Abstract The western region of São Paulo state, Brazil, became one of several sites of global cotton production during the first half of the twentieth century in response to increased global demand and fears of cotton shortages. The cotton boom tapped a ‘forest rent’ that helped Brazil rise to become the largest producer in Latin America, providing both export revenue and critical raw material to a growing industrial economy that would become the largest in South America. This paper uses an organizational and institutional perspective to analyze causes and effects of the mid-century cotton boom that centered on São Paulo state. Organizations and institutions relating to cotton production are considered using oral histories, judicial documents, agronomic texts, and the sediment record in small catchments as empirical evidence. The state dramatically reformed some organizations to provide the key inputs to cotton production, while most contemporary observers ignored institutions, such as sharecropping and tenant farming, that supported cotton. São Paulo's institutions and organizations were characterized by the borrowing and adaptation of existing labor institutions, the creation of new state organizations that subsidized elite producers, and the weak development of institutions or organizations in response to soil fertility issues and labor supply.