Five years ago, Eric Henry, president of TS Designs in Burlington, partnered with Brian Morrell, president of Mortex Apparel, to begin harvesting cotton locally for the shirts used by the design company. They established Cotton of the Carolinas, which focused on supporting local jobs and “go(ing) from dirt to shirt all in North Carolina,” said Henry.
The goal of Cotton of the Carolinas was to one day grow organic cotton in the state, which has now been accomplished on 65 acres at Hickory Meadows Organics and Parrish Enterprises farms in eastern North Carolina. “Up to this crop, there has been no organic cotton grown in North Carolina,” said Henry. Up until this point, TS Designs’ organic cotton T-shirts were made at Mortex using overseas organic yarn.
Come January, TS Designs will be able to combine its fervor for locally produced cotton with its organic line, once the cotton has been ginned. “This is something that everybody said couldn’t be done,” said Henry.
He explained that cotton is typically grown in a drier climate, which produces fewer weeds than in North Carolina. And for cotton to be harvested, all the leaves have to fall off first. Some farmers use chemical defoliants, but, “To do organic you can’t do chemical – you have to depend on frost,” said Henry. And given that the winters and frost in North Carolina are inconsistent, farmers told Henry it would be impossible to grow cotton organically here.
But against the odds, roughly 25,000 pounds of organic cotton has been produced and will be ginned in January, which will determine the cotton’s quality. The quality will, in turn, determine potential uses for the cotton, besides T-shirts for TS Designs. “Hopefully we can branch out to more products,” like socks and denim, Henry said.
Both Hickory Meadows Organics and Parrish Enterprises have already committed to growing the organic cotton again next year, and Henry hopes they’ll be able to plant even more acreage. For now, though, Henry and Morrell are excited to have this first crop.
“This organic cotton harvest is the next milestone and represents significant opportunity in bringing a positive impact to both jobs and the environment in our state,” said Morrell in the release.
“Ultimately what we want to do is keep most of the cotton in North Carolina,” Henry said. “It’s going to have a tremendous positive impact on jobs.”