Profile on LaRhea Pepper, Managing Director of Textile Exchange

Article from INTENT | May 1, 2018

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LaRhea is an organic cotton farmer and Managing Director of Textile Exchange. 

Being a fifth generation cotton farmer, what has growing up in a cotton farming context taught you about our ecosystem?

Generation is such a lovely word. It is a place we come from, our heritage, and a place we go. It’s leaving a legacy. If I were to try and capture the extent of what I have learned from growing up in cotton farming, it would be that at the core, my heritage has given me a strong belief in life. It is a way of life to live in harmony with the land, and living in harmony is a way to honour life. Life in the soil for the farm, for the family, for the community and, ultimately, for our whole world. We are all part of an ecosystem and what we do impacts the whole.

How have your personal values and life experience shaped your work?

There are a few experiences that I believe have shaped my world and my work. At the foundation, it is a part of my faith; the sanctity of all life, including our land and the world in which we live.

2 Chronicles 7:14: If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (NIV)

The land on which we exist is alive and full of life. It is something that can be damaged and require healing. It is something we need to care for because we have been given stewardship of it. We need to take our responsibilities seriously.

Along with the joy and reward that comes with living on and with the land, there is also struggle and risk. Rain, drought, poor markets, increased costs for inputs, pests, hail—these risks weren’t something I understood as a child. But when my husband Terry and I began to farm in 1979, we experienced them firsthand during the farm crisis of the 1980s. A change in how we were approaching the farm and the existing structure of agriculture had to be considered.

We became certified organic farmers in 1991. The agreement was that Terry and other farmers in our area would grow organic cotton, and I would sell it. We discovered that change only happens when we create awareness through education. Awareness leads to understanding and, in time, action.

When we began, cotton was grown on less than 3% of the aggregate land. In addition to using growth regulators, defoliants and petroleum-based fertilisers, cotton was also accountable for using 25% of the pesticides. These pesticides include herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, all things that bring death rather than life.

Terry grew up on a chemically intensive farm. His father died at age 57 from leukemia. In 2005, Terry was diagnosed with a Glioblastoma Multiforme Stage IV, a tumor most common in men aged 40 to 60, with higher instances in people who work in the agriculture or chemical industries. Lubbock, Texas is in the middle of 3.6 million acres of chemically intensive cotton production. The neurosurgeon in Lubbock that took care of us diagnosed more than 17 of these tumours a month. They gave Terry six months to live, but I am thankful that we had two more years with him.

Up close and personal? A farm should be a place for life, not of death. Too many farmers around the world are dying from cancer, and too many rivers have polluted water and nutrient pollution. I believe that farms should be a safe place to live and play.

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