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US Organic Cotton Continues to Grow, Despite Hurdles

Limited seed supplies, persistent weeds and a shortage of seasonal workers in 2014 didn’t stop American farmers from planting the most organic cotton in nearly 20 years. Organic cotton growers planted an estimated 18,234 acres last year, up 14 percent from 15,973 the previous year, according to the “2013 and Preliminary 2014 U.S. Organic Cotton Production & Marketing Trends” report recently published by the Organic Trade Association (OTA). In addition, production increased in 2013 by nearly 20 percent to 10,335 bales.

“These latest numbers show the genuine commitment of organic growers to produce cotton in the most environmentally friendly way and to respond to an increasing desire by consumers for organic fiber,” said Laura Batcha, OTA’s CEO and executive director. “Today’s consumers want to incorporate organic not just in the food we eat, but in the clothes we wear, the sheets on our bed and the mattresses on which we sleep.”

She’s not wrong: the OTA reports that organic fiber sales in 2013 in the U.S. hit almost $1 billion and is now the largest non-food organic category in the market.

That’s not the only reason more farmers are getting into the organic game. A recent OTA survey of organic cottons growers in Arizona, California, New Mexico, North Carolina and Texas found the producers received $1.38 per pound for upland cotton, while pima cotton — representing fewer than 1,000 planted acres — fetches as much as $2.20 per pound.

Regardless of farm size, region or varieties grown, all organic cotton producers share a concern for an effective method of weed control — made even more urgent by a lack of seasonal workers in cotton-growing areas — as well as a need for commercial supplies of organic seed in a marketplace dominated by genetically modified ones.

Batcha said  growing cotton is a “highly specialized and technical discipline.” To that end, the OTA says it’s committed to promoting the growth of the industry and will continue to work with government officials to develop an enforcement policy on the use of organic claims on textile labels.