Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
LaRhea Pepper — Organic Exchange and Patrick Madden Award Winner
To commemorate the 20-year anniversary of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education's innovative and collaborative programming, we are featuring a series of interviews with this year's winners of SARE's Patrick Madden Award. Every two years, SARE presents the Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture to farmers or farm families who advance sustainable agriculture through innovation, leadership and good stewardship. Winners are selected from each of SARE's four regions: North-Central, Western; Southern, and Northeast. This month Tammy Hinman, ATTRA Agriculture Specialist, talked with LaRhea Pepper of Organic Exchange, Patrick Madden Award Southern Region winner, and organic cotton farmer. This month's Conversation from the Field is the first in our series of four interviews with SARE's 2008 Patrick Madden Award winners.
Terry and LaRhea Pepper of O'Donnell, Texas, were among the first U.S. producers of organic cotton and co-founded the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, which established Texas as an international leader in organic cotton production. They went on to establish their own organic fabric company and launched the country's first line of organic cotton personal care products.
Q. Can you describe how you and your husband became interested in organic farming?
A. Both Terry and I grew up on farms, Terry in south Texas on a farm that utilized chemicals, and me on a farm that utilized stewardship in principle—without chemicals. When we married and moved to my family farm in 1979, Terry became very close with my grandfather. They were two peas in a pod. When we started farming we wanted a long-term sustainability approach to farming and wanted to ensure we were protecting and stewarding the land for future generations. I call it the stewardship principle of managing the land—we belong to the land and need to insure that it is available to future generations. When the certification legislation came through in the early '90s, we were already practicing the principles of organic farming. We were one of the few fiber farms, at that time, to become certified organic.
Q. How have you seen sustainable agriculture develop and change in your years as an organic farmer?
A. The term "sustainability" has evolved over time, and with it a huge shift in awareness. Now, there is a clear definition of what organic means and does not mean. When there is clarity about the definitions, it makes it easier to talk about organic farming with consumers, neighbors and others, e.g., it is easier to talk about rotations with people when they know that rotations are good for organic matter, pest control and are an essential part of organic farming. There is also a growing interest in organic fiber production. We have gone from being one of a few families growing organic cotton in West Texas, to 30 families in this region.
Q. Can you describe Organic Exchange and how it originated?
A. Organic Exchange was formed 5 years ago as a non-profit, to facilitate the growth and development of the organic fiber community. A specific set of needs were identified by the farmers and companies within the organic fiber community—we wanted to share information about how much fiber is grown and to get uniformity in standards, because we were working with fiber farms throughout the world. We continue to work very diligently to have product integrity and harmonization in the organic fiber industry. The goal of Organic Exchange is to be a catalyst by utilizing market forces to increase the use of organic agricultural fibers. We also work with fiber farms on best management practices, such as soil fertility, rotations and pest management. Education is a key component in our work as well as "building bridges" in the supply chain from the farm to the supply chain, to the brands and retailers, and ultimately to the consumer.
Q. Where do you see sustainable and organic agriculture headed?
A. Looking back 20 years ago when we were talking about things as goals and vision, it is great to see them actually come to fruition. The pendulum is swinging and now the conversation is focusing on climate change and how organic agriculture fits in. There are also a lot more opportunities for farmers and consumers to have access to organic products. It is great to see that there is more consumer demand driving these shifts in agriculture—it has to be market-driven solutions.
Q. Do you see the evolution in organic agriculture in the past 20 years as being market driven?
A. It is multifaceted. I think that a certain component has been consumer driven...but it has also been driven by the leadership in the retail sector, where they say, "This is the right direction to go." It is exciting that Wal-Mart, Nike, Nordstrom, Patagonia, and other big retail chains are going in the direction of being responsible citizens on the planet as corporations. Farmers are also in this equation learning about the importance of sustainability in their farming practices, as well seeing that they need to make a change. There is story after story of farmers in the US creating market niches through their changes in production and it is exciting to see this type of innovation.
Q. Most people think of food when they think of organic agriculture—how do you see fiber fitting into organic agriculture and the food system?
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A.It is an educational process. Many people do not realize that cottonseed and cottonseed oil is in the food supply chain. Cotton is already woven through their life in their food supply as well as in their home and everyday comfort. Education to build awareness continues to be important. Cotton is typically a chemically intensive crop and has an environmental impact, and conventionally grown cotton has one of the largest environmental footprints of agricultural crops. Seeking out organic cotton is one of these tools that people can use to reduce their environmental footprint.
Q. What words of advice would you give to those that are just starting out in the organic farming movement?
A. If I had to put it in a nutshell, I would have to say, 'Have a vision for what you want to do.' Keep in mind that your vision may have some homework and research involved in it. It requires a learning process, whether you're a farmer, researcher, or consumer. Becoming educated on the issues is a way of building the bridges for your journey. My motto is to keep the vision, build the bridges, and be willing to take the journey.
Q. Any additional comments?
A. Farmers, business leaders, government representatives and consumers need to rethink our current agricultural system. We need to encourage diversity in our ecosystem as well is in the business of farming. Farmers shouldn't be just a "cotton farmer" or a "corn producer," we need to be "farmers." Not focusing on a specific crop creates more of a holistic cropping, food and fiber system and thus a thought process that continues to build the bridges.
This page was last updated on: August 26, 2014