Wrangler Partners With Cotton Farmers to Create 100% Made in America Jeans | TSLN.com

Wrangler Partners With Cotton Farmers to Create 100% Made in America Jeans

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News

Farmers don’t often find themselves in the spotlight. By nature, their work is behind the scenes.

Planting.

Tillage.

Spraying.

Making hay.

Harvesting.

And then the crop is gone and another year rolls around and they do it all over again.

They don’t know who eats bread made from the wheat they grow, whose cattle are fed their corn or soybeans, or who uses the oil pressed from their sunflowers.

They work hard, exercise good stewardship practices, fight mother nature to produce a quality crop, and then it disappears, lost in anonymity.

For five cotton farmers in five southern states, that is changing with the launch of Wrangler’s ‘Rooted Collection’ of clothing.

It was an idea that grew together from the roots up.

Vance Smith, a fifth-generation farmer from Big Springs, Texas, said he and several other growers approached Bayer in 2013 with the idea of a completely traceable system through the cotton gin and the mill all the way to the customers’ hands. He approached several different brands to see if they thought there would be added value in clothing that could be traced all the way to the field where the cotton was grown.

Wrangler’s response was: “We can make this work.”

Roian Atwood, Senior Director of Sustainability for Wrangler, says he gives credit to a grassland management workshop for the budding idea of Wrangler’s Rooted collection of jeans.

“They were talking about the idea of managing grass to improve soil health, and I quickly asked the question, ‘Can we do that with row crops?’”

Atwood says his job involves asking a lot of questions.

“How do we make our products?”

“How can we make them better?”

“How do we manage water usage in the wash down process? How can we better conserve water?”

“How can we improve the chemical processes we employ?”

“How can we use more renewable energy?”

After his introduction to the idea of using livestock grazing to improve soil health of grasslands, Atwood started asking the question, “How do we define sustainable cotton?”

“We need to safeguard the soil at all costs and minimize erosion,” he said. “I looked at the science behind cover crops, conservation tillage, crop rotations, no-till farming practices, and I looked at the long term environmental and economic benefits.

“Wrangler puts a wide variety of effort into evaluating the cotton that makes its way into our products. We have an ongoing commitment to using U.S. cotton; about eighty percent of the total cotton in all Wrangler jeans comes from the United States. There’s just no traceability now, but there may be in the future.

“We want to encourage famers to adopt land stewardship practices. We sponsor Soil Health Institute Workshops. We’re constantly investing in farmer training that can help create sustainable, viable ag systems for everybody.”

After Atwood did his research, he headed to the farms to meet the ‘Wrangler Five.’

“We’re idealistic, but we’re also pragmatic,” he said. “We don’t want to ask growers to do something that’s impractical or not economically feasible.”

Atwood travelled to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas to see what sustainable farming practices looked like in a wide variety of growing conditions.

“I wanted to know if they could confirm that these things worked,” he said. “On a farm in Tennessee with over eighty inches of rain in a year, would planting turnips and radishes for a cover crop allow the water to penetrate deeper into the soil?

“Would it work in Texas, in an area where they only grow two crops: corn and cotton; but could include livestock in the rotation to graze cover crops?

“Would it work with a wide diversity of soil types and growing conditions?”

He got answers.

“From my perspective, Wrangler picked us to be part of this project because we were already where they wanted to be,” Vance Smith said. “I’m the fifth generation on some of this ground. Some of it has been farmed for over one hundred forty years, and it’s still profitable and healthy.”

Smith’s family came to Texas just after the Civil War. He’s been farming on his own since he was seventeen.

“Our main crops are corn, upland cotton and pima cotton,” Smith said. “For cover crops we plant wheat and rye and leave the corn stubble. We also run about three hundred head of mother cows and graze our yearling heifers on some of the cover crops.”

Smith’s father farms nearby, and he describes the two separate operations as a family affair.

“My wife, Mandie, does any and everything that needs to be done, and she CAN do any and everything,” he said. “My brother helps out when he can, my wife’s family helps out. We only have one employee that’s not in the family.”

