An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

October 22, 2008

The Grim Land o' Cotton

I passed a cotton field ready for harvest the other day and unable to stop, made a mental note to come back for some pictures; I like the way it looks at this time of year. Cotton was not common in the area until recently, perhaps the disappearing farm subsidies for peanuts have compelled more farmers to grow it. I have learned something about cotton by attending pesticide re-certification programs. Why I have to sit through these programs mainly geared to commercial farmers makes no sense to me, but it is the only way I can keep my ornamental pestacide certification. Ironically the name of our local extension agent who coordinates these programs is Rex Cotton (Rex is Latin for king, King Cotton). Anyway, what little I have learned about cotton is that in spite of being pretty, I would not want to live next door to a field of it.

Besided being a water intensive crop, cotton also needs a great deal of pesticides in order to keep the insects off of it. In fact, cotton farming consumes 25% of all insecticides world-wide. If this was not bad enough, in order to harvest it without a lot of messy foliage getting in the fibers - it is often chemically defoliated prior to harvest. According to Mr. Cotton, this defoliation process causes a lot of farmer/non-farmer conflicts, as the chemical can often drift into neighboring trees and shrubs causing leaf drop. Since cotton is not a food crop, what can be legally sprayed on it is much stronger than what is used on other crops. One way agri-business has reduced the amount of pesticides used on cotton, is by developing genetically modified varieties, which contain Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Many gardeners may be familiar with Bt, as it is in a lot of organic pesticides. However, changing the DNA of cotton, or any other crop is not without consequences either.

So when you see those touchy-feely "fabric of our lives" ads, consider how cotton is grown, and keep in mind the dark history this plant has had in the American South, India and in other places. Maybe more of us can begin to look for and ask for organically grown, fair trade cotton. In the meantime I'll continue to enjoy how it looks, just not next door.


  1. I sincerely wish I hadn't read that....

  2. What is all this newfangled comment business all of a sudden?

  3. Great post--I left a message on Blotanical. Hope to see you there!

  4. What beautiful pictures. It looks soft enough to touch. A friend of mine grew it here in Tennessee for the flowers only and I thought it kind of odd, but when I saw the flowers it was great.

  5. I didn't realize the insecticide problem of this plant. It is a pretty plant but I'm glad I don't live next door to a cotton farm either.

  6. Sheesh--sounds like a delightful crop,
    all in all

  7. I've wondered about the need for all those chemicals for cotton. In Hawaii I had a 15 foot tall perennial cotton tree. I never sprayed it with a thing and never noticed any pest problems and it made cotton twice a year. Yes I said a perennial tree! Ok, a really big rambling shrub.

    Granted this was one shrub in an organic garden filled with a diverse insect population, not acres of monoculture, but still it was a perennial shrub and I never sprayed it with a thing and it was ginormous and made oodles and oodles of cotton.

  8. Jo,
    I hope I did not ruin your morning, but this has been stewing in me for a while. The new comment section seems to be everywhere.

    Thanks for stopping by. I went to Botanical since I did not know there was such a thing as a comment section.

    There should be a place in every garden for an odd flower or two.

    Agriculture isn't always pretty.

    I did read that in the tropics, cotton is a shrub, but just the same it is grown mainly as an annual. I know it is possible, and profitable to grow it organically, and thankfully there is increasing demand for organic cotton.

  9. Fascinating--I had no idea about all that pesticide. Do you think monoculture growing is a big reason for the insect pests?

    (the verification word is "waterp")

  10. Chuck,
    I think monoculture may be part of it, but then again, most commercial are monocultures. I think it has more to do with the fact that biologically, cotton is prone to insect damage. Couple this with the fact that the public does not demand more sustainable, more organic methods and I think you have the problem. If we ate cotton, it would not be this way.

  11. Good god, I had no idea cotton was like this (however, a smart person should've known). Bt scares me. Genetically doing anything to anything scares me, and we do it willy nilly. I was driving home last night, looking at the few fields left on the edge of the city, and wandered just how many bad chemicals are there, how many find their way to my garden. Then I thought, hey, my garden used to be farmland, not prairie (well, maybe a century ago). What's in my soil? What's in my shirt?

  12. From what I understand, cotton fields used to be very common in Southampton Co., where my family farmed for 10 generations. My grandparents spoke of being married one day and going out to pick cotton the next (they were tenant farmers, not landowners), but said that cotton farming had virtually disappeared in the area due to boll weavil infestations. Probably the rise of peanut and soybean farming began on the heels of that; the development of pesticides, for better or for worse, must have made the reinstatement of cotton as a major crop in SE VA a possibility over the last 20 years or so.

  13. Ben,
    I have always been adverse to wearing new clothes before I washed them. I thought it was just a quirck, but maybe it was to wash the chemicals out. Also, like I told PG, agriculture is not always pretty.

    Thanks for letting my know about this. I have lived in VA most of my life and have never seen cotton fields until recently. My family has been on the Eastern Shore since the 1600's as small farmers and watermen, but the soil over there was better suited for other crops and other markets. I did think that surely cotton was grown here at one time, and thank you for confirming.

  14. Hi, Les--I grew up among cotton fields, and I knew about the chemicals then, when I was just a kid. I guess I fell for "the fabric of your life" tag and somehow dissociated what I knew from what I wanted to think. This is a really important post--but what do I wear? And equally unimportant--what newfangled comment biz are you all talking about? Seriously, this is a great posting, if a little scary.

  15. Cosmo,
    Thanks again for your comments. As I sit here in all cotton garments - I can't help you with what to wear. The comment biz was apparently a very temporary situation where a comment box came up at the end of each google post for about 12 hours. Everything seems back to normal.


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