Sunrise Bib Burp Cloth

Organic cotton fabric made in USA

With chickens grazing by his feet, Eric Henry, president of TS Designs, lifts a branch of organic cotton just plucked from the backyard garden of his T-shirt printing business. As if picked from the sky, the puffs of white cotton resemble tiny cumulus clouds hanging from winter branches.

Since the mid-1990s, Henry has helped grow TS Designs, based in Burlington, North Carolina, by turning a highly toxic T-shirt production into a cleaner, safer operation with a conscious and sustainable business model. Part of that has been transforming a traditional Carolina crop into more than just a commodity.

“We have a long history of running around the world and chasing cheap labor. We’ve got to take the blinders off, ” Henry says. He specifically places blame on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for the decimation of local cotton production. Since NAFTA, he says 35, 000 textile jobs were lost in North Carolina alone.

“Through this globalization of the textile industry, everyone puts [their cotton] in silos and sells it to a broker, ” says Henry. “Once that broker buys that cotton, and buys from a lot of other people with essentially the same quality, you don’t really know where it came from. The ‘country of origin’ is required by law, but that’s only the last place it was. It’s impossible to go backwards.”

Despite the bleak industrial model in which we find ourselves, demand for locally grown organic cotton is on the rise. States with a relative abundance of conventional cotton are ramping up efforts to increase the viability of growing it organically.

As such, TS Designs launched their Cottons of the Carolinas program five years ago, sourcing local cotton and creating a product—a simple T-shirt—that has been grown, spun and woven all at home.

“Cotton of the Carolinas identifies the supply chain, ” says Henry. Through making their Cotton of the Carolinas supply chain transparent, TS Designs built relationships with existing cotton farmers, ginners and processors. As a subset of the project, they also launched a specifically organic local cotton initiative.

In December 2012, their first successful organic cotton harvest yielded about 25, 000 pounds of cotton from 50 acres, between two farms: Hickory Meadows Organics and Parrish Enterprises.

According to Mary Wilks of Carolina Precision Consulting, the farmers decided going organic would result in a productive trial. Wilks’ company consults growers on everything from fertility to pest management to certification and has been working with TS Designs for about three years, connecting growers with processors.

“Once the mills got word of what we had going on, they were really excited, ” Wilks says. “I mean, they offered contracts. One of the growers, Orpha Gene Watson at Hickory Meadows Organics, said it’s nice to grow something that people want, that people call you for instead of you having to try and sell it.”

Orpha Gene Watson and his family have been farming conventional crops for more than three generations in Nash County, North Carolina. They began the organic arm of their farm in 2008 with organic tobacco. They started planting organic cotton in 2011, and have seen first-hand the fruits of their labor.

“There are people in North Carolina that want organic cotton grown in North Carolina and that makes a difference to me, ” says Watson. “The customers want to know where this cotton came from, just like they want to know about their food. They want to know who grew it.”

Farmer Orpha Gene Watson, ag consultant Mary Wilks and TS Design's Eric Henry.

That’s not to say the idea wasn’t met with trepidation.

“When we decided to do this five years ago, everybody said it’s so tough, ” Henry adds. “And, in the scheme of things, it ain’t much.” It takes just under 1 pound of cotton to yield one T-shirt and with only 25, 000 pounds of local, organic cotton harvested last year, the program is still a very small drop in a very large bucket.

But, the yield gave growers and everyone on the value chain the hope that organic cotton in North Carolina could become a fruitful enterprise, much like in Texas. More organic cotton in the United States grows in Texas than in any other state. Last year, the Texas Organic Cotton Cooperative celebrated 20 years of growing.

In Texas, organic cotton sells for $1.50 per pound. In North Carolina’s first year of production, TS Designs paid farmers $1.75 per pound (compared with an average of $1.30 per pound for conventional cotton). This year, they paid $2. From an industry perspective, Henry insists that North Carolina has the means to quickly reach Texas levels of production.

“North Carolina is one of the few states with the existing infrastructure to go dirt to shirt, ” he says.

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