Resilience requires a family: the Peppers and organic cotton in the High Plains

LaRhea Pepper has been marketing organic cotton for 30 years. And by marketing, I don’t mean just selling, I mean the whole gamut. She pays attention to all aspects of the product, in addition to promotion, distribution and price. I first met her in 1992 when she was just getting started. She was living on a fifth generation cotton farm south of Lubbock, Texas, and had recently convinced her husband’s brothers to move to the area. She’d convinced the three Pepper brothers than she could sell organic cotton if they would produce it.

carl pepper

They’d grown up on an 800 acre farm which had plenty of water (4000 gallons a minute). Their father passed away too early in 1988. Farming conventional cotton, “we could see zero by 1991,” Carl Pepper says. The oldest brother has studied accounting, ran the numbers and told Carl he could borrow $250,000 for $15,000 profit given conventional cotton’s costs and return. He and his wife said, “That’s nuts” and started looking for options.

Meanwhile, brother Terry had married LaRhea and begun farming in her home county on the High Plains of Texas. Borden County has about 600 people, two cafés right now and a bunch of farms. No banks, no grocery stores, no feed stores. Her grandparents wanted to retire and turn over their land to Terry and LaRhea. Terry and LaRhea took the opportunity and began raising cotton and kids. After the kids were in school, LaRhea and Terry decided to move toward organic cotton now that LaRhea had time to market it. They grew their first organic cotton in 1991, took it to a mill to be made into denim. LaRhea had sold the fabric by the time the mill had spun it into yarn, woven it, finished and delivered it.

About that same time (1991), LaRhea’s uncle decided to retire. He had 800 acres and a farmhouse and offered it to Carl and his wife. His accountant brother said on this land, they could borrow $60,000 for a return of $40,000 and liked those odds better. “The Good Lord provided us a place to go,” Carl says.

Things didn’t look quite so propitious when they were moving in during a January 1992 snowstorm. Carl’s wife refused to let him unload her boxes and informed him she was leaving shortly thereafter. In due time she relented and they were blessed with a dollar per pound for a quarter section of organic cotton. They were chopping in high cotton to use the old Southern phrase meaning living high on the hog.

Carl says his older brother Kelly warned him to set some of the profits aside because “this country can get tough. By the end of the 90s, Carl had used up his surplus funds and realized his brother was right. By then, they had created a strong presence in the organic market by organizing the Texas Organic Cotton Producers Cooperative with Kelly as President. The Co-op has 20 organic growers and 20,000 acres of organic production. Carl has 3600 organic cotton acres and grows another 400 acres for his sister in law, LaRhea.

Most of the growers are in Borden county on the southeast edge of the Ogallala aquifer. The aquifer and the flat land above it, end at the Caprock formation with a drop off of 1000 feet to the rolling lains of central Texas. Cropland turns into cattle grazing land at the Caprock.

If you want to learn about resilient farming in a pretty forbidding country, go visit Carl Pepper.

Environmental prophet

Starvation of the weakest is the ultimate driver maintaining the balance in ecosystems. With the help of our intelligence, driven by the love for our children, we humans managed to throw off Nature’s yoke. To keep us and our kids safe and our stomachs full, we came up with sharp rocks and sticks; spears; bows and arrows and guns; farming; complex societies.Rainwater-collection-2012-by-Prasanta-Biswas-India-660x396

Our social structures solve short-term problems but create more lasting ones that in the course of time destroy our societies. Sometimes, the lasting problems are directly linked to local ecosystem meltdowns. The third Ur dynasty in Mesopotamia reacted to decreasing precipitation by constructing irrigation networks. It managed to increase the crop yields until soil contamination collapsed the yields and pretty much the entire society. Our modern lifestyle is threatened by climate change. It threatens our very existence if the changes in world’s oceans follow recent trends.

The dread of environmental disasters sits deep in us. We feel that it is right to protect our environment. Clean water and clean air feel right, polluted water and air wrong. These feelings are elusive but, nevertheless, firm components of our moral DNA. Shouldn’t we then be using moral arguments when promoting actions to mitigate climate change or eutrophication of surface waters?

Yes. But how detailed and results oriented we want to be in our ethical guidance? Is it enough to tell us to have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth? Should we give dietary advice using moral arguments?

Recently, the archbishop of Finland said that environmental scientists are the prophets of today. An interesting idea. The original prophets transmitted warnings from God to turn the sinners away from their evil ways. Scientists read messages from a complex and mystical nature and transmit warnings to fellow humans. Indeed, the theory behind climate change, its empirical verification and future scenarios have been products of scientists and scientist only. No individual can infer anything related to climate from the weather or other every day observations.

We environmental scientists are prophets – but let us not turn into priests. A priest works at the operational level of Right and Wrong. And the moral codes we adopt change extremely slowly. Consider an anxious, Weltschmertz-burdened, intelligent and startled 14-year old – a representative teen. Suppose we teach her that to stop global warming the Right thing to do is to follow diet A. Likewise, we try to program many other choices influencing the environment to the teen’s moral code: the right and wrong eating and not eating, clothes, traveling choices, cosmetics, etc.

So what? Aren’t we doing the right thing? Well, I think the young people adopt the ethical choices much easier than the elder ones. And once they learn to make the right choices, they don’t change easily.

Here’s the problem: We’re not done with modeling and linking the human actions and environmental outcomes. And we will not be, as long as the activities are carried out by science and scientists, because the middle name of science is Not-Done. Science is a method of gathering understanding by simultaneously building upon old knowledge and ruthlessly dismantling it. A scientist is not shocked if it starts to look like diet Z outperforms diet A or that substituting plastic with bio-based materials may increase the carbon footprint. But the teen might be, if she followed the detailed advice, because it was supposed to be the Right thing to do.

On one hand, we have the ecosystem and the channels through which we affect it. On the other, we have ethics teaching us about right and wrong. Do as you would be done by. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Don’t bully anyone. Help people in need. This kind of eternal rules of right and wrong keep us on track as a human race; taught to you and me by our moms and dads, grandparents, teachers and priests of all religions.

But I think we shouldn’t say that eating pike instead of Norwegian salmon is the Right thing to do. If we fix the choices today, we block the utilization of improved understanding. And by using moral arguments, we will fix the choices. That’s why it is ok to be a prophet but not a priest.

But individuals must be able to do something to prevent the looming disasters! We can’t just wait until the countless groups of introvert researchers come up with coherent advice.

But what do we do?


This article is based on a blog first published by

Finding peace and joy: a 16 hour plane ride

Yesterday’s flight to Africa was overbooked. Everyone seems to want to go there. A Delta representative offered me various enticements to give up my seat, and it was tempting.  An overcrowded 16 hour plane ride is something to avoid. Especially when a three year old is sitting behind you and loves to kick your seat.

East african village

Yet in the midst of enduring this misery,  I found what I often do on long trips to other cultures.  Peace and joy. Why does this happen so often?

Sometimes I think it’s due to the movie selection they have on long flights nowadays.  You have hundreds of films to watch.  Because I spend most of my time deprived of popular culture in swamp-east Arkansas, I usually start with the recent releases. Then I try out the foreign films.

On this trip I got to see the critically acclaimed Lady Bird about a girl growing up in Sacramento, the block buster superhero hit Black Panther and a subtitled Japanese film about a weatherman who began preaching to his audience about global warming.

The movies help, but by themselves they would never bring the peace and joy I experience on these flights. Nothing really astounding about them, but they do set the stage for the arrival of peace and joy.

Getting outside the US also contributes.  Who wouldn’t move at least a little toward peace by escaping the interminable cacophony of US politicians and pundits? Sometimes a literal wave of relaxation passes over me when I pass over the US border. Leaving the excessive aggression and competition is healthy now and then.

Another factor is anticipating the work I’ll be doing.  I come to Africa to help small farmers join together to improve their quality of life. Knowing how much they appreciate my coming and how eagerly they absorb new ideas must be part of the peace and joy these long plane rides bring.  The work I do is with people who have few material goods but whose families have survived for hundreds of years on the same plots of ground. They know how to work hard and be satisfied with little worldly income.

They are active and motivated. Some walk five or more miles just to participate in our workshops. They work hard every day just to survive. Their motivation would astound many of today’s Americans. Many of those Americans can hardly be motivated to do more than click a few websites or TV channels. So anticipating the enthusiasm of those small farm families is part of the reason I experience peace and joy at 30,000 feet in a crowded airplane.

But good movies, leaving the US and helping hard-working poor people don’t explain my peace and joy. I even comes over me sometimes in the US without good movies when I’m not helping the poor in the third world.

RiftValley masai

I’d like to have this peace and joy all the time, but I don’t.  Then again, I’m happy I get it at all. Some only get it through drugs.  And they come to think it only comes from drugs. They don’t know that all the drugs do is stimulate nerves to release neurotransmitters which are already present and ready to be released in all our bodies. They could learn how their bodies’ nerves will release those neurotransmitters without drugs.

My heart breaks sometimes thinking of the US drug users who can only find a facsimile of true peace and joy. Especially troubling are those who find so little peace and joy that they commit suicide. So many have such powerful potential and so many material blessings, but choose to end their lives in desperation.  If only I could show them how to obtain peace and joy naturally.Highlands-areas-in-East-African-countries

Peace and joy are so much a part of nature and our nature.  Hope, peace, joy, love, kindness are all naturally generated within us.  We just have to find out how to stimulate them.  Those who artificially stimulate them with drugs just get the result and not the cause. The cause is productive work with other believers in nature.  Do enough of that and you will be so thoroughly suffused with a new spirit that nothing can set you back.