OMEGA, Ga. — Johnny Dunn's cotton patch is awash in millions of light green, light brown and rusty red bolls. Dunn is among eight farmers in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia who are taking part in the first experimental planting of naturally colored cotton on the East Coast.
"I think this is the coming thing for the consumer," said Dunn, one of three Georgia farmers who agreed to grow 90 acres of naturally colored cotton. "You've got a lot of people who are environment-crazed. They want everything natural."
The colored fluff is processed into cloth that is gaining popularity with environmentally conscious consumers and people who are allergic to the dyes in regular cotton.
Americans bought $30-million worth of Earth-friendly clothing in the last year and the market is expanding, said Tom Reynolds, who grows organic and natural-color cotton near Hampton, Va.
Natural cotton products, produced without dyes or bleaches, are featured regularly in L.L. Bean and Lands' End mail order catalogues.
"Our customers are embracing these all-natural products," said L.L. Bean spokeswoman Enid Stepner.
"I think it has a good future," said Phil Young, merchandise manager for the Lands' End Coming Home catalogue. "Continued growth will depend on their ability to develop more colors."
Scientists are trying to breed new varieties with longer, stronger fibers and higher yields. An improved green variety should be available in two years and a genetically engineered blue version is on the way.
Farmers already grow about 10,000 acres of colored cotton annually in Arizona and Texas. It was introduced only recently in the Southeast, where most of the textile mills are located.
Two of the Georgia growers, Johnny Dunn and his cousin, Wayne Dunn, live near the Tift County town of Omega, and the third, A. J. McCallum, farms in Coffee County.
Wayne Dunn is reserving judgment on colored cotton because it has not been tested in Georgia's rainy and humid climate.
Some people are astounded to learn that cotton comes in any other color than white, said McCallum.
Merchants have asked him for samples and students have visited his farm to see it.
Reynolds is the East Coast agent for BC Cotton, a breeder of colored cotton in Reedley, Calif., in central California.
Colored cotton sells for $1.30 to $1.40 per pound, compared with 65 cents to 70 cents for white cotton. But yields on colored cotton are lower, so farmers may not see much difference in profits. Colored cotton may yield only one 500-pound bale to an acre, compared with up to 2 1/2 for regular cotton.
Colored cotton has been grown for years in Russia, India and South and Central America, and Israel has become a major supplier.
White cotton still dominates. Mills like it because it can be dyed to keep pace with changes in fashions. The nation's leading colored cotton company is Natural Cotton Colours of Wickenburg, Ariz., 60 miles northwest of Phoenix. It was founded by entomologist Sally Fox, who started growing colored cotton for hand spinners and weavers in the early 1980s.
She improved the varieties and now contracts with Arizona growers to produce it and sell it worldwide.