California Cotton Fields: Sally Fox reinvented cotton — by going back to its roots

Cotton is part of the broader California agricultural system wherein shifting practices opens pathways for whole systems regeneration. For the past year, and throughout a planting cycle, Fibershed has been visiting cotton growers throughout Northern and Central California in an effort to understand the system as it is. This is an examination formed through proximity and a commitment sealed through mutuality: we share the responsibility from soil to skin to deconstruct the narratives around this favored fiber and dig deep into what it could look like to restore the soil undergirding this system. This series on cotton explores the stories of several innovators and creative minds, examining cotton as it is in our home community to understand our collective opportunity to shift practices from soil to soil.

Written by Esha Chhabra and photographed by Paige Green

cotton plant, Sally Fox
Sally Fox (pictured right) is a leader in developing cotton that minimized environmental harm, from decades spent breeding Colorganic® Certified Organic cotton to more recent experiments with tracking the carbon sequestration possible in an integrated food and fiber system.

In 1989, she brought naturally colored cotton back to the market. The iconic image of a white cotton ball had become pervasive. Yet Sally Fox had been looking at ancient, pest-resistant (by nature) varieties that came in shades of the Earth like greens and browns.

Fox’s foray into naturally-colored cotton happened after learning about a high school crafts teacher who used synthetic dyes heavily, and later suffered from brain damage that resulted from the chemicals penetrating her skin, she says. “I couldn’t believe it! I did research and discovered that a lot of the same companies who make pesticides also make dyes. From that moment forward I decided I wanted nothing to do with dyes. I started seeking out natural colors for all fibers.”

After graduate school, she worked for a cotton breeder who was focused on the standard white cotton. Yet, while working for him, she discovered a sample of short staple brown cotton. A tenacious 20-something, Fox decided that she would help create the market for this “new” cotton landrace — a type of cotton that the USDA seed bank had been storing from Acadian Brown Cotton in the late 1930s.

In the plant world, she explains, a variety is akin to a dog breed, while a landrace might well be compared to a type of dog: consider how there are livestock guard dogs (or cotton landraces) and many specific breeds in that grouping, like Maremma Sheepdogs (or cotton varieties).

After determining which ones were best suited for spinning, she grew those cotton plants from the landraces at the seed banks. To make them more suitable for conventional mills, she cross-bred these short staple brown cottons with long-staple cotton. Ultimately, she had developed a multimillion dollar business, focused on naturally colored cotton, which she named Foxfibre® and registered the term Colorganic® to describe that which certified organic. Best of all, it was a completely American product and the brown cotton was much hardier than their counterparts. The tannins, she explains, in the colored cotton gave it better resistance to pests and mold: “A bale properly stored can last up to 100 years.”

These naturally colored cottons were not new or a novelty; they had been cultivated in North and Central America before Europeans arrived. The fibers of these colored cottons tend to be shorter in their natural state, which is problematic for industrial spinners and machinery. Fox says that improving the quality of these brown and green cotton fibers was essential, which most in the industry had dismissed as impossible.

Sally Fox cotton fields
Fox’s cotton, shown at right, grows in Colorganic® hues of brown and green, in the fields of Viriditas Farm in California’s Capay Valley, shown left.

“Simply being machine spinnable and launderable are only the beginnings of the project. It took more than 2000 years to domesticate wheat,” Fox notes. “White cotton has been actively bred by great groups of people working together for millennia and in the past 60 years with machine picking architecture within the plant as a goal.”

But in the 1990s, cotton mills across the US were closing and she saw a shift in the industry. Her company, Natural Colors, had become the leader in naturally colored cotton, including the Foxfibre® cottons and the Colorganic® cottons (which denote 100% organic blends), and had even been awarded by the United Nations for its efforts on sustainability. The textile industry was also making headway in responsible manufacturing, Fox recalls: “Twenty-six years ago the industrial world was successfully reducing textile waste, most notably the worst culprit of pollution from processing, dye waste effluent. I met with mill owners and operators in places as close as the Carolina’s and as far as Malaysia. All had recently invested many millions of dollars in equipment that allowed the water that left their facilities to be considered clean and in most cases actually drinkable.”

Everything seemed optimistic. But then the industry shifted, pursuing a race to the bottom of costs that came with considerable prices paid in social and environmental impact. From Fox’s perspective: “They switched to buying their textile products from the places that poured their dye waste straight out into the waterways. Poisoning all living beings downstream. And stopped buying from countries that had worker safety measures in place as well. We had these problems solved. But our reward was to be put out of business by the brands we once supplied.”

Since then Fox has been vocal about her frustrations with the textile industry, acknowledging the hypocrisy. “These brands can all go to conference after conference and hire groups of experts, and teams to discuss sustainability, but they chose this outrageously destructive path,” she says. “My customers all went out of business within a few years of this [United Nations] award, this great honor being bestowed upon my work. I still cannot wrap my head around the sorrow of such responsible, honorable and good businesses being so brutally betrayed by their customers. It was the birth of a very different form of capitalism.”

