You can’t grow that in N.D….. Several weeks ago I received a phone call from a woman in Baltimore who identified herself as Sandra Marquart. She was compiling a national report about organic cotton and wanted to know what our 2018 production had been. We have actually grown cotton the past six years, and although there hasn’t been any real production, it’s been a seed-saving enterprise. Sandra’s next comment was “cotton can’t grow in North Dakota.”
By Marvin Baker
It isn’t supposed to, but we’ve been growing it nearly 10 degrees of latitude north of Salina, Kan., considered the northern fringe of cotton growing country. This all started out as a novelty because experts in the field said it can’t be done anywhere in North Dakota. However, what the experts didn’t take into account is that 120-day varieties do exist. There’s an organic variety called Red Foliated that has done quite well for us.
The first year we tried cotton was 2008, and that was a miserable flop because it was a 160-day variety, and I was hoping it would have been a longer season. The plants grew to a foot and went dormant. Nothing else happened. With Red Foliated, it seems the plants are becoming healthier each year they are planted.
From 2008 to 2013, I did periodic research on growing cotton, taking all of those five years to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake twice. When we started back up in 2013, we had 16 plants, three of which looked weak, 10 that looked marginal and three that looked completely healthy.
At the end of that season, we saved the seeds from those three plants that looked the best and planted them back the following year that brought us 40 plants, and we’ve been building since. In 2018 we grew 112 plants with 20 percent of them producing cotton fiber. In 2019, the hope is to have as many as 160 plants.
When people realize I’m not making this up, they ask me what I’m going to do with the cotton. The thought of actual production has always been on the back of my mind, but the bigger issue is to actually sell the plants at the farmers market since they are such a pretty, burgundy color.
We got over our first hurdle of finding a 120-day variety, and we are still trying to overcome the stereotype that cotton won’t grow at 48.44 Degrees North Latitude.
We must continue to segregate the plants with the greatest amount of vigor so we can keep those seeds and plant them back. Every year that we grow cotton, the plants become slightly stronger and a bit more productive. It’s a slow process but a necessary one if we ever want cotton fiber.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle was in the expense of the seed, if a company would even sell it. When we first started in 2008, we got 20 organic seeds for about $50, and four didn’t germinate. As time went on, we were able to drop the cost of seed to zero because we are saving more and more each season. The reason this is even possible is that we start the cotton seeds in our greenhouse, transplant them from cells into larger pots and finally place them in the field when the last chance of frost is gone.
They will most often grow to maturity, and we let the first freeze desiccate the plants since they are organic. Once they are hit with a freeze, the bolls begin popping open revealing the bright, white cotton, known as “lint” in the industry. Because there is hardly any information on the Internet about organic cotton, I contacted a cotton expert at UC-Davis and spoke with professor Robert Hutmacher who provided valuable information to make sure the bolls mature. He said that cotton is more resilient to frost and freeze than we might think, and the first hard freeze acts as good as any herbicide.
Since 2013, we’ve come to find out also that cotton competes very well with weeds, and in an organic system, that’s a big plus for crop rotation. The other “discovery” was that it grows fairly well during drought conditions so can survive when many other plants may not. As a result, it makes a great addition to any truck farm. Cotton is a heavy feeder, however, because it takes additional nutrients, it’s usually best to plant a legume the previous year which will give the cotton the boost it needs.
From now on, cotton will always be part of our organic plan. It’s a pretty, burgundy plant, has deep, magenta buds with light pink flowers that are sometimes used in wedding arrangements in Texas. Perhaps that could become a market in and of itself.