California Cotton Fields: Can Cotton be Climate Beneficial?

California Cotton Fields: Can Cotton be Climate Beneficial?
Dec 05, 2019

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By Esha Chhabra, Jess Daniels
In this series, we highlighted stories of cotton producers in California who are continuing the legacy of growing cotton in the state but in a manner that’s more in tune with the current climate, weather conditions, and soil health challenges. Cotton can be grown in a more regenerative fashion, and these tenacious farmers are illuminating the path forward.
Cotton is abundant: in our wardrobes, where it makes up close to 25% of global textiles; in our national production, because the US is the third-largest producer of cotton after China and India; and in our home geography of the Northern California Fibershed, where enough is grown to provide each resident of the state with the equivalent of 7.5 pairs of jeans per year.
The Climate Beneficial™ stamp of approval was created to denote fibers coming from landscapes where carbon flow from the atmosphere and into the soil is being enhanced, and since it’s a practice-based verification managed by Fibershed, it supports farmers and ranchers as they shift their production method. But since it relies on peer-reviewed soil science and environmental systems modeling, it was first applied to wool: sheep grazing on grassland are a “low hanging fruit” for layering on conservation agricultural practices that enhance carbon storage in the soil as well as in plantings along streams and along the edges of fields.
California is 65% rangeland, so there is plenty of room to grow Climate Beneficial protein fiber production, yet designers and wearers alike want to know: what about cotton? So we turned our lens of carbon farming to crop production, and sought to explore the work of four key cotton farmers across Northern and Central California.
However, producers repeatedly told us that if cotton growers in California want to shift their practices, there has to be a market incentive to do so.
“Can there be a way to sequester carbon and produce crops in a financially viable way? Figuring this out has taken me lots of time and money. And it is by no means all figured out yet,” said Sally Fox, who has been known for her breeding techniques, bringing back naturally-colored cotton varieties that had long been forgotten.
For now though Lynda Grose, a pioneer in sustainable fashion and an important leader behind the Sustainable Cotton Project notes, “There is no [large scale] organic cotton in California. There is not a real business case. It’s just too expensive.”
Cotton as a crop is not problematic. Though there is a broader misconception that it takes up significant amounts of water, and can deplete nutrients, producers pointed to other more water-intensive crops grown in California such as many nut trees, alfalfa, rice, and some vegetables. When what we wear is considered in context of what is on our plates, as well as state and local regulations, water consumption comes into perspective.
Crop rotation, as Sally Fox has proven, means that cotton cultivation—along with Sonora wheat, alfalfa, and black-eye peas—can even increase the carbon content of the soil. Through soil testing, she’ll compare the cover cropping on 20 acres of irrigated cropland and 20 acres of non-irrigated cropland. Ultimately she hopes this effort will help increase yields of the cash crops, alfalfa and cotton, and increase the water-holding capacity of all 70 acres of project land.
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