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Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt The world behind a simple shirt, in five chapters. Cotton Is King You can grow cotton in places where land and labor are cheap. You can grow it in places how To Move To Another Country With Little Money are close to the countries — Colombia, Indonesia, Bangladesh — where the Planet Money T-shirt was made. Yet most of the cotton in the Planet Money T-shirts was grown in the U. Harvest In 2013, the farm will produce 13,000 bales of cotton — the equivalent of 9.

Flowers’ farm also produces other crops. Some of the machinery and staff listed here also work elsewhere on the farm. Genetically modified crops are controversial, but not among U. And when it’s time to harvest the cotton, U. Just last year, Bowen Flowers, the cotton farmer in the video, bought five John Deere 7760 pickers. They’re the size of tanks, but are finely tuned, self-driving machines that sense the cotton plant stalks and twist off just the cotton puffs. Like the seeds, the pickers get more productive every year as the technology improves.

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The newest John Deere picker needs just one guy to do what it took five guys to do a couple years ago. One driver can pick 100 acres of cotton a day — and he barely needs to touch the steering wheel. Report Cards Every year, the U. Department of Agriculture tests all 17 million bales of cotton harvested in the U.

The farmers pay for the testing, and the USDA figures out exactly how fine, long, strong and bright white every batch of cotton is. Cotton buyers all around the world can get a report card that tells them everything they need to know about every bale of U. Here are a few key specs for a sample from Bowen Flowers’ crop. Fineness is measured in grams per inch. Length is measured in inches and refers to the average length of the longer half of the fibers.

To understand how this keeps American cotton on top, it helps to travel 10,000 miles to Indonesia, where our cotton was spun into yarn for the men’s T-shirt. In the clothing business, people call it yarn. A factory manager there told us that, when he orders U. The spinners have a special recipe for their yarn, and they need exactly the right cotton — exactly the right color, exactly the right length, exactly the right fineness. The USDA testing means a cotton buyer in Indonesia can order a bale of U. Other countries subsidize their cotton farmers as well, by the way. The government gives taxpayer money directly to cotton farmers, and subsidizes insurance that protects farmers if their harvest is weak or cotton prices fall.

One popular option is revenue insurance, which pays farmers if they make less money than they expect. This can happen for a few reasons — cotton prices may fall, or a farmer may have a bad harvest. The latest version of the farm bill, which Congress is working on this month, could change these subsidies. Farmers may get less money in the form of direct payments, and more in the form of subsidized insurance. If any of that yarn is too thick or too thin, even by a little bit, the T-shirt could start falling apart after just a few washes. Yarn, by the way, is what ordinary people call thread. In the garment business, it’s called yarn.