Cotton Links


U.S. Cotton’s Future Tied To Quality

By Sandy Stewart
Kansas City, Mo.

• B.S., M.S. and Ph.D in Crop Science, N.C. State Univ.
• Founding partner, AgriThority, LLC.
• Former Extension cotton specialist, and Tom and Martha Burch professor of cotton production,
   LSU AgCenter.
• Grew up on a fruit and vegetable farm in N.C.
• Proud father of two daughters clothed only in 100 percent cotton.
• Owner of N.C. family farm that dates back to 1775.

I like tradition and history. They connect us with the past and future. My cousin, who is an accomplished historian, once asked the rhetorical question, “If a man does not know from whence he came, then how can he know where he is going?” A connection to the past is essential in charting the future.

Such is the case with cotton, which has never been short on connections to the past. In the old National Cotton Council offices, there was a wall with portraits of all the past Council chairmen. Icons and titans of the industry. Each time I gazed at that wall I found it hard to walk away. Looking at the men who had led the industry for years, I couldn’t help but be in awe of their vision, integrity and dedication to U.S. cotton.

The industry those men led, although steeped in tradition, has constantly adapted and improved itself over the course of decades. Tradition in the U.S. cotton industry has not been marked by clinging to old methods and ways, but rather by innovation. Innovations in plant protection, improved varieties, seedcotton handling and quality measurements are all intertwined with the history of cotton. Those advancements displaced old ways of doing things as they contributed to a tradition of innovation.

Cotton is now facing the challenges of reduced acreage, a highly competitive world market and textile customers around the globe. How will we apply the tradition of innovation as we meet these challenges?

The cotton industry only has two choices as we look forward: 1) to become a preferred supplier of reliably high-quality cotton; or, 2) to be a supplier of low-cost cotton. In a world where labor and land costs are so low in developing countries, to choose low-cost, commodity grade fiber is a recipe for contraction of cotton as a relevant crop. The only real long-term option is for our industry to innovate and adapt around quality fiber. Like it or not, it’s what our global customers are demanding.

According to United States Census Bureau data compiled by FC Stone Fibers and Textiles, exports of upland cotton of 36 or longer staple increased by almost 1.5 million bales in 2008 compared with the average of the three previous years, while overall U.S. exports fell by 1.6 million bales. Everyone in the industry should note that exports of shorter staple (less than 36) U.S. cotton were 3 million bales less in 2008 than the average of the three previous years. Over that same time period, each one of the five major importing countries of U.S. cotton increased purchases of 36 staple or longer U.S. upland cotton in 2008.

The writing is on the wall. The United States must become a supplier of high-quality cotton for the world, and we must adapt to meet the challenge. Improved varieties will help as will practices that reduce stress, such as the irrigation research featured in this issue of Cotton Farming.

Consider this example. A decade ago the U.S. tobacco industry found itself with a product of slipping quality, a government program that fostered production of pounds and not quality tobacco and an obsolete New Deal-era government grading system. In the last 10 years, the federal tobacco program has ended; the crop is grown almost exclusively on a production contract for quality and pounds, and acreage has stabilized. Few would argue that the tobacco industry is more robust and stable now than in the pre-buyout days.

Like tobacco, we also have the ability in this country to supply consistent, high-quality cotton. Lessons can be learned if we study how the tobacco industry adapted in a short time to a new world order.

Will cotton become more vertically integrated? Can we grow cotton on a production contract basis? Can U.S. cotton move toward a mill-direct market across the globe? I am convinced these are questions the industry must address.

One thing is for certain. High-quality U.S. cotton is in demand while average or poor quality is not. U.S. cotton producers have measured success in terms of pounds per acre for decades; but, the world market is telling us that it wants high quality fiber.

Those men on the wall at the NCC office led cotton through innovation, and we must continue that tradition. Reforms in an industry with the history of cotton can be painful but necessary. It is a fact the U.S. cotton producer can grow high-quality, high-yielding cotton and do it profitably. I, for one, want to see that happen. I want to see cotton continue to thrive across the Southern landscape.

Contact Sandy Stewart at AgriThority, LLC, in Kansas City, Mo., at sstewart@agrithority.com or (816) 891-0916.

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