Donny Lassiter, Conway, North Carolina, also said sustainable farming practices were in place on their family farm long before Roian approached them about producing cotton for Wrangler’s Rooted jeans.

“My dad was using cover crops and growing no-till beans twenty-five years ago,” he said. “We grow multiple crops to build up the residue on the soil. Our rotation includes cotton, peanuts, corn, wheat, non-GMO soybeans, and pumpkins.”

Cover crops include wheat, rye and hay vetch.

“We’re moving toward using more rye, because it is so aggressive,” Lassiter said, “But it is hard to manage! We need to invest in a crimper/roller to lay it down.

“We still strip-till the peanuts, because they need to be dug out, but otherwise we use conservation tillage and no-till farming methods. Our goal is to build up the residue on the soil surface. This helps with weed control and locks in moisture and nutrients. We take soil samples and use the data to measure our progress.”

Lassiter said his grandfather started farming after World War II.

“I grew up riding in the tractor with my granddad and my dad,” he said. “Now I farm with my brother. My parents are still active though they are slowing down. We have some great employees. I have a very supportive wife and we have two little boys who like to ride in the tractor.”

The benefits of working with Wrangler are not limited to his family, however. Lassiter is pretty excited that sustainable farming practices are being put in a larger spotlight thanks to the publicity and advertising Wrangler is doing to promote the Rooted collection.

“I’ve had neighbors come by and say, ‘I saw y’all planted wheat in the winter but I didn’t know why.’ It’s a story people don’t get to hear directly from the farmer very often.”

Wrangler launched the Rooted Collection of 100% made in America jeans in April and July of 2019, using cotton grown in 2018 on five farms in five states: Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. For the first round of production each farm supplied roughly one shipping container, or 44,000 pounds of fiber, enough to make approximately 18,000 pairs of jeans. The cotton was sent to Mount Vernon Mills in Tryon, Georgia, one of the last denim mills in the United States, and made into fabric. The denim was then sent to El Paso, Texas, where it was cut and sewn by Excel Manufacturing. Everything including the zippers, rivets, labels and buttons were made in the United States.

Rooted collection t-shirts were made using Texas cotton from Vance and Mandie Smith; they are cut & sewn by Palmetto Apparel Service in South Carolina.

“It took an extra level of effort to keep the cotton segregated and process it in small batches,” Roian Atwood related. “Our supply chains today are not set up for small batch production. Our textile clusters used to be close together, but now we have to go great distances. It’s a long way from Georgia to Texas. This was definitely a challenge both in coordination and from a cost perspective, but we’re not doing it because it’s easy but because it’s important.”

For Donny Lassiter and Vance Smith, being able to wear clothing made from cotton they grew on the farm is fantastic.

“It’s like being able to go to a restaurant and order a steak knowing what ranch it came off,” Vance said.

“Somebody pinch me, please,” Lassiter laughed. “This is surreal.”

“These jeans are special,” Atwood said. “They’re Saturday night jeans.”

With a retail value of $99, They’re not your run of the mill work jeans, but are still priced significantly lower than other American made fashion jeans that retail from $250 to $350 per pair.

Will Wrangler’s Rooted jeans simply be a passing fad, or are they here to stay? Atwood, Smith and Lassiter believe they have found their niche.

“This took a lot of collaboration to get where we are,” Smith said, “We think this is valuable. Based on early sales, the consumers agree with us. People like buying American made products.”

Atwood says that Wrangler hopes to expand the line in the future, adding women’s styles next year, and possibly adding more states to the collection.

“We have an ongoing commitment to U.S. cotton,” he said.

“My family is proud to be part of this,” Lassiter said. “My whole community is proud. We live in a very rural part of North Carolina. My state has a lot of state pride. People are picking up their heads and saying, ‘Hey, we can do cool stuff here too.’”

Keeping the focus on sustainable farming practices and taking care of the soil and the land will always be at the heart of the process.

“We are raising awareness about sustainable farming,” Lassiter said.

Smith concurred.

“I want generations down the line to know the land was taken care of.”