ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
I have before me right now a fairly ordinary-looking but, in fact, unique T-shirt. It's gray and on the front of it there's a picture of a squirrel holding a martini glass. But where the olive should be inside the drink there is, in fact, an acorn. What makes this 100 percent cotton T-shirt unique is that we know everything about how it was made.
Our Planet Money team commissioned the shirt. Then they followed the manufacturing process around the globe. It was touched by people in rich countries with advanced degrees and by people working for some of the lowest wages on Earth.
All this week, we're going to hear their stories and today we start with the raw material. NPR's Robert Smith went in search of the farmer who grew the cotton that Planet Money's shirt was made from. And it took some detective work.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Imagine going into a gas station where you've just filled up your car and asking the guy: Hey where did this gasoline come from? I mean where exactly was the well that produced the oil that got refined into this particular gas? That's what it was like when we asked people: Where is our cotton farm?
RANDY SCHELLING: Oh, gosh. That's a tough one to answer.
SMITH: That's Randy Schelling from the underwear company Jockey International. Jockey guided us on the technical side of this project. They introduced us to suppliers and factories that they work with. But even Randy didn't know where our cotton came from. Cotton in a T-shirt gets blended from farms across the globe.
SCHELLING: Anywhere from one farm to a hundred farms, potentially.
SMITH: But the folks at Jockey did recommend one place that might be able to tell us where our cotton came from, the place where our cotton takes its first step to becoming fabric. It's a spinning plant called Indorama and, by the way, it's in Indonesia.
Anil Tibrewal, the chief sales guy, meets us at the factory gate.
There's this amazing smell here.
ANIL TIBREWAL: It's the cotton smell. This is natural. If you go to the cotton fields, pick up a boll, smell it, it's almost similar like this.
SMITH: A little bit like the earth where it came from.
SMITH: Anil leads us back through the warehouse and it's amazing. Cotton bales stacked three stories high. There's the Brazilian cotton, there are the Greek bales. There's an entire section from Australia. But Anil says, knowing your T-shirt, your type of cotton is probably way in the back. My producer Jess Jiang spots it first.
JESS JIANG, BYLINE: Is this from Arkansas?
TIBREWAL: Memphis, this is Memphis.
JIANG: Oh, Memphis.
SMITH: This is Charlotte. Charlotte? This is all...
TIBREWAL: This one the same lot. We won't...
SMITH: Is this Charlotte all the way?
TIBREWAL: This whole lot of bales is American cotton.
SMITH: I spy: Marmaduke, Arkansas; Halls, Tennessee; Lyon, Mississippi. It's like a road trip through the Delta.
Now, on the face of it, this doesn't seem to make much economic sense. There are farms that are much closer to Indonesia, places where the land is cheap and the labor is cheaper. Why ship a bunch of raw cotton from the United States, the furthest place you can find? Why get it from someone like this guy?
BOWEN FLOWERS: My name is Bowen Flowers. We're standing on one of my farms we call Omega.
SMITH: Clarksdale, Mississippi, 10,000 miles from Indonesia. And as far as we can guess - we're estimating here - OK, we're going to call it: The birthplace of the Planet Money T-shirt.
On this fall day, the cotton looks like a snow drift all the way to the horizon. I actually brought back some of the T-shirt cotton from that warehouse in Indonesia and showed it to Bowen.
Can you identify it? Is that yours?
FLOWERS: Don't know but it looks like the same as all the cotton around this area. That's for sure.
SMITH: Bowen is a huge man, 6' 7. And as we wade into the field, the plants only come up to his belt buckle. He's going to send this crop around the world. Just like the Swiss make the best watches, the Germans perfected the sports car, Americans grow the most desired cotton in the world. And just like those watches and cars, American cotton does it by being high-tech.
This is the John Deere 7760; iconic green color, big as a houseboat. Bowen bought five of them last year. And they were not cheap.
FLOWERS: They're right at 600,000 a piece. So we got in a big investment. We got to make something to make the payments on them every year.
SMITH: You bought $3 million worth of equipment last year to pick cotton.
