As this year's cotton harvest season picks up speed, producers and ginners are redoubling their efforts to guard against contamination in seed cotton and lint. Even with the positive steps of the past few years, contamination still is a serious problem in the cotton industry and can affect critical relationships with mills.

"If we've been to an area and have had bad results because of improper harvesting practices or ginning practices, we won't go back," says George Herron, vice president, cotton procurement, