East Austin Cotton

My name is Bethany Hebbard, and I’m an innkeeper and educator in Austin, Texas. In addition to being a spinner, knitter, and novice weaver, I’m also the wife of an organic farmer who knows the soil of east Austin well. He was eager to help my “dirt to shirt” project with the WSSA Fibershed Study group, and so last fall, we began looking for cotton seeds. We thought it would be especially interesting to grow one of the heirloom varieties of colored cotton. These varieties are rarely grown commercially, but the seeds are still available if you know where to look. We purchased our brown cotton seeds from Homestead Heritage, just north of Waco, and our green seeds–a variety known as “Erlene’s Green”–came from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. (Erlene Melancon, the seeds’ namesake, lived in East Texas, so both sets of seeds have Texas provenance).  Knowing that cotton is related to both hibiscus and okra, my husband knew that our cotton would enjoy a long, hot spring and summer, and so we planted our seeds in early April.  We had seedlings by the 27th of that month — about 30 plants in all. The beautiful cream-and-pink flowers began blooming at the beginning of June, and I picked my first cotton on July 18.

Now, at the beginning of September, our plants are well over four feet high and producing a steady crop. Unlike a large-scale farmer, I don’t need to wait until the plants freeze to pick my cotton. Instead, I can pick a bit at a time. Each week I gather about a pound of cotton–and that weight includes the seeds. I lost some bolls to our recent rains, but the watering encouraged scores of new flowers to bud. “Erlene’s Green” has been far more prolific, but whether this is because the green seeds germinated better, or the cross-pollination overwhelmed the brown genes, I don’t know. Next year I’d like to have several cotton patches for different colors, far enough apart so as to discourage cross-breeding.

We keep our vegetable beds near our house, but our cotton patch is in the center of the 27-acre village Community First! Village, where we both live and work. Our plants are in a raised bed right next to the organic kitchen gardens that feed the whole neighborhood. The choice to plant the cotton here was mostly practical: the bed was the right size for the number of plants we wanted, and we knew that, once established, the cotton wouldn’t require much watering. However, placing the cotton in the center of the neighborhood has also made it some of a conversation piece. One neighbor in particular, Charlie, will often call to me from his porch, “Your cotton’s looking high today — I saw more bolls open!” Similarly, when I’m in the patch picking the lint from newly-opened bolls, neighbors and visitors often stop to ask what I’m doing.

Everyone is fascinated by the process, and talking about cotton provides an easy gateway to conversations about where our clothes come from, and the ethical questions related to the ways we source, use, and dispose of our clothing. Being in Texas, many people also have family memories associated with cotton: stories about back-breaking work in the fields, legends about how grandma could pick more than any man in the field. These conversations remind me that cotton is a complicated commodity: like most things people value, the stories of its production, distribution, and use are both inspiring and heart-breaking. This year, growing cotton has given me a reason not only to study this history, but to imagine how the systems of cotton’s production and processing might become more socially, environmentally, and even spiritually regenerative.

Bethany Hebbard and her husband Steven run The Community Inn at Community First! Village in east Austin. Bethany is also the director of the Community Corps program. You can contact her at bethany [at] mlf.org