Orpha Gene Watson’s family has farmed land in eastern North Carolina since 1754. His grandfather, Stanley, on his mother’s side farmed cotton, his father farmed cotton, and now he, his son, and his two nephews farm cotton. Back when boll weevils were terrorizing cotton fruit in the early 20th century, Watson says his family’s farm was the only one in North Carolina that had cotton. But when Watson’s nephew came home from North Carolina State University one summer and started talking about organic farming, Watson was skeptical. He gave it a shot with seven acres of tobacco.
Seven years later, and Watson now has 1,500 acres, 320 of which are dedicated to organic sweet potatoes, tobacco, soybeans, wheat–and yes, cotton. Watson’s organic cotton is also starring in an experiment used to create a concert t-shirt for family farm non-profit Farm Aid benefit headlined by founder Willie Nelson. Instead of outsourcing the farming and garment work, Farm Aid kept the full production of the t-shirts confined to 750 square miles in North Carolina. You can now track each stage of the farm-to-shirt process on the annual fundraiser’s website.
It’s a rare endeavor. After 20 years of outsourcing textile production to Asia, manufacturing is only beginning to trickle back onto American shores. North Carolina lost more than 2% of its jobs to China alone in the last two decades. But 2,400 of the t-shirts sold for the Farm Aid benefit were farmed, spun, knit, sewn, dyed, cut, and printed in the same state.
“It’s something we’ve wanted to do for years,” says Cornelia Hoskin, Farm Aid’s marketing director. “We wanted to of course support the local effort while making the most righteous shirt we can. We know it can be done.”
Keeping everything contained to North Carolina was, of course, more expensive than ordering t-shirts from Asia, where some garment workers make less than the price tag on a cheap H&M blazer a month. (Hoskin says they didn’t lose money on the venture, but didn’t comment on the precise costs.) Still, it’s an experiment Farm Aid is hoping to repeat.
Watson adds that organics, including the cotton, are a growing part of his own business, too. Conventional soybeans are still a big seller for his farm, but organic sweet potatoes are in demand, and he’s excited to expand his acreage.
In addition to Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, and Jack White will be some of the several artists supporting the effort on September 13. Check out the website here.