriers that white farmers don’t, Blanding said. Among the biggest is land loss. Heirs’ property, meaning property that is inherited by family members, usually without a will, makes up more than one-third of rural Black-owned land in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency has dubbed the concept the “leading cause of Black involuntary land loss” because of the vulnerability of heirs’ property to forced sales by predatory developers as a result of disputed ownership. Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans saw 90 percent of their farmland vanish, exacerbating the nation’s racial wealth gap. The lack of a clear title also locks owners of heirs’ property out from government assistance, including farm subsidies, crop loans and disaster relief.
Without tackling these issues, Blanding told J.Crew, any efforts to enlist the FSC’s growers would only be short-term at best. If the company wanted to work with this community, it would need to understand “the bigger picture.”
“Farming is a very risky business, and you can’t guarantee anything, but being a Black farmer or any other farmer of color is even riskier because of the lack of access to a lot of different resources that most take for granted,” he added. “The reality is that the majority of Black farmers are not cotton growers. They’re not even commodity growers. The typical Black farmer farms less than 100 acres.”
J.Crew concurred. The firm is contributing $100,000 over three years to help FSC surmount some of the hurdles facing its growers. That level of engagement was something the Blanding appreciated.
“There have been a lot of people that have approached us, but only a few who we ended up being partners with,” he said. “And it’s because most folks come into this wanting something immediate; they’re just looking for something transactional. And that’s O.K., but we’re not the organization for a transactional [relationship].”
There’s an element of providing “restoration” for the economic injustices that the community has faced and continues to face, Moses-Milner said, adding that J.Crew wants to “mitigate and lower the barrier to entry” in order to work with Black and brown farmers. She estimates that it will take another year before they’re ready to participate.
“We have to do a little bit of groundwork in being able to help them participate in the program and we’re just not there yet,” she said. Next year, J.Crew plans to sell T-shirts in support of the organization.
“There’s just been a lot of institutional racism at the USDA at multiple levels,” said Erica Campbell, policy manager at Kiss the Ground, the nonprofit that spearheads Regenerate America. “There just has been massive discrimination—documented discrimination—by [Farm Service Agency] offices who make a lot of the loan decisions.”
Regenerate America is also lobbying for the Farm Bill to move resources away from the conventional practices it currently incentivizes, making change difficult. The coalition wants the government to make regenerative agriculture and soil health education and training available to all farmers and ranchers, as well as provide incentives to encourage farmer uptake. It would like to see expanded funding for existing USDA working lands conservation programs that prioritize practices that result in land regeneration and holistically managed crop-livestock systems.
“Making farms more resilient is really the core of what we’re proposing,” Campbell said. America is shedding more than 5.8 tons of topsoil per acre every year, not to mention facing “historic losses” due to drought and flooding. In contrast with organic, which has a “very defined” program, regenerative’s “continuum”-based approach makes it more accessible. People generally don’t like change, she said. Regenerative’s lack of onerous requirements could make it easier to embrace.
“It’s about getting on the pathway,” Campbell said. “That’s the most important thing is you just getting on the pathway. So you might start with doing some fields with no-till and some cover cropping, or maybe do grazing a little differently, and then, as you move along that continuum, and your soil health builds up over a few years, you can start to reduce your chemical inputs.” At some point, she said, farmers could then take on organic certification. Or they could go beyond that with regenerative organic, a program developed by Patagonia and the Rodale Institute that the outdoor-wear B Corp has dubbed the “highest organic standard.”
The multiple levers that J.Crew is pulling to get off the ground what appears, at first blush, to be a simple initiative may seem overwhelmingly complex, but it’s by breaking out of silos that transformation can take place, Hershfield said.
“The collaborative effort around bringing this to life has been enormous,” she said. “And it’s been a learning [experience] for everyone, and I think everyone has enjoyed that. Because it’s really been like, ‘Wow, we’re really doing something to disrupt the industry.’”
Vardeman put it another way. “I hope that in 20 years, I’ll be able to say ‘yes, we’re still working with J.Crew,’” she said.