Cotton is a fiber staple from field to fashion. In California, more than 200,000 acres of cotton are grown in the San Joaquin Valley—enough to create at least 7 pairs of jeans each year for every person in the state. Decades of intensive agriculture have resulted in soils with low carbon levels and in some cases severe salinity issues. Within cotton systems, we see an opportunity to rebuild soil carbon and water-holding capacity, renew biodiverse wildlife habitats, reduce or eliminate the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, and more.

Following Fibershed’s Climate Beneficial™ Verification process, California cotton growers and researchers are currently piloting how to incorporate a suite of carbon farming practices, create measurable impact on ecosystem health and cultivate markets that return value for this work.

To regenerate healthy cotton ecosystems, we need to re-envision production systems, practices, and market relationships from the ground up. Fibershed is working with partners in Central and Southern California to clarify a new vision for resilient and regenerative cotton production.

Producers who are interested in learning more can watch this replay of UC ANR’s Healthy Soils for Healthy Profits webinar focused on the San Joaquin Valley and featuring Fibershed’s role as a stakeholder.

What if cotton was the catalyst for cultivating microbially-rich soils throughout the Central Valley?

In collaboration with Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos, Fibershed is partnering with the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at Chico State University (CRARS) on a research project that includes a 64 acre trial site. The field is divided into eight randomized test plots, designed to further our collective understanding of the impact of carbon farming practices including:

  • Coating the cotton seeds with fungal dominated compost from Johnson-Su Bioreactors, which inoculates the plant with microbes that boost growth through expediting germination timing naturally
  • Reducing tillage in the field by using strip tillage techniques, which reduces disturbance of the rich soil ecosystem, carbon stocks, and water-holding structure
  • Planting cover crops to keep the soil covered for longer periods of time with living plants to feed the soil life
  • Eliminating the use of glyphosate based herbicides and fungicide seed coatings to support the soil biology to have the most significant chance of rebuilding the soil structure and soil ecological function

What if cotton producers were supported to eliminate the use of synthetic nitrogen?

In collaboration with John Teixeira of Teixeira and Sons Farms, Fibershed provided a multi-species cover crop to the farm to trial on a five-acre site. The land management on this site has so far included:

  • Planting a multi-species cover crop mix, which means that there are living roots in the soil that channel liquid carbon, nitrogen, and key nutrients into the underground ecosystem
  • Terminating the cover crop organically, omitting all use of synthetic herbicides—in many agricultural commodity systems, cover crop is commonly removed from the field by spraying herbicides; in this system, mowing the cover crop means that the soil biology is protected from chemical treatments
  • Inoculating their seeds for cotton and cover crop, with fungal-dominated compost generated by three Johnson-Su bioreactors

What if cotton was woven into perennial, diverse landscapes?

In collaboration with Nathanael and Bekki Gonzales-Siemens, and the White Buffalo Land Trust, Fibershed is supporting an organic cotton farming project in Kern County, California. At the Gonzales-Siemens Family Farm in Kern County, they are layering a number of innovative carbon farming practices into this field trial, including:

  • Planting organic cotton between rows of mulberry and fig trees—a technique called “alley cropping”
  • Applying compost that was created on-site with a special structure called a Johnson-Su bioreactor, which creates a fungal-dominated compost for biologically enhanced agriculture
  • Developing and demonstrating minimum tillage practices for this innovative cropping system
  • Growing a diverse mix of cover crops when cotton plants are not in the ground, to enrich and improve the soil

This project received a Healthy Soils Demonstration Grant from California’s Healthy Soils Program in spring 2020, and is organized in partnership with White Buffalo Land Trust.

Cotton in community: Efforts Across Fibershed Affiliates

Outside our home base of the Northern California Fibershed, we are honored to work alongside and offer support to ecosystem-restoring cotton projects in peer communities of the Fibershed Affiliate Network. By sharing ideas and approaches, and supporting community-led work on the ground, we can cultivate place-based resilience. Learn more about these initiatives in the articles below:

Reconnecting to Traditional Indian Farming Practices in the Prakriti Fibershed

Tula: A Return to India’s Regenerative Cotton Roots

Field to Fashion with Acadian Brown Cotton