FLOWERS: It's crazy, isn't it? Real crazy. We might need to have our brain examined.
SMITH: But these machines give Bowen an edge over small farmers in the rest of the world. He can pick cotton faster with fewer workers. Bowen can watch the progress of the pickers from his iPad sitting at home. And as cushy as it is for him, the driver up on top of the John Deere has an even sweeter gig.
Hey, we wanted to see if we could go a row with you.
I climb up a ladder up into picker number three to hitch a ride with Martovia Latrell Jones.
MARTOVIA LATRELL JONES: Oh.
SMITH: Hey, how's it going?
SMITH: Everyone calls him Toto. He puts the machine into gear.
And then he lets go.
You just took your hands off the wheel. You didn't even have to touch it.
JONES: Yeah. Pretty much, everything's driving itself.
SMITH: The picker feels the cotton plants. It makes all the adjustments itself. Toto just sits there, calls his wife on the cell phone, cranks up the blues station.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JONES: You all might not like my singing.
SMITH: Toto has a lot of time up here to sit and think. He was raised by his grandfather, George, who worked on a cotton farm before all this technology. Toto heard the stories.
JONES: Had to get down on their hands and knees and get some blisters and splinters in their fingernails and everything.
SMITH: You do realize that you probably harvest more in five minutes than he did all day long.
JONES: Ah, yeah. I can make a round and pick more than they picked in their whole lifetime.
SMITH: These machines are not only fast but, by the end of the process, the cotton they produce is clean. It's pure. It's untouched by human hands. And this is a big deal to the complicated factories around the world that make our T-shirt. In Indonesia, Anil Tibrewel told us that the many countries still handpick cotton. And those countries end up with a lot of trash in their cotton bales.
TIBREWAL: The contamination comes from human being - plastic bags, chips bags. If there are, say, 5,000 people picking cotton in the field, they can throw any kind of things and that comes with the cotton.
SMITH: One more thing about American cotton: It's not actually that much more expensive. And this is the final reason why America exports more cotton than anyone else in the world. According to a lot of people - well, according to our competitors especially - we cheat. We stack the deck. The richest government in the world is helping Bowen out.
PIETRA RIVOLI: Well, you've got the simplest things which are the subsidies. And this is cash into the grower's pocket. You know, everybody understands that.
SMITH: Pietra Rivoli is an economist at Georgetown University. She was a paid consultant on our project and she wrote the book that inspired it, "The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy."
Subsidies get complicated, but for the 4,000 acres of cotton that Bowen and his family farm, the operation could be expected to get more than $100,000 in direct payments from the government. But perhaps the bigger benefit that the government provides is protecting farmers like Bowen from risks.
RIVOLI: There are bad things that can happen: prices can fall, there can be too much rain, it can be too hot, it can be too cold. A lot of those risks are protected against by government programs, particularly insurance subsidies.
SMITH: So basically they give them cheap insurance.
RIVOLI: They give them cheap insurance.
SMITH: And to be fair, other countries also support their agricultural products in various ways. But no one does it as effectively as the United States. U.S. farmers have big farms. They buy big machines. They take big risks. And the government has a big safety net for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
SMITH: Back up on top of the cotton picker, Toto can watch the harvest go by on a computer screen. All the green lights mean that everything is going perfectly. He and the other drivers are on track to harvest six million pounds of cotton this fall; enough cotton, in other words, from this one farm in Mississippi to make a T-shirt for every person in New York City.
JONES: I would like to just see that one day. Just, you know, see where all of it happens after it leaves the cotton gin.
SMITH: I told Toto about the next steps for our T-shirt, about the factories in Indonesia and Bangladesh and all the container ships in between. And I promised to send him one of our shirts, so that he can wear it and say...
JONES: I made that shirt.
SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News.
SIEGEL: To see video of the cotton harvest at dawn and those giant cotton pickers at work, go to NPR.org/shirt.
And tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, follow the journey of that cotton for Planet Money's T-shirt. Next stop: Indonesia.