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Cotton’s Road Map

Amid Presidential And Congressional Elections In ‘08,
Exciting Developments Will Improve Industry’s Future
  

By Tommy Horton
Editor


EDITOR’S NOTE – Rickey Bearden, Texas producer and incoming board chairman of Plains Cotton Growers Association, and Andy Jordan, who has retired as the National Cotton Council’s Technical Services Director, recently discussed future opportunities for U.S. cotton as the industry prepares for a new Farm Bill, presidential and congressional elections, and technological innovations in farming.

How can farmers prepare for a new Farm Bill in 2008?

Bearden: Regardless of how this bill turns out, we know that we have to be prepared for change. Both the House and Senate Ag Committees put some reform into the bill. My advice for farmers is be ready for change – no matter what it is.

Was the 2002 Farm Bill successful from a budget standpoint?

Bearden: This statistic gets lost in the shuffle all of the time, and that’s unfortunate. The 2002 Farm Bill was an unqualified success and worked beautifully. Some reports say that it eventually saved the taxpayers between $17 billion and $20 billion.

Even with the new Farm Bill, will the debates subside any?

Bearden: There will always be a legislative issue that our industry has to deal with. It could be about payment limits, EPA regulations, crop insurance or anything. The issues never go away. That’s why it’s important to support our cotton organizations all the time.

Despite pressure from non-ag groups, how can agriculture effectively tell its story in 2008?

Bearden: We have to keep in mind that our industry is an important part of the economy. We can never lose sight of that fact. As producers, we should take pride in the fact that we are a very productive part of the U.S. economy.

If the Farm Bill does manage to become law in early 2008, how does that affect farmers’ plans?

Bearden: From what I hear, it could take USDA a year to implement all of the programs in the new Farm Bill. That’s why it will be important for producers to stay informed about the new law in case they need to make changes in their operations.

Once the Farm Bill becomes law, will ag issues take a backseat in the congressional and presidential elections?

Bearden: Somehow I think agriculture will remain a part of the debate. It seems like nearly every presidential candidate has had something to say about payment limits, so I have to believe that agriculture will be part of the conversation.

Is it possible for bipartisanship to prevail in an election year?

Bearden: I’ve talked about this with plenty of folks. And it saddens me when I see partisan politics affect everything. But, fortunately, we have friends on both sides of the aisle, and that’s good for agriculture and the cotton industry. Still, it would be nice if elected officials could just deliver a message without fear of it not being politically correct.

When you tell your story to the media, are you still optimistic that your message is getting through?

Bearden: A few years ago the BBC came out to my farm to interview me during the big WTO meeting in Hong Kong. It was a live broadcast and there were folks from Oxfam on the telecast who weren’t friendly to ag. I remember speaking from the heart and having the last word on the show. That’s one time when I felt really good about what I had said.

Are you excited about the cotton industry’s opportunities in 2008 and beyond despite the acreage shifts?

Bearden: The technology tools that cotton has today are amazing. My father is 86 years old and used horses on the farm when he grew cotton. Today we have GPS monitors on our equipment. That’s how far we’ve come in two generations of our family. Yes, I’m excited about the future because I know that global cotton demand and cotton prices are increasing.

What is the farmer’s big challenge in being able to take advantage of this new technology?

Bearden: It’s the age-old question. The technology is exciting, and it gives us so many advantages. But we’ve still got to find a way to make that bale of cotton or bushel of grain pay for it. Whether it’s a $200,000 stripper or a $500,000 picker, we’ve got to find a way to pay for the technology.

What else strikes you as significant as cotton looks ahead to this new environment?

Bearden: I am continually amazed that the United States, Australia and Brazil mechanically harvest their cotton, while the rest of the world still handpicks cotton. In a way, that is a remarkable fact and shows how much of a technological advantage we have. It’s true that we’re at a crossroads and at the dawn of a new age in cotton. But we’re still competing with handpicked cotton.

How can technology help modern agriculture – especially cotton – thrive in the future?

Jordan: Advanced technology is essential to show the world that cotton can be grown in a sustainable manner. The influence and input of consumers and retailers is causing researchers and farmers to come together to find and use technology to keep cotton sustainable. Fundamentally, we’re talking about the ability to make an economic livelihood in agriculture and retain the ability of future generations to sustain the ability to produce food and fiber.

You’re involved as a consultant on some exciting projects on cotton’s future sustainability. What is the long-range picture?

Jordan: We are not only looking at short-term economics. We’re looking ahead strategically for the next 30, 40 or 50 years. When my new great granddaughter is 40 years old, the world population will have increased by 3 billion people to a total population of 9 billion. Food needs will double in 40 years, and fiber needs will double in the next 20 years. Let’s face it. We can’t accomplish our goals and survive by cutting down trees.

These are ambitious targets. Can technology help U.S. cotton achieve these goals?

Jordan: I am optimistic that we will continue to adapt the best technology and do what needs to be done. This is a high priority for U.S. agriculture and for the cotton industry.

We know that technology comes with a price tag. Can we afford it?

Jordan: I’d like to think we live in an economically rational society. Whether or not the world wants to embrace these technologies, if they are economically viable and environmentally sustainable, we have to do it. It’s what we have to do to stay in business.

What have farmers learned after adopting insect resistant and herbicide resistant biotechnologies such as Bt, Roundup Ready or Liberty Link?

Jordan: Economic studies show there is a payoff. And perhaps even more important, these technologies are safer for the environment and conserve natural resources while giving farmers more flexibility in their crop management practices.

Can the United States continue to use technology to gain a competitive advantage in the global market?

Jordan: We certainly can’t be complacent about technology, especially with regard to mechanical harvesting. I predict it will be many years before some countries adopt mechanical harvesting. Can we maintain our lead? I’m saying that we can.

 


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