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Calik Denim Farm to Fabric Field Trip: Part 1

INTRODUCTION

Last month, we traveled to Turkey for 10 days total to witness the entire cotton journey from field to fabric. We landed in Sanliurfa to visit cotton farms and ginning facilities with BCI and Calik Cotton, then traveled to Malatya to visit Calik Denim mill where the cotton is transformed into fabric. This trip was the kick-off to phase 4 of our #WhoMadeMyCotton research study (if you haven’t read the previous phases, click here). Let’s dive into part 1 where we walk through the farm to gin journey and stay tuned for part 2 next week where we explore traceability with Calik Denim mill.

INTRODUCING SUPPLY CHAIN PARTNERS AND THE JOURNEY DOWN THE SUPPLY CHAIN

THE FARM

We started our journey in the region of Sanliurfa, in the South East of Turkey where we met with Ismail and Esma on their cotton field. They have a farming family business and are leading members of the Better Cotton program in their region.


“We are lucky that as a family, small scale family farming, we're trying to do our best as much as we can to produce quality products.” Ismail



They explained how, since they joined Better Cotton they benefited from a strong technical support to improve the yield of their field and the quality of their soil. Through the Better Cotton program and with the support of agricultural engineers from IPUD (Better Cotton’s implementation partner in Turkiye), Ismail gets his soil tested every year before the seedling. These tests help him determine the soil’s need and adapt his use of fertilizer.


In the past, there was an understanding that the more fertilizer you use, the more drop you give to the field, the more cotton you’ll get. But it's not the case.” he said.

By avoiding the overuse of chemicals they’ve been able to increase their soil health as well as reduce their expenses on fertilizers.


In addition to fertilizer reduction, they rotate crops every 3 years. This means that after 3 years of planting cotton, they’ll plant something else. Usually they prefer to go for lentils as they are great for enriching soils and are easy to sell on the local market.


In the region of Sanliurfa, irrigation is necessary to grow cotton and from our understanding, over-irrigation has been a common practice. The reason for this overuse of water dates back from the construction of the Ataturk dam in 1995. The sudden abundance of water allowed cotton farming to spread in the region but as there were no consumption regulations, farmers were literally flooding their fields! An engineer from IPUD who works with Ismail explained how over irrigation can in fact, harm the plant and the soil. Together they worked on adapting the irrigation system and managed to reduce the daily time of irrigation by 3.


We carried on our journey to a second farm where we met with Burhan, a 3rd generation farmer who’s been a Better Cotton member for 10 years.


Burhan is equipped with very advanced technological support. Right by his cotton field, he has set up a weather station and a soil moisture measuring device. This provides him with data on humidity, temperature, winds and rain chances which are crucial for determining when the timing is best for irrigating, applying pesticide or harvesting. Further inside the field, he also installed pheromone insect traps equipped with cameras to keep an eye on the insect population. He can count the amount of worms and the number of worm eggs to assess which type of chemical he should use in order to control the insect population.


This way, he’s able to adapt and reduce his pesticide use.


Burhan explained that if he didn’t have the support from BC, he would have probably gotten advice on what chemicals to use and how to use them, directly from the chemical supplier. As you can imagine, chemical suppliers would have probably advised him on using bigger quantities of their product.


Side note: Most of the cotton in Turkiye is harvested with a machine and not handpicked. While machine harvesting is more efficient and less work intensive, it requires the use of defoliant. A defoliant is a chemical agent sprayed on the cotton plant to make it lose its leaves. This way, the machine can harvest the cotton balls without the leaves

All these efforts have allowed Ismail, Esma and Burhan to improve their soil health, mitigate their impact on the environment, reduce expenses on chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) and last but not least improve the quality of their cotton.


If you’ve read our latest #WhoMadeMyCotton report, you already know that the value of cotton not only depends on the market price but also on its quality. A cotton of better quality can be sold at a higher price and if this cotton is certified, it also becomes even easier to sell.


When you have a (Better Cotton) license, you don't have any problems in the market, in terms of sales.” said Ismail

But who do these farmers sell their cotton to ? In Turkiye, farmers such as Ismail and Burhan, sell their seed cotton to the ginner, and this is our next stop!



THE GIN

The cotton picked-up during the harvest is called “Seed-Cotton”, in fact, at this stage it is indeed a mix of cotton lint and cotton seeds (and bits of the plant also called “trash content”). This seed-cotton is brought by the farmer to a gin where cotton lint will be cleaned and separated from its seeds.


