FOR years, when Claude and Linda Sheppard surveyed the rows of squat, leafy cotton plants at their farm in Chowchilla, Calif., they saw danger.
In the agriculture-intensive San Joaquin Valley where the Sheppards live, single-engine planes dip and bank from dawn until dusk on many days, trailing mists of pesticides over cotton, almond, and vegetable crops. "The San Joaquin Valley is like a big bug bomb at certain times of the year," says Mr. Sheppard, whose family has farmed in the area for four generations.
The crop-dusters were frequent visitors to the Sheppard's farm, spraying not only their fields but, inadvertently, their house and garden as well. Mrs. Sheppard says she would often wonder, "What are they spraying today, and what will it do to my children?"
Today, the Sheppards and a few dozen other farmers around the country are struggling to grow cotton without the synthetic chemicals that most farmers rely on to kill insects, control weeds, and strip the plants of leaves before harvest. Instead, they release "beneficial" bugs that prey on harmful insects, hire crews of workers to weed by hand, and let plants defoliate naturally by cutting off irrigation weeks before harvest.
But as this year's harvest gets under way, farmers are feeling buffeted by the vagaries of the marketplace. A once-strong organic cotton market - which compensated farmers for their extra risk and expense - shrank precipitously two years ago.
"For two years [1992-93], we couldn't meet the needs of manufacturers," Mr. Sheppard explains. Then, "supplies were up in '94, but there was no longer a demand." In 1994, United States farmers harvested approximately 36,000 acres of organic cotton, most of it in Texas and California. This year, after many farmers decided growing organic cotton wasn't worth the effort, the figure will be less than half that.
The Sheppards, the largest remaining organic-cotton growers in California, say they also will go back to using herbicides and defoliants on their 1,070 acres of cotton if the market doesn't pick up next year.
Because harvesting organic cotton is slowed by leaves remaining on the plants, the Sheppards spent $80,000 on a new cotton-picking vehicle to help bring in the crop before rains come in November. "With the extra equipment and extra labor, we're not showing any profit," Mr. Sheppard says. "We can't operate that way."
The situation may be turning around, however, thanks in part to recent efforts by sustainable agriculture proponents and some clothing companies to revive the demand for organic cotton.
Organic clothing line
One of the most encouraging signs came earlier this year when outdoor-clothing manufacturer Patagonia substituted organic cotton for conventional cotton in its entire line and vowed never to switch back.
"In looking at the different fibers that you could use to make clothes, we need to know which are the least damaging for the environment and which are the most. And we found that the most damaging by far was conventionally grown cotton," says Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of the Ventura, Calif.-based company.
According to Mr. Chouinard, the company did not want to help sustain the market for a crop that is showered with more than 14 million pounds of pesticides each year in California alone. Environmentalists and others believe that many of those chemicals contaminate the air, soil, and water, posing hazards for both people and the environment.
Patagonia currently ranks as the country's largest purchaser of organic-cotton fabric. Because organic cotton costs more to grow and process than its conventional counterpart, the company raised prices between $2 and $10 on affected items, even after lowering its profit margin on those items. But Chouinard says that the use of organic cotton has had little effect - either negative or positive - on sales.
Other large apparel manufacturers are being more cautious about pushing pesticide-free fabric. Some of the biggest clothing companies in the country, including The Gap, Levi Strauss, and Esprit, offered lines of organic cotton clothing a few years ago that quickly faded from sight.
Sean Fitzgerald, a spokesman for Levi Strauss, says, "This company invested millions of dollars into product development and the marketing and distribution of Elements [a line of organic cotton clothing], but consumers were simply not interested in purchasing these products.
"Right now, it's simply not feasible for us to use organic cotton on a large scale. First of all, there's simply not enough supply to fill our needs. And the current cost of organic cotton is really prohibitive."
Even at its peak in 1994, organic cotton accounted for less than 0.5 percent of the more than 13 million acres of cotton grown in the US. Building up supply to gain economies of scale is the catch-22: Farmers don't want to grow the crop without contracts in hand, and manufacturers won't commit unless they're confident of procuring consistent volumes and lower prices.
Getting around that problem is the goal of a current study commissioned by The Gap, according to Maria Moyer-Angus, the company's director of environmental affairs.
"The objective is to focus on pesticide-use reduction by doing it in a cost-effective way as an industry, and seeing that the supply of [pesticide-free cotton] increases and therefore the price comes down, while no one has to pay a huge amount or be punished for their environmental efforts - customer, company, mill, or farmer," Ms. Moyer-Angus says.
Yet while they wait for markets to expand, farmers are becoming more anxious.
Earlier this month, Pete Cornaggia Jr., a third-generation Chowchilla farmer, was days away from dousing his 142 acres of cotton with defoliant. Mr. Cornaggia says he was willing to sacrifice organic certification to avoid the problems that beset him last year, when leaves got caught up with the cotton during harvesting, making the crop hard to sell.
Cornaggia says he hasn't come close to recouping his expenses, including nearly $65,000 spent for weeding.
"I started $175,000 in debt from cotton this year. You pay 9 percent interest on that, and it takes a couple of years to dig back out," he says. Only a last-minute contract from a cotton broker persuaded Cornaggia to take the risk again this year.
But the fact that farmers are able, if not necessarily willing, to grow organic cotton is a reason for optimism, says Sean Swezey, an agriculture specialist at the University of California in Santa Cruz.
"Five years ago, it wouldn't have been considered rational to talk about growing organic cotton," says Mr. Swezey, who counts himself among the early skeptics. Now that farmers have gained more experience with natural methods of growing cotton, that outlook has changed.
"We could produce 50,000 acres of this crop in California if we get the right marketplace," he says.