30 Days: LaRhea Pepper, Textile Exchange


LaRhea Pepper’s mission is empowering.

“Organic to me is about life and death,” she says pointedly.

LaRhea is the director of the Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit based in Texas. The organization envisions a global textile industry that both protects and restores the environment while enhancing lives.

Her husband, Terry, was a dear friend to RAFI. The couple began farming straight after college, returning to LaRhea’s rural roots once forgotten. Yet Terry grew up on a farm. The Peppers transitioned to organic, but, according to LaRhea, it wasn’t soon enough. Terry died a few years ago from a battle with brain cancer.

“After Terry got sick, it was kind of one of those deals that organic was no longer important,” LaRhea says. “It was imperative.

Dedicated to the cause, LaRhea’s organization demonstrates a passionate approach to bridging the gaps from cotton producer to fabric manufacturer to consumer, providing solutions that are profitable for all. We spoke last week over Skype while LaRhea was in Istanbul, Turkey, preparing for the Textile Exchange’s annual conference. How’s that for dedication?

And because we cannot express her story as eloquently as she can, we are including her illuminating thoughts in full. Thank you, LaRhea. You are truly an inspiration.

On her farm family:

I grew up in Boarden County, Texas. I’m technically a 5th generation cotton farmer starting with my great-great grandfather, who settled in the county in the 1920s.

I remember Grandaddy picking up the soil and handing it to me and saying, “you can eat our dirt.” He didn’t use any chemicals.

On her decision to farm:

There was a time when the farm supported the farm and the community and the family. Economic pressures as they are, it’s a tragedy that our rural communities have been stripped of so much because people left rural areas to make money in town. Terry and I started farming straight out of college. It was our choice to come back to the farm and make that our way of life. It was the love of the land. Boarden Co. has 600 some odd people in the county. It’s a very very rural area. Twenty miles to go to an itty bitty grocery store, 60 to go to a legitimate one.

On her choice to farm organically:

Our own personal conversion was about finding a sustainable solution for our farm. In those early years, it was certainly about fair markets and access to markets. Fair prices for a clean and healthy crop.

What drives the fire in my belly for change is that organic is about life and death. It’s about life of the soil, life and longevity of the farm, but it’s also about the people. That they lead a healthy life, free of chemicals. It’s personal. Up close and personal. And I am not the only widow, I am not the only one who’s lost someone on the farm. People are going, “why organic?” And I say, “why not?”

On the Textile Exchange:

We inspire and we equip to bring things to scale. We’ve gotten Nike and Target to use more sustainable materials. Our core and signature programs are organic cotton. We also work with well over 250 organic cotton projects and farmer groups.

On working with farmers around the world:

We work with farmers from all over– Turkey, India, Zambia. To a degree, farmers are the same everywhere. They love playing in the dirt. They want to make an honest living. They want to turn a profit so they can provide for their family and for their health.

To nominate your favorite farmer or food hero for RAFI’s 30 Days of Thanks, click here.

Follow along every day at rafiusa.org/30daysofthanks

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