WEST TEXAS ORGANIC COTTON
A Collection of Hand Woven Garments with Photographs by Andrew Paynter
Touching down in cotton fields where endless rows of downy bolls ascend into low lying clouds, we stumbled in the sodden soil listening to farmers lament tales of too much rain too late in the season. These are mostly dryland farmers, the largest collective of organic cotton growers in the United States, undeniably Texan in their particular brand of resilience and emphatic hospitality. We'd traveled to Lubbock to walk the fields, visit the community gin and learn more about the current state of organic cotton farming as a new generation of GMO seeds enter the landscape. Standing on the narrow strip of land that divides the organic fields from their conventionally grown neighbors offered an intensely palpable recognition of whats at stake.
To my left, green leaves clung stubbornly to organic plants as farmers awaited the first hard frost to loosen their hold and ready the bolls for harvest. To my right, stretching far beyond my squinty vision, lay thousands of acres of mud littered with stalks, barren looking land where herbicide had done the job of a hard frost by killing everything in its wake, harvest on demand.
Meadow Farmers Co-op Cotton Gin sits amongst a small cluster of industrial buildings on an empty stretch of Highway 62 about a half hour drive from Lubbock. Chartered in 1935, this place had me at the first rounded corner of the Lummus gins, more vintage automobile than industrial fiber processing with their cherry red lettering as inspired color scheme for powder coated steel accents across the interior.
On my first tour of the gin, I was all eyes, missing much of the explanation about how the cotton actually moves through the process. On our second visit I was properly studious as the gin manager walked us through each station, machines resting and quiet, a rare afternoon in the middle of harvest. Just before we left, he pulled fiber from a bundled bale and offered it to us like communion. In this hushed moment of luminous floors and the pretty of the machines, billowy cotton in the palm of my hand, the sordid history of this Whitney invention and bulbous white plant briefly parted for the majesty of this man whose spent 25 years moving up the line.
I was an hour late, rental car rattling each time I edged it past sixty, lost for the third time that morning in my search for Allred Road. Every sign boasted a number, not a name, and opportunities for legal U-turns were miles and miles apart. I hopped a median ditch, genuflected that I'd sprung for additional rental insurance and hauled onward to meet Eric Herm.
Eric is a fourth generation Texas farmer, the unlikely prodigal son who couldn't stay away. I'd run across his name in several articles about West Texas cotton and written to him about meeting when I was nearby for the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Co-op's Field Day. Pulling into his long driveway, I noticed a large hose running parallel on the other side of the fence. 'Fracking. The neighbors,' he would later mention as we traveled to several of his cotton fields on nearby land.
One of the youngest producers in the Co-op, Eric has a reputation for being vocal about herbicide drift and the inevitable increase in pressure for organic farmers working alongside fields of the new 2,4-D GMO cotton growers. Fueling that candor is an earnest and steadfast love for his family's land and an unwillingness to walk away from a good challenge. He is both a steward and a cynic, rising each morning to oversee a laborious parcel of land with full recognition that there is much at play against him. Meeting Eric Herm and his girlfriend, Jennie, was the fulcrum for my resolve to weave cloth from the work that these farmers do. I like to think that I see both steward and cynic in the final twill with its supple, deeply-cared-for drape and its staunch refusal to be anything other than what it is.
On the evening before the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Co-op's field day, they held a dinner at a nearby Lubbock restaurant, a meet and greet with name tags, tote bags full of branded goodies and steak the size of a plate. It was odd that I was even there, a solo weaver amongst well regarded industry players who actually purchase meaningful amounts of organic cotton for their supply chain. I'd been invited through an inquiry to LaRhea Pepper, a dynamo in the field of sustainable textiles and one of the early founders of the Co-op. It was the story of her role in a suit against Monsanto that had first inspired this journey, but now seated next to farmers Jeff and Kristi Payne, I wasn't so interested in the spectacular story of a showdown with big Ag. I wanted to hear about what it was like to grow up on these farms, where they traveled when they could get away, what they thought of a recent trip to my home town of San Francisco. I was eager to learn about their two sons, one a star basketball player who rarely got a break from college training and the other, a soon-to-be dentist. Later, cooling off in the air conditioned office on their impressively organized farm, I saw pictures of the boys and framed newspaper clippings from their high school sports fame. I grabbed a Jolly Rancher from the glass candy jar next to the front desk and read along, lingering a bit longer before returning to the heat of the afternoon, savoring the syrupy watermelon flavor of own my childhood.
On my second trip to Lubbock, Jeff and Kristi spent a better part of a day with us, driving us along rain-soaked dirt roads through their organic fields, patiently pulling over each time we saw a potential photograph. Our boots became leaden from the sinister, sticky mud as we stumbled and slid with cameras held high. Unphased and giggling as she went along, Kristi grabbed an old metal license plate from the rear of the jeep, scraping our boots down for us as we leaned, precariously and like true city folk, against the side of her car.
When I consider the ease of our time together, I feel almost wistful. Spending time with the Paynes- and with Eric Herm and Jennie Holt- reminded me of the wide-open welcome of my Southern upbringing with its relaxed air and neighborly grace. How surprising to travel somewhere new and immediately not be a stranger. How rare, how important.