In 1936 Charles Merrill of Merrill-Lynch fame sold his Mississippi Delta cotton farm to his general manager who was affectionately known to family and friends as "Daddy Hugh". Hugh Lawson Gary, having five years earlier lost his own nearby farm to the Great Depression, bought this farm on credit. Seventy five years later, Hughs great grandson Lawson Gary is not only farming the same land on Wildwood Farms, but is innovating new cotton processes that show great promise in changing the usage of cotton in nonwovens. Wildwood Farms is located on a large bend of the Tallahatchie River near Greenwood, Mississippi. The 5,000 acre farm is sustainably managed with 20% of the land returned to its natural habitat.
The Gary family today can look back at seven generations of cotton farming with a view and perspective of tremendous change not only in cotton customers and markets but also technology and farming "best practices". Today, five full time employees and tractors do the work that 100 resident farm families and 300 mules performed when Hugh Gary originally bought the farm. But there is more change in cotton farming technology than just the use of horsepower to replace manpower.
The cotton farming industry has a rich heritage around the world as cotton has been cultivated and converted into clothing for approximately 10,000 years. Cotton fibre is used extensively in textiles because of its physical and dyeing properties, softness, wicking, and skin-contact comfort. Additionally, in nonwovens, cotton fibre has been primarily valued for its absorbency, natural hypoallergenic properties and consumer acceptance as a natural fibre. Despite this importance, longevity and broad based usage, the cotton industry has been subject to several myths and misperceptions regarding the environmental impact and overall sustainability position of cotton farming in areas such as irrigation, pesticide use, runoff, erosion and habitat impact.
Sustainability can be defined as the balance between growing profitability, protecting the environment and promoting social responsibility. Modern technologies and practices for cotton farming in the US have changed tremendously over the last thirty years. Modern sustainable cotton growing practices are a central part of cotton farming in the United States.
For instance, Wildwood Farms participates in annual sustainability assessments conducted by Delta F.A.R.M. or Farmers Advocating Resource Management. This organization benchmarks sustainable practices on over one million acres of cropland in the Mississippi Delta and more importantly, works with farmers to increase the implementation of best management practices in their fields. New techniques are now employed such as surface water irrigation recovery systems, nutrient reduction practices including soil nutrient mapping and variable rate crop input applications, integrated pest management and natural habitat protection and restoration initiatives.
A benchmark study1 published in December 2012 by Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (see Table 1 below) illustrates the level of sustainable farming progress made over the preceding thirty-year period.
Wildwood Farms and the Gary family are well acquainted with the concept and practice of sustainability with a long history of involvement in cotton fibre recycling. In the 1980's, Lawson Gary's father, Tommy designed a system to utilize waste cotton from cotton gins and repurpose or recycle these fibres for use in traditional textiles, bleached cotton goods, and paper currency. Over the years, this process was modified and refined in a manner which resulted in qualities increasingly suitable for various uses. In particular, during the last 30 years the Garys developed a unique and in-depth knowledge of cotton cleaning technology resulting in them becoming one of the premier specialty cotton fibre providers in the world.
Seven years ago this cumulative knowledge was put to work on a new concept in cooperation with a long time processing customer TJ Beall Company. They designed a new plant utilizing their proven cotton cleaning processes as well as custom designed textiles equipment. The result was a raw cotton fibre cleaner than anyone had ever seen!
The proprietary mechanical cleaning process for the new fibre uses no water, chemicals or processing heat since the fibres are not scoured, bleached or dried. Limiting the processing of this cotton fibre to mechanical cleaning significantly lowers the fibre production energy requirements. The cleaning process employs a combination of air and mechanical systems to remove foreign matter from cotton fibres and further includes an optional sterilization stage. The cleaning process yields a 99.99% trash-free fibre with excellent nonwoven carding properties at high production rates with very low nep formation and dusting. Nonwoven webs produced from the fibres are very uniform in appearance and have an excellent handfeel. Web softness is enhanced because the natural waxes and oils are retained on the fibre coating which reduces the coefficient of friction. This same natural coating is also responsible for a level of lubrication which leads to excellent downstream fibre processing.
The reduction in fibre processing unit operations vastly improves the sustainability profile and favorable environmental footprint of the new cotton fibre. But equally exciting is the price point on this reduced processing expense fibre which is competitive with hygiene-grade polypropylene.
In 2012, a portion of the Wildwood Farm's business, Wildwood Gin, merged with TJ Beall Company to further align their joint resources and focus on new opportunities. TJ Beall Company's owner Julian Beall, III and his family have been in the textile waste and cotton gin waste business since the 1930's and have worked closely with the Garys in product development for many years.
