State's sole organic cotton grower caters to fashionistas

Don CameronDon CameronDon Cameron knows how to please choosey cotton buyers.

He travels the world to talk to buyers and find out what they seek most in his San Joaquin Valley-grown cotton. He also likes showing them around his 7,000-acre Terranova Ranch Inc. near Helm, Calif. to give them a close-up look at the cotton crop.

Cameron farms a total 27 crops that are produced using conventional, organic and genetically methods.

Cotton buyers can take their pick from the three.

Having the three classifications can provide a hedge, especially if weeds, pests or weather problems damage some of the crops. It also provides cotton buyers specializing in upscale shirts, cashmere sweaters, jackets, sheets and towels; with choices.

Some of the high-end cotton polo shirts sell for $355 each. High quality cotton cashmere sweaters can fetch as much as $625 each.

But regardless of price, buyers want consistently good Pima cotton that produces smooth and soft textiles.

Cameron is willing to try different growing methods and seed lines to maintain produce quality and consistency.

And consistency is the name of the game.

Cameron also caters to increased demand from buyers for organically grown cotton. The cotton is not necessarily of better quality than traditionally grown or GMO cotton, but it can provide “organically produced” clothing lines that are attractive to environmentally conscious shoppers.

The idea of growing organic and GMO crops on the same farm has created some shock among organic buyers, but Cameron insists that a farmer can produce both as long as fields are far enough apart to prevent pollen from the GMO crops drifting onto the organic fields.

Contamination rarely happens, he asserts, adding that when it does, corn is usually the culprit.

Cameron also believes that organic crops could benefit from some genetic modification. But the organics industry is far from accepting that concept.

So Cameron continues to produce cotton using different cultural practices. During the winter months, when crop production is minimal, he travels to learn more about market preferences.

Cameron recently returned from a trip to Hong Kong and India where he met with export buyers who want a consistent supply of extra long staple cotton.

The cotton will be used to produce high quality shirts and sheets. Quality must be consistent. “Imperfections can cause problems,” Cameron said.

Cameron provides larger, stronger Pima cotton fibers to Brooks Brothers, a Connecticut-based maker of fine clothing. Brooks Brothers purchases cotton for the production of no-iron shirts.

Cameron also sells to Loro Piama, an Italian producer of pricey ultra-high-quality clothing and textiles. The company wants the very best cotton and Cameron obliged by working with a private crop breeder to produce a superior grade of Pima cotton.

He has 150 acres of the exclusive crop that is being grown organically.

The cotton provides two top qualities, softness and durability.

Cameron grows total of about 700 acres of cotton.

Buyers will pay top dollar for strong-fiber Pima cotton, Cameron said.

Cameron grows Supima cotton, which guarantees that it is 100 percent American Pima cotton. Supima is both a licensed trademark and a grower organization.

It accounts for about 3 percent of annual cotton production in the United States. Cameron serves as board chairman of Supima.

Steve Monte, president of Pooghe Clothing of American, Milwaukee, has tried different kinds of cotton but concluded that Supima cotton is best for his purposes. “Supima stood up better than the other ones,” Monte said.

He has found that besides being soft to the touch, Supima cotton provides more consistent color when shirts are dyed. Navy and black shirts don’t vary in shade, he said.

Pooghe conducted consumer testing and found that buyers of cotton shirts and other clothing place comfort as the top quality. The second top preference is “made in America.”

That was somewhat surprising considering the flood of U.S. clothing makers to foreign mills where lower labor costs meant savings for the consumer.

Third was the look of the finished product.

Monte said that demand for U.S.-made clothing is growing and consumers are willing to pay more for apparel made in America. And consumers want the quality that Pima cotton provides, he said.

In order to make clothing with the Supima label, clothing companies must send to Supima samples of is clothing line for testing. That is to ensure that lesser grade cottons are not mixed in with Supima cotton.

“They have to protect that brand,” Monte said.

It is part of the Supima licensing program. “You want to stay licensed,” Monte said.

He complemented Supima for treating its buyers well no matter what the size of the company.

Monte said he purchases both traditionally grown and organic Supima cotton. He is unable to tell the difference in the feel of the two, but he sees organic cotton as something special.

And many of his customers agree. “It’s a feel-good purchase,” Monte said. And more customers are calling for it, he said.

So growers like Cameron at Terra Nova Farms will continue to produce plenty of Supima cotton including organically grown product to meet growing demand.

Terranova Ranch’s cotton crops are planted starting on April 1 for a late-summer harvest.

Along with cotton, Cameron grows processing tomatoes, carrots, onions numerous seed crops, wine grapes, prune plums, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, olive oil olives and wheat.

Cameron’s newest crop is bell peppers that will be used for processors of frozen vegetables. Bell peppers are grown on 40 acres.

The farm has begun planting 1,600 acres of canning tomatoes that will be grown both conventionally and organically for different customers.

Cameron grows his crops using drip irrigation, which he said saves water, improves yields and produces better quality crops. It is also a good option to reduce water use after a very dry winter.

Much of the cotton crop is on drip.

Terranova Ranch is a lush and colorful layout considering his soil was too poor to grow most crops when Cameron began farm operations in 1981.

But through good practices like soil leaching and application of 35,000 tons of chicken manure annually, he has created rich and productive ground for his cornucopia of crops and cotton that clothing makers love.