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Monday
Apr222019

Harvesting Cotton With Impact

REPRINT > by Allison Spahr, Timberland Blog

In partnership with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) we are on a five-year mission to bring cotton farming back to Haiti, an initiative that will create significant growth opportunities for Haiti and its communities and plant millions of trees in the process. We recently sent a team of people down to Haiti to help with the first commercial cotton harvest the country had seen in 30 years. Let’s hear a first-hand experience from our very own employee, Allison Spahr.

Allison Spahr aids in the harvest of cotton.As director of materials development for Timberland, I often find myself in conversations with vendors to review their latest materials in a catalog or as swatches.  On my recent trip to Haiti, I had a rare opportunity to step into a field on the outskirts of Gonaives.  There, I became a part of the beginning of a supply chain and picked organically grown cotton that will eventually find its way into our products.

I went to Haiti with two colleagues specifically to help with the first commercial cotton harvest in Haiti in 30 years.  Once Haiti’s fourth largest agricultural export, cotton disappeared three decades ago due to policies and politics of the times.  In 2016, we sponsored a feasibility study that indicated Haiti’s’ climate would accommodate cotton’s return and for the past two years we have invested to bring cotton back to Haiti in partnership with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA).

Farmers weigh cotton in makeshift processing center.From Donor to Customer

We first partnered with the SFA in 2010 to fulfil our commitment to plant 5 million trees in five years in Haiti.  By 2015, the SFA had not only planted the trees but also created significant positive change in farmer communities.  We were thrilled with the outcomes and wanted to transition from being a donor to a customer.  As we considered what the farmers could possibly grow for us, cotton seemed like an obvious choice since we use so much of it in our products.

At Timberland, we place a priority on materials that have both a positive environmental and social impact and Haitian-grown cotton will have many powerful, positive impacts. It will also help us achieve our goal to have 100% of the cotton we use be sustainably grown by 2020.

Positive Change

I will never forget meeting the farmers and picking cotton with them in Haiti.  It was incredibly inspiring to be a part of a process that has the potential to bring so much positive change to Haiti.  After picking cotton in the field, we followed the farmers to the makeshift processing center where they removed rocks and debris from the seed cotton and then weighed and sold their harvest to the SFA.  

Farmers remove rocks and debris from cottonThe SFA will store the cotton until their new gin and baler SFA until their new gin and baler arrive (which is currently en route to Haiti).  Ginned bales of cotton lint will then make their way to a fabric mill which will weave sample fabrics for us to use as we design future footwear, apparel and accessories. I envision a really unique, rugged and durable canvas and I can’t wait to see it!

After visiting the processing center, where we met with a number of the SFA farmers and had a chance to test the softness of the cotton, we visited an SFA member’s farm. The setting of his farm was beautiful with lush fields, blue skies, and palm trees and mountains in the distance.  The farmer showed his carrot crop with such pride, I felt humbled to be there. 

Local SFA farmer stands proud in his carrot crop.We later visited a nearby SFA community nursery where we were joined by more farmer members to walk up a narrow pathway on a steep hillside to plant trees.  The SFA had planted trees in the same area in past years and we added our trees to prevent further erosion and flooding of the farms below.

During our brief time in Haiti, I had the opportunity to see the birth of a new material, to meet the farmers who grow it, and to see the difference their involvement with the SFA has made for their farms and their families.  I also had the chance to plant a tree and leave a little bit of myself behind to bear witness to even more positive outcomes that the SFA’s work and our partnership is bound to have in that community. 

Allison Spahr plants her first tree in Haiti.Photo credits: SFA / Thomas Noreille

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