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A Tangled Yarn : Regulatory Board’s Hue and Cry May Unravel Woman’s Plan to Grow Naturally Colored Cotton

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Build a better mousetrap, and the world may beat a path to your door.

But breed a brilliant cotton, and you’re in for trouble.

Just ask Sally Fox.

Fox, 34, has revived the ancient Incan science of growing naturally colored cotton--a fluffy fiber that bursts from its bolls in shades of brown and green and, she hopes someday soon, pinks and blues. Customers already are lining up to buy as much as she can grow.

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The problem is, the state of California won’t let her grow very much of it. And in the future, it may not let her grow any at all.

To defend its reputation for growing some of the best cotton in the country, California has a strict “one-variety” rule that is enforced by the Acala Cotton Board. That regulation lets the established growers who sit on the board use the force of law to forbid competitors to grow any cotton other than the Acala variety.

Acala is a brilliant white “medium-staple” variety of cotton--that is, it has long, fine, strong fibers that spin easily into thread. Acala also is easily dyed and grows well in the soil and weather conditions of the southern San Joaquin Valley.

The one-variety rule was bent last year to accommodate growers who are rushing to plant an even finer cotton variety called Pima. But the cotton board voted 9 to 3 late last year against a similar exemption that would let Fox grow commercial quantities of her new colored cotton.

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Fox’s cotton has shorter, weaker fibers than Acala. The cotton board fears that if too much colored cotton is planted in California, it may mix with Acala, reducing its whiteness or fiber quality and hurting the state’s reputation among buyers.

Fox--supported by other growers and researchers--disputes this.

Cotton board decisions “are destroying my business,” sighed Fox, who has a graduate degree in entomology, the study of insects, and who started breeding colored cotton as a hobby in 1982. She added, “It’s very frustrating, and not very smart.”

Squeezed between the Acala Cotton Board, which says it cannot by law permit anybody to plant what it argues is an inferior variety on more than a 160-acre test plot, and a growing customer list that includes amateur weavers and giant corporations, Fox said she may have to leave California, the country’s second-largest cotton producing state.

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It is, she said, as if the state allowed IBM to tell Apple Computer that it was not welcome in California because its proposed new product might upset the established market.

Texas, the country’s leading cotton state, is wooing Fox with technical aid and grant offers, and she test-planted 80 acres outside Lubbock last year. But Fox, a fourth-generation Californian, said she prefers to find a way to remain working, living and experimenting in the small San Joaquin Valley farm town of Wasco, about 27 miles northwest of Bakersfield.

From there, on a typewriter perched in the living room of the modest rented house that serves as headquarters for Fox’s one-person company, Natural Cotton Colours Inc., she appealed the cotton board’s Nov. 28 decision to deny her request to plant 2,000 acres of colored cotton.

Henry Voss, director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture, said Jan. 5 that neither he nor Gov. George Deukmejian would reverse the decision of the established growers who sit on the board.

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On Jan. 23, the cotton board voted to let Fox continue growing only on her 160-acre “test plot.”

“I don’t know what to do,” Fox said. “Some people said I should wait for the state to change its mind--or its law--but others say I have a head start and I should move and take advantage of it (by going to Texas) rather than let someone catch up to me.”

Independent cotton breeders and federal cotton researchers credit Fox with making colored cotton commercially viable by cross-breeding it with other varieties to improve its fibers. That made the cotton compatible with new, high-speed, automated spinning machines.

Fox appreciates the accolades but said the cotton board’s decision stops her from enjoying the fruits of her research--and could let other, better capitalized growers catch up to her.

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“I should be miles ahead of the field,” she said, “but they won’t let me.”

Several other growers in Buttonwillow, Visalia and other San Joaquin Valley cotton towns said they support Fox, but they declined to go on the record for fear of offending the cotton board, which also regulates their operations.

“It (colored cotton) doesn’t reduce the quality of California cotton--and that’s been proven,” one man said. He said that when managed properly, colored cotton “doesn’t cross-breed (with white cotton), it doesn’t contaminate the gins, it doesn’t do anything bad.”

“We grow all kinds of specialty niche crops here in California-- kiwis and I don’t know what else,” the grower continued. “California is famous for it. But they won’t allow this. It’s crazy.”

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Cotton board members say they have no choice. California’s one-variety law flatly prohibits the introduction of “inferior” varieties. While some people may argue that color makes Fox’s cotton superior in one sense, the board said tests show its fiber quality just doesn’t measure up to Acala.

Board member Norman Clark, a cotton grower, said the board may ask the Legislature this year to amend the law to permit “niche” varieties such as Fox’s. Without that, he said, the board may have to withdraw all permission for colored cotton.

