Cotton of the Carolinas
Stanly County Farm Bureau Board Member Ronnie Burleson usually doesn’t know exactly where the final product of his family grown cotton will land. The cotton could be made into a pair of socks that ends up in Colorado but first came through the Philippines. Or Burleson’s crop could be sewn into a sweatshirt that was manufactured in Honduras but was worn by someone in Massachusetts.
Thanks to a grassroots initiative here in North Carolina, Burleson now can know some of his cotton is destined for T-shirts that never leave the state from start to finish.
Some of the 2,000 acres of cotton Burleson raises annually is destined for Cotton of the Carolinas, a collaboration of farmers and manufacturers dedicated to growing, making and selling T-shirts in the Carolinas.
“I prefer to do business with local people when I can,” Burleson says. “I’m more than willing to help and support local businesses. Even if it costs a little more, there’s a lot of folks out there who would be willing to pay a little more to help support their neighbor and help save their job. That’s the philosophy.”
The roots of Cotton of the Carolinas date back almost two decades to when the federal government approved the North American Free Trade Agreement. The legislation sparked a huge wave of manufacturing to leave the United States—North Carolina included—for Central America and Asia. Burleson is the first link in a manufacturing chain aimed at turning that tide.
Eric Henry, president of TSDesigns of Burlington, is the chief orchestrator of Cotton of the Carolinas. Henry helped organize the nine-step sequence of how the project’s T-shirts are made—from the cotton grower to the gin, spinner, knitter and printer. Each part is completed by a North Carolina organization, meaning the materials and processes needed to make the final product move within 750 miles.
Henry emphasized that the typical shirt you might find at a retail store had to travel more than 17,000 miles before ending up in your closet.
“We think our clothes come from the mall, our food comes from a grocery store and our gas comes from a gas station,” Henry says.
The transparency Henry mentioned includes customers knowing the cotton for their T-shirt came from Burleson’s farm, it was processed at the Rolling Hills Gin in Richfield, turned into yarn at Hill Spinning in Thomasville and made into a piece of clothing at Mortex Apparel in Wendell.
“This initiative points out sustainability as much as anything,” says Billy Carter, CEO of the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association. “And it does point out the importance of cotton to the people in this state. Certainly any time you can develop another market, it’s good for a cotton farmer.”
North Carolina cotton farmers rank as the fourth most productive in the country. With such an abundance of the crop already here, Henry hopes Cotton of the Carolinas eventually can catch on like locally grown produce already has at farmers markets throughout the state.
With each successive harvest, Henry’s team has designed and printed more T-shirts. During the first round in 2008, the project resulted in 15,000 shirts. The following year, the amount doubled. Henry wasn’t sure how many would be produced this year, but he hopes the figure will grow substantially again in 2011.
Burleson has welcomed scores of shirt buyers to his farm for a field day to explain how cotton is grown. He described how delighted he gets when people become as interested in the crop as he is.
“If we will all support each other, we’ll all be better in the long run,” Burleson says. “It makes you smile to say, ‘Yeah, my cotton shirt is from right here in North Carolina.’ ”