The "new" TJ Beall Company's mechanically cleaned cotton fibre product is branded "True Cotton®" and is a clear breakthrough in sustainability and innovation. It is the most natural fibre available to the nonwoven industry and is much "closer to the plant" than any commercially produced fibre used in nonwoven production. True Cotton® is soft, natural, biodegradable, annually renewable and consumer preferred. The ISO: 9000 certified production plant is located on the Garys' farm near Greenwood, MS.
TJ Beall has worked within the nonwovens industry to evaluate potential new uses for this unique sustainable fibre initially focusing on disposable hygiene and medical product markets. TJ Beall has received considerable interest in their new sustainable fibre along with new questions about any downside risks with a relatively untreated, more natural cotton fibre. The company has done their fibre analysis and production process homework in providing a clean, bacteria, fungus and pesticide-free cotton fibre completely suitable for the targeted applications. The new fibre has withstood the rigor of testing by the USDA and certifications by the strictest and most coveted textile and environmental testing standards such as Oeko-Tex Standard 100. Market research2 conducted by Cotton Incorporated in December, 2013 shows that consumers favor the off-white, more natural color of unbleached cotton in the context of more environmentally friendly products and product components.
Product application testing results in hygiene and medical disposables to be more promising. Spunlace True Cotton® diaper liners and acquisition layers wick but do not absorb or retain synthetic urine in a manner supporting excellent fluid uptake with low rewet3. Sample materials for this test were treated to make them more wettable and evaluated using standard industry EDANA/INDA methods (see Table 3 below). The same fibres have been found to facilitate faster blood clotting and hydrogen peroxide release-based wound healing4,5,6,7 in medical dressings based on USDA SRRC testing.
The first commercialization of True Cotton®, however, is on the cloth-like backsheet of seventh generation touch of cloth® diapers through target stores in the United States in August, 2014. Touch of cloth® diapers are the first disposable diapers to feature a remarkably soft backsheet with pure unbleached cotton. The improved diaper utilizes a biobased spunlace nonwoven backsheet produced from True Cotton®.
Innovation involves finding higher value solutions and enabling technologies that meet or exceed new product requirements and satisfy unmet or existing market needs. Innovations can have business impact by more functional products, better processes, services, technologies or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments and society at large. Sustainability initiatives additionally seek to strike the balance between growing profitability, protecting the environment and promoting social responsibility. True Cotton® is a new and unexpected sustainable technology innovation in the nonwoven industry.
"Daddy Hugh's" legacy businesses today in growing cotton, mote processing and the new True Cotton® fibre enterprise under the TJ Beall Company umbrella are evolving with many new modern techniques, best practices and farming methods while remaining grounded in the roots of Mississippi delta cotton farming. The new True Cotton® fibre offers the nonwovens industry new possibilities for a more natural product development and sustainability. True Cotton® can be made with organic cotton and TJ Beall is certified to manufacture and handle organic products though the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). An industrial use version of True Cotton® is also available for applications not requiring sterilization. A second fibre type, Natural Plus, is whiter, absorbent and antibacterial for applications requiring these properties. Daddy Hugh's great grandson Lawson Gary is Chief Operating Officer for TJ Beall's True Cotton Sales and Marketing and oversees the production of True Cotton®.
1 Field to Market: Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture Dec. 2012 www.keystone.org/spp/environment/sustainability/field-to-market
2 "Discover What Cotton Can for You; The Natural Benefits of Unbleached Cotton". www.cottoninc.com/product/NonWovens/Nonwoven-Resources/Natura-Benefits-of-Unbleached-Cotton/
3 Carus, Edmund. "Cotton Rediscovered." Edana Outlook 2013 [Conference]. Lisbon. 9-11 Oct. 2013.
4 "Modified cotton gauze dressings that selectively absorb neutrophil elastase activity in solution" Wound Repair and Regeneration 9(1):50-58 2001. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11350640
5 "In vitro hemostatic, hydrogen peroxide production and elastase sequestration properties of nonwoven ultra clean greige cotton dressing" Southern Research Center, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, New Orleans, LA 70124. afrsweb.usda.gov/research/publications/publications.htm?seq_no_115= 291535&pf=1
6 "Emerging Concepts in Nonwovens Dressings" Nonwovens Report International Issue 4 2013.
7 Edwards, J. V., Prevost, N.P., Graves, E., Condon, B., A comparison of hemorrhage control and hydrogen peroxide and hydrogen peroxide generation in commercial and cotton-based wound dressing materials, Proceedings of Wound Healing Society, Wound Repair and Regeneration, May 2014b, Orlando Florida, 22, A27, 2014b.
8 Schmidt, R.J., Chung, L.Y., Turner, T.D., Quantification of hydrogen peroxide generation by GranuflexTM (DuoDERMTM) Hydrocolloid Granules and its constituents (gelatin, sodium carboxymethylcellulose and pectin) British Journal of Dermatology, 1993, 129, 154-157.