“They (board members) are really breaking the rules by letting her grow any colored cotton here at all,” he said. “The law says that breeders with test plots here are supposed to work on new Acala varieties, and hers aren’t.”

Fox became interested in colored cotton while she was living in San Diego and pursuing her hobby of hand-spinning yarn. She chose to investigate colored cotton as a potential cash crop when other hand-spinners also displayed interest in the curious material. Word of mouth about her colored cotton spread so fast among her friends and their friends that she started selling it by mail. That mail-order business now supports her while she tries to develop a broader market.

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The Palo Alto native and Peace Corps veteran, while working on non-chemical agricultural pest-control methods at a San Diego laboratory, set up a nascent base in Kern County by driving up to Wasco on weekends and bunking down with friends while tending one-acre test plots.

She initially planted brown seeds given to her by a former employer, also a cotton breeder, and expected to see one consistent shade of brown cotton lint. Instead, she saw tans and medium browns, a sage green and even a weak pink.

“At first I thought, ‘Oh, no. There goes my business,”’ she said. “Well, actually, I was really excited. All the colors! It was like nothing else I had ever seen--or even heard about.”

Part of Fox’s desire to stay in the southern San Joaquin Valley is that the area is naturally low in cotton crop pests. This makes it easier to pursue her parallel dream of producing “organic” cotton--that is, cotton grown without pesticides or the defoliants that have become so controversial in California’s cotton country.

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In addition to producing colored lint, the cotton varieties being developed by Fox have retained much of the inherent insect resistance of their semi-wild ancestors. She said this reduces, and may someday eliminate, the need for pesticides.

Also, the colored lint is less easily ruined by green stains it can pick up from its own leaves when both pass through a mechanical harvester. This eliminates the need for the costly and controversial defoliation that growers now use to strip cotton plants of their leaves before harvest.

Such features obviously were not of concern to the Incas who developed colored cotton centuries ago. Anthropologists believe they developed the colors for the same reason people today dye white cotton: decoration. But the colored varieties were forgotten as merchants perfected dyes, which came in more colors and allowed greater flexibility.

A University of Texas anthropology student helped revive interest in colored cotton when he brought back samples of it from Peru in 1981. He discovered colored cotton after admiring, and being told the source of, the naturally colored clothes of Peruvian peasants.

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University of Arizona scientist Lee Stith said Fox, whose work he and his colleagues have watched with interest, is the first person in the United States he knows of who grows colored cotton commercially.

“She has a neat little product that really caught the hearts of the people working here,” said John Price, assistant director of Texas Tech University’s Textile Research Center, which Fox hired to test her fiber for strength, color and “spinability,” or the ability to be made into thread and cloth.

“It’s not the best in the world,” Price said, “but its appeal is that it is a naturally colored cotton, and any defects (in cloth made from it) are relatively minor and academic.”

Fox is working to improve her cotton by breeding it with Sea Island and Acala varieties. In that way, she hopes to improve her cotton’s fiber quality, which is critical in deciding its ultimate acceptability among growers.

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A more difficult hurdle with established growers is convincing them why anyone would want naturally colored cotton in the first place, particularly because colored cotton varieties yield as little as one-fifth the number of bales per acre as the high-yield--and easily dyed--Acala strain.

Fox and her supporters have their theories.

One is that naturally colored cotton is novel and catchy enough to appeal to upscale consumers who drink expensive bottled water and prefer imported cars over domestic sedans.

Another is that it might appeal to narrow specialty markets, such as people allergic to the harsh dyes used to color white cotton or hand-spinners who can mix colored cottons to achieve marble-like effects not otherwise possible.

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A third is that some growers, ginners and mill owners envision the day when strict antipollution laws may severely restrict the use not only of pesticides and other farm chemicals, but also limit use of commercial dyes that have been blamed for fouling the environment when garment makers dump their wastes.

Cotton mills on three continents already have shown an interest in obtaining as much of Fox’s colored cotton as possible so they can investigate its uses.

Fox recently sold her 1989 crop, a modest 122 bales of 500 pounds each, through a Canadian broker to a mill in Japan. The company said it would buy as much as Fox could grow, but she is limited by the cotton board to the 160-acre test plot.

Despite such shortcomings, Fox said she sold her cotton for enough money to compensate for its low yield. She declined to release specific figures, saying they are proprietary information that could help a competitor, but a reputable cotton broker familiar with the deal confirmed her claim.

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“Now that it is known how valuable this is, it invites competition,” said Fox, her normal cheerfulness sinking into anxiety. “I still don’t feel strong enough to compete (with veteran growers more familiar with the cotton market). I still have too many mistakes to make and lessons to learn.”


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