But if anything, witnessing the textile industry plummet to lower standards and exploitation has energized Fox to focus on farming methods that shift the impact and actually restore ecological health. Fox’s ranch in the Capay Valley in Northern California grows about 70 acres of cotton on her 160-acre farm. It’s not only organic, but certified Biodynamic, bringing a diversity of crops, wildlife, and livestock together for a more holistic approach to farming.

“My goal has been to figure out systems that work sustainably. Which to me means: can there be a way to sequester carbon and produce crops in a financially viable way? Figuring this out has taken me lots of time and money. And it is by no means all figured out yet.”

Rebuilding supply chains is one piece of that puzzle still being figured out by brands and growers alike. Fox noted “There is one mill in Japan that has been buying cotton from me, and without them, I would not still be in business.” Through that mill, named Taishobo, she has connected to several apparel customers, such as Studio D’Artisan, and 45R. Closer to home, she is working to create products from a few bales of her own cotton “by paying to custom card, spin, knit and weave. And selling these fabrics to local designers.” Amongst the designers are Northern California Fibershed producer members Harvest & Mill, Danu Organic, and KOSA Arts, along with Fox’s ongoing knitting yarn production relationship with Oakland-based A Verb for Keeping Warm. Shoppers can keep an eye out for Fox’s trademarks: Foxfibre® and Colorganic® — “and when you see these marks, you know it is my cotton. Really organically grown.”

products made with Sally Fox cotton
Available in undyed colors including warm shades of caramel, “buffalo brown” and cream, Foxfibre® Colorganic® Certified organic cottons find their way into fabric, yarns, and more.

Another standard that applies to all of Fox’s fibers is the Climate Beneficial™ verification developed by Fibershed. Because she employs a variety of techniques that increase carbon content in her soil, consistent with a landscape management plan that models the sequestration of these practices, Fibershed verifies practice implementation each year and offers participation in the Carbon Farm Fund for product value chains to directly support agricultural practices. These practices include rotating wheat with cotton production in the field, integrating animals by having sheep graze her fields, and planting black-eyes peas next to the cotton.

All of this adds up to a farm that’s actually sequestering atmospheric carbon in the soil. Through Fibershed’s Citizen Science Soil Sampling initiative and the research of the Gaudin Lab at UC Davis, Fox has been tracking soil carbon levels on the landscape she manages. In the fields where she sampled, she learned that the percentage of soil organic matter has gone from 1 percent soil to 2.6 percent. While that may seem like a small percentage, the enormous jump from 1 percent is actually a “big difference,” she says — it’s an order of magnitude. And it shows how shifts in landscape management can result in measurable draw down of excess atmospheric carbon, all while producing food and fiber.

Sally Fox with her merino sheep
At Viriditas Farm, naturally colored Merino sheep move between pasture and cropland, grazing down grasses as well as cover crop and post-harvest stubble, and depositing fertile manure into the fields — part of a system that is sinking carbon into the soil.

These carbon-positive results go back to a host of choices on the farm, and are not isolated to one crop or activity. The rotational crops include Sonora wheat, which Fox is a big advocate of, because “the roots are copious and leave a good deal of carbon in the soil upon harvest.” It’s not a new practice, notes Fox: “Cotton was used (and is still used) as a crop that broke the disease cycles of more valuable plants. The roots, being large and thick stemmed, brought a good amount of soil organic matter into the soil. Which is always advantageous. Wheat and grains in general will suck nitrogen right up and so, it was often the crop grown the year before cotton” — because cotton, she explains, can be coaxed into flowering by stressing the plants “with inadequate nitrogen or water.” But the times — and the prevalence of synthetic inputs — have changed: “all this is moot now, because conventional cotton growers can amp up the soil nitrogen with cheap urea based fertilizers and water as much as they can afford to.”

Fox wants to keep improving to increase soil organic matter and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As part of a Healthy Soils Incentive Project, funded by California’s Healthy Soils Program, she is applying compost to 30 acres of grazed rangeland, setting up 30 acres of range planting, and cover cropping on 40 acres of cropland.

Through soil testing, she’ll compare the cover cropping on 20 acres of irrigated cropland and 20 acres of non-irrigated cropland and compare the two. Measuring the effects on soil health after the implementation of cover crops will also be achieved by observing yields of the cash crops planted in succession and the amount of flooding during the wet season.

Ultimately she hopes this effort will help increase yields of the cash crops, alfalfa and cotton, and increase the water holding capacity of all 70 acres of project land.

But Fox’s goals far exceed yield — as she explains it, “for me, coming up with this system on my farm has been my exploration in re-investigating pre green revolution and pre conventional cotton systems. The goals are not ‘how many pounds per acre of crop are removable and salable.’ But how much carbon can be sequestered per drop of water and area of land and ruminant that is fed.”

Beyond the fields of Fox’s farm, she is supporting the expansion of these practices and principles to guide a greater shift in California cotton, as part of a collaborative effort to evaluate the economic and ecologic impact of regenerative practices in cotton systems, which includes the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at Chico State, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, UC Cooperative Extension in Kern County, and Fibershed.

It’s only apt that Fox refers to her farm as Viriditas: a word that means lushness, vitality, growth, and life in Latin.