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A Texas A&M AgriLife-led team of researchers is working with producers to determine how to conquer challenges and open up opportunities. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Sam Craft)

A Drive to Make U.S. A Leader in Organic Cotton

Guest Author
Kay Ledbetter, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications Coordinator

Demand is growing for organic cotton in the U.S., but imports continue to pick up the slack of inadequate domestic production. A new project led by Texas A&M AgriLife Research aims to turn the situation around by identifying the challenges to and opportunities for U.S. organic cotton growers. 

The study, Fostering Sustainable Organic Cotton Production in the U.S. Through Research and Outreach on Organic Regenerative Practices, is funded by a $3.5 million U.S. Department of AgricultureNational Institute of Food and Agriculture grant. 

Researchers expect the study to help U.S. organic cotton producers determine how to improve yields, productivity and sustainability in their existing fields and to transition more acreage into organic production. 

“In the areas where they are already producing organic cotton, we need to understand the sustainability of those operations in terms of soil health and economics and identify what can be done to improve sustainability where lacking,” said Muthukumar “Muthu” Bagavathiannan, Ph.D., Billie Turner Professor of Production Agronomy in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. 

Organic Cotton Research Scales Up 

Bagavathiannan said he and members of the team received funding for a smaller organic cotton project three years ago, and it was this small transitioning project that allowed them to better understand this production system and its challenges. This new grant is a large-scale expansion of that research. 

The project team includes multiple researchers from Texas A&M AgriLife, Texas Tech University, New Mexico State University, The Soil Health Institute, AgriCenter International, Sam Houston State University, Prairie View A&M University and Texas A&M University-Kingsville. The team will collaborate with producer organizations, the textile industry and non-profit organizations, including The Organic Center. 

Amber Sciligo, Ph.D., director of Science Programs, The Organic Center, Washington, D.C., said there are many challenges that U.S. cotton growers face when using organic practices. 

“This work will be vital to helping increase the success and growth of domestic organic cotton, relieving the reliance on imports to meet our domestic demand for this crop,” Sciligo said.   

Developing A Better Understanding of Organic Cotton Production 

Texas is the leader in U.S. organic cotton production, followed by New Mexico. But long-term practices that impact changes to soil health, like microbial dynamics, are unclear to farmers who might adopt organic production. 

“We know there is a critical need to expand organic cotton production in the U.S., so we will be first working with the existing organic cotton producers in Texas, New Mexico and a few in the Mississippi Delta, and study their existing operations, without imposing any change in practice,” Bagavathiannan said. “We want to understand what their production challenges are, how they are managing them, what works and what doesn’t, and how their practices are impacting the soil and output long-term.” 

He said as they increase this understanding, they will identify management practices producers need help with and determine how to improve those practices. 

“Are there practices that can be transferred among the growers,” he said. “For instance, weed control and management is a major problem in organic cotton. Currently, tillage is the major practice used to control weeds. But continuous tillage can be destructive to long-term soil health.” 

With no use of synthetic herbicides allowed, the project will identify other methods that might minimize the tillage needed for weed control, such as cover crops, living mulches and flaming. 

“There is a growing carbon market that organic cotton producers can tap into to get additional revenue. There are tremendous benefits to minimize greenhouse gas emissions in these operations,” said Nithya Rajan, Ph.D., AgriLife Research crop physiologist/agroecologist who will be assessing soil carbon dynamics and greenhouse gas emissions in this project. 

“The project will utilize the organic cotton varieties developed by Dr. Jane Dever, cotton breeder and a CO-PI in this project, in her previous research projects funded by the USDA organic programs,” Bagavathiannan said. “This is a tremendous resource for this project. We are interested in studying potential allelopathic weed suppression properties in the organic cotton breeding lines”. 

In addition to Dever, who is also associate director at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Lubbock, Katie Lewis, Ph.D., AgriLife Research soil chemistry and fertility scientist, and Peter Dotray, Ph.D., AgriLife Research weed scientist, both in Lubbock, will conduct research and outreach in the area, where the majority of Texas organic cotton growers are located. 

“In working directly with farmers, they get to see firsthand the data on how their operations are doing and compare it to conventional production. We are also working with the Soil Health Institute – as we collect soil samples from these fields, we will look at microbial diversity through a metagenomics assay. We want to document what happens as you move away from synthetic chemicals and embrace organic practices; how does it affect the soil microbes?” 

Bagavathiannan said there is also a sociological component, an educational component and a strong Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service component. Socioeconomic investigations will be conducted by Sam Houston State University and The Soil Health Institute to help understand the constraints and promote adoption. Select undergraduate students from all the participating educational institutions will be engaged in summer research internship activities at the field sites to provide them with hands-on research experience. 

Project Goals and Team 

This multi-state, multi-institutional team represents the key U.S. organic cotton academic community and is represented by diverse expertise encompassing biophysical and socio-economic sciences. 

In addition to Bagavathiannan, AgriLife Research and AgriLife Extension scientists/faculty in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences on this grant include Jake Mowrer, Ph.D., state soil specialist, and Nithya Subramanian, Ph.D., molecular weed scientist, both in Bryan-College Station; Emi Kimura, Ph.D., agronomist, Vernon; and Bob Whitney, organic program specialist, Stephenville. 

Small-plot experiments will be conducted in certified or transitioning organic fields in Texas, New Mexico and Tennessee over a four-year period to evaluate specific regenerative management practices. The experiments in Tennessee are expected to assist with expanding organic cotton research and outreach activities to the Mississippi Delta. A strong stakeholder advisory panel has been formed to help guide the project activities and deliverables. 

The multi-faceted project goals include: 

  • Attaining a deeper understanding of adoption constraints and opportunities associated with organic cotton production in the U.S. Cotton Belt. 
  • Developing locally suitable regenerative practices to advance agronomic, ecosystem and economic benefits of production. 
  • Evaluating weed suppressive potential of advance-breeding or already-developed cotton lines for utilization in organic production. 
  • Expanding adoption of organic production practices through collaborative extension and demonstration activities. 
  • Providing educational opportunities to train the next generation of research and extension scientists and organic practitioners. 

“There is a consumer demand for organic cotton, and Texas is the leader in cotton production, so we need to be the leader in organic cotton production,” Bagavathiannan said. 

This article first appeared on Texas Agri-Life Research Today and is reprinted with permission.

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