“I just wanna make cotton cool!” explains Julius Tillery.
Tillery, a fifth-generation cotton farmer from northeast North Carolina, has big visions for his brand, Black Cotton. He farms around 400 acres of soybeans, cotton, timber, and fresh produce.
A graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, he uses his economics degree to figure out ways to make his farm more profitable. After discovering cotton had been increasingly popular on websites like Pinterest, he realized he wanted to create a niche market to sell his American-made, authentic cotton from his farm direct to the rest of the country. He creates floral arrangements, wreaths, boutonnieres, ornaments, and more. It really does make for beautiful decor and photo shoots:
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“We need to connect more with pop culture. … I want to be like the ‘Puff Daddy’ of cotton. Puff Daddy sells albums. I wanna sell cotton.”
His passion and vision comes to life a little more each day, and in honor of Black History Month, he’s taken to social media with messages like this:
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First day of #blackhistorymonth so Imma repost #theblackhome founder @neffiwalker recent post. Reposted from @neffiwalker For 2020 I’m going back to basics. For everyone who visited @blackcotton.us or any black owned cotton farm. To anyone who thoughtfully placed cotton in your space. To all the people who send me black walls they have painted in their homes and understood why I’m so passionate about it. For everyone I’ve inspired to redesign their home. To every client who trusted me to love up on their home. To everyone who understands at times I share moments of my life in a deep loving way and receives my vulnerability. Thank you from The Black Home @theblackhomedesign 🖤🖤🖤🖤 Artwork by @amytheard #fortheculture #decorgoddess #interiordesigner #theblackhome – #regrann #Blackcotton #cottonisourculture
His hashtag #cottonisourculture is a way he’s found a brand marketing niche. While farmers make up less than 2 percent of the population, black farmers make up around 1 percent of them. Historically if you think of cotton in the South, you may think of the use of slaves on farming operations. Tillery is fortunate enough, however, that his family started farming in 1871, shortly after the slavery-ending Emancipation Proclamation. Thankfully his ancestors did not have to endure those circumstances. Tillery also uses the social media hashtag #traumafreecotton to promote blacks in agriculture while ensuring farmers are paid a fair price.
Growing up, Tillery didn’t feel a strong sense of pride being a farmer. He felt people didn’t really support it, but nowadays he’s working hard to advocate and change that perception. He wants to improve the mold, image, financials, and support of the industry, and have more people appreciate rural farmers. He shares that even in popular culture like the “Queen Sugar” TV show and Oprah Winfrey’s “O” magazine, farmers are often portrayed as poor, but Tillery takes his business seriously.
“What are they actually doing to help farmers?” he asks.
When decorative cotton lines the shelves of places such as Hobby Lobby or Walmart, it might not be made of real cotton. And it often is labeled from another country. But Tillery wants his customers to feel a sense of pride about them knowing exactly where their cotton comes from and how they support real African-American farmers. He has had customers visit from all over the country and loves connecting nationwide as well as in his local community.
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Check out my podcast interview with @ungentrifiedpod today! Reposted from @ungentrifiedpod – Episode 032: BLACK COTTON On this episode of UNGENTRIFIED, I am joined by Julius Tillery (@blackcotton.us), one of the youngest Black farmers in the country and owner of Black Cotton, a cotton farm based in North Carolina. We talk about what Black farmers go through within the industry, our community’s history with cotton farming, and whether or not “Queen Sugar” gets it right about the lives of Black farmers. Listen and give us your opinion! #ungentrifiedpod #podsincolor #podernfamily #underdogpods #blackpodcast #blackpodcasts #supportPOCpods #blackpod #blackpodcasters #POCinpods #supportblackpodcasts #dopeblackpods – #regrann
“We should support each other,” he says. “I want people to feel the real seeds and have ag be like it used to be, where we support each other and our communities.” He feels sometimes farmers are a day late, dollar short when it comes to marketing their products and that big businesses aren’t always ag people … just business. “The go big or go out” mentality can’t last forever, but he shares his stories of Black Cotton with a sense of sacrifice, family, pride, and a strong business mindset.
So how does he do this? One way is by teaching a modern agriculture seminar series at Roanoke-Chowan Community College (in Ahoskie, North Carolina), where he talks about marketing niches (jokingly claiming his cotton is “free range”) and while sharing what’s going on now in agriculture. Farmers may struggle and be limited on resources, but how can they do better?
“Look at social media. Whatever is cool, do it! Ag is so unique and diverse with culture, foodies, niches. … I may not be as skilled as my Dad when it comes to growing cotton, but I might be better at selling it!”
He admits he doesn’t feel as skilled as his father when it comes to equipment. Farmers younger than 40 (he’s currently 33) often do not always have as good of vocational skills or equipment education as the older generations, but he realizes has can make an impact by thinking outside the box with decor, marketing, and sales.
With no initial investment, his three-year-old business now employs five to 10 people and continues to grow. For more information, visit www.blackcotton.us and follow Julius Tillery on Twitter at @mr_black_cotton, Instagram @blackcotton.us, and Facebook.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker, and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm, which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.