We had the chance to visit the Calik cotton’s ginning partner Akkucak and witness this crucial process of transforming seed-cotton into bales of cotton fibers, ready to be spun.


Coming from the surrounding fields, trucks unload their cargo of cotton in an immense warehouse where each pile of seed-cotton corresponds to a different farm. This gin has the particularity of keeping the seed-cotton supplies separated in order to ensure that traceability is maintained. We were happy to understand that traceability was perceived as an added value and a competitive advantage for this ginner. Therefore, they had organized their storage space by farm origins and type of certification.


As we arrived, a backhoe loader was going back and forth across the warehouse, moving the seed-cotton from one pile to a large tank where it was literally sucked into a pipe, toward the ginnery.


We entered the buzzing ginnery where a long alley of Balkan roller-gins were busy separating fibers from seeds. Each roller gin has a window where we could see the seed-cotton falling rapidly into the rollers. These rollers pulled the fiber from their seeds and sent both products into separated pipes. At the bottom of the machine, we could see all those hairy seeds pouring down into an underground container while on the other end the cotton fibers, now referred to as “cotton lint”, would again be sucked into pipes toward the bailing unit.


In this real life rendition of Super Mario, it was impossible not to be impressed by the intricate network of pipes that sprawled above our heads and snaked beneath our feet.


Coming out of one last pipe, we witnessed the cotton lint getting pressed and wrapped into a 500 pounds (227kg) bale, ready to be shipped to a spinning mill.


But before this freshly ginned cotton hits the market, its quality needs to be measured in order to define its value and price.


Each bale is given a barcode and a fiber sample is brought to the lab adjoining the ginnery. At the lab, the fiber is measured from every angle to determine its staple length, uniformity, color, strength, brightness, humidity…These specifications are saved under the barcode system along with all the traceability data. The trading process can now begin and the cotton bale will continue its journey towards the spinning mill.


If you’d like to dig deeper into the technicalities of cotton trading, we have recently published a report on this fascinating topic.


While you can already foresee what will happen to the cotton bales after they leave the gin, did you wonder what will become of the other components of the cotton plant? Surprisingly, the cotton lint only accounts for 35% of the cotton plant. Let’s dive into the other 65%!


-> The Linter

After going through the roller gin, some shorter fibers remain attached to the seed and a second machine called a linter comes into play to tear them out. These shorter fibers, also named linters, are used for making paper, banknotes and cellulosic fibers such as cupro.



-> The Seed’s byproducts

Seeds account for most of the rest and generate a variety of products. Of course, some seeds are kept for planting the next harvest but the rest is pressed to extract oil. Cottonseed oil is commonly used in edible oil (vegetable oil) as well as cosmetics. The other byproducts of seeds are the cottonseed meal (the remaining of crushed seeds) and the cotton hull (the outer coverings of seeds). They are used for animal feed and in organic fertilizers but also for fuel and packaging.


Only 3% of the total plant is considered waste and it is usually burned for generating energy…so pretty much everything is used!


Graphic provided by Cotton Diaries



BCI CONFERENCE


An interesting stop on our farm to fabric journey was our chance to attend the Better Cotton Conference where the Ministry of Agriculture and other government officials spoke on their ambitions for the future of the Turkish cotton industry! Through workshops and direct engagement with Turkish farmers, BCI’s aim is to transition to all cotton farming to techniques that promise to preserve the quality of the soil and the long-term viability of cotton farming in Turkey. And on our farm visits mentioned previously, we were happy to see this work being done :)


At the conference, the buzz was all about setting a new standard with Better Cotton at the helm for all Turkish cotton, marking a pivotal move toward establishing widespread traceability and preserving soil health across the nation's cotton fields.


This involves direct, physical monitoring by Better Cotton representatives after the cotton leaves the farm. To support this initiative, an updated digital platform is being rolled out, which will enhance the tracking of cotton from farm to fabric. Additionally, there's a plan to increase the number of personnel visiting farms to verify practices on the ground.


A consumer declaration is also in the pipeline. It will act as a support tool, demonstrating the investment and commitment of brands in ethical cotton production. Although details on the new digital communication methods are yet to be published, they promise to offer consumers a clearer insight into the cotton production process.


Looking back at these 2 days, we are extremely excited about the knowledge and minds we were able to access. We had countless conversations with farmers and agricultural engineers from BCI and IPUD, and really gave us a lot of food for thought. The direction Better Cotton is taking in Turkey made us really hopeful and optimistic about traceability and farming practices in this region. Stay tuned for next week as we complete the farm to fabric journey at Calik Denim mill!


**This article was supported by Calik Denim**


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