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La Union is Home of New Mexico's Only Certified Organic Cotton Farmer

LA UNION- When Dosi Alvarez switched to growing organic cotton three years ago, the innovative La Union farmer turned to some old-timers for help.


"Learning how to farm organically was a different way of farming for me, so I asked my dad and some other old-timers how they used to do it," Alvarez said. "I got a lot of good ideas, and I'm still learning."

Nevertheless, he must be doing something right with his 380 acres of organic cotton. He's New Mexico's only certified organic cotton grower for 1995, said Richard Pate, director of the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission.

Dosi really knows what he's doing. He keeps excellent records," Pate said.

Alvarez has been farming for 21 years. He rotates alfalfa with cotton and also grows some organic chile. He had to make some big adjustments when he switched to growing organic cotton.

"Basically, I can't use any chemicals -- no insecticides, no herbicides, no commercial fertilizers," he said. "So, in order to keep our soils fertile, we rotate crops and use manure and compost."

He uses biological control methods to take care of pests, such as releasing lady bugs to prey on aphids in alfalfa fields.

Without herbicides, Alvarez Farms also has turned to hoeing by hand. "Labor is probably one of our biggest expenses," he said. The added expense is the trade-off for being able to sell the cotton as organic.

"The organic market is a small, niche market," Alvarez said. "Basically, the people who use organic cotton are environmentally conscious or chemically sensitive."

The market for organic cotton is more established in Europe than in the United States, he said. A Swiss mill buys Alvarez Farms' organic, long-staple Pima cotton to make bedspreads, sheets, pillow cases and undergarments.

That market is possible because Pate worked to get New Mexico's organic cotton standards approved with a European agency. It took six weeks of transcontinental faxes and negotiations in January and February 1995 to open the market in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and other European countries, Pate said.

"I think the market is very good in Europe. We would like to get more people interested," Pate said.

The call for organic cotton also is increasing in the United States, said Javier Vargas, New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service agent in Dona Ana County.

"Consumers have steadily demanded more organic products," Vargas said. More and more you see organic products on the shelves in our food stores and also as fiber for clothing and other materials. There's been a tremendous push to use products that weren't grown with chemicals -- either pesticides or fertilizers."

When grown without chemicals, agricultural crops can con=and a higher price, but they also can be of decreased quality and yield, he said.

While this market is growing, it's certainly not new, Vargas said. "Organic farming has been around for many years, since the beginning of time before chemicals were developed, he said. "As long as there is a demand for organic products, it's going to be a profitable alternative for farmers."

He added that there is a place in the Mesilla Valley for both traditional and organic farmers. "Certainly, they can coexist. And, certainly, there is a need for both of them, because they are both meeting the needs of a particular market."