Kitchen Garden

Cotton, Capital and Sustainability

LAKE MACBRIDE— During the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, lodging books up well in advance. The annual March event started as a way of controlling the snake population and has evolved into a festival that attracts more than 40,000 visitors annually. I haven’t tried rattlesnake meat, which is popular at the festival, but it reportedly tastes like chicken.

During a business trip the weekend of the event, I stayed at the home of an area cotton farmer because there were no motel rooms available. The octogenarian owner provided a pickup truck tour of the local cotton operation before dinner one night, driving most sections of his 5,000 acres. There were other large cotton growers in the area, and our conversation covered a range of topics from government subsidies, soil quality, tumbleweed, boll weevil control, growing conditions and harvest. We drove by the large cotton gin built by a cooperative of growers. Cotton hulls were stacked in gigantic piles near the equipment. There was a use for cotton hulls, but not enough of one. He was cottoning up to me because of the financial investment our company made in his sons’ troubled trucking operation.

We wouldn’t call  his cotton growing practices sustainable, quite the opposite. It was as good an example of industrial agriculture as there is. If there was a boll weevil outbreak, the crop dusters came out in force to spray the section and eradicate the pest. He did what he needed to manage the risk of growing cotton, and cooperate with his neighbors to get the annual crop planted, grown and harvested.

I met his two sons, and they leveraged the farm to try to make ends meet in their trucking company. The reason I was in Texas was the troubled trucking operation. The experience helped shape my view of the importance of capital in a farming.

It is one thing to locate a plot of ground and grow vegetables to sell at the farmers market. It is another thing to sustain operations over decades. The lack of adequate capitalization seems to be a primary tension point for beginning, local producers, with start-up, scalability and processing mentioned frequently as challenges. Like any farmer, local food producers make deals with people who have capital in the form of land, equipment and money: banks, government, parents and neighboring farmers.

For a local food grower to sustain operations, managing capital is equally important with managing growing practices. In my experience, not enough attention is paid to capital management by sustainable agriculture practitioners. Financial sustainability goes with everything else in sustainable agriculture, and can take decades to achieve in the best of conditions.

My experience in West Texas was a bit disturbing. The way the land was treated, the use of chemicals, the attitudes of the farmers, all of it had a sense of desperation about it. It was especially evident in the way the sons used the farm as leverage for their failing trucking business.

If sustainable agriculture has a chance in the 21st century, practitioners must learn more about the relationship of capital to farming. As a successful practitioner of sustainable agriculture recently told me, “the ‘kids’ who were not depression era people never got the hang of the financial end of things and overspent even though much was handed to them on a silver platter.” Last time I checked, very few people continue to hand out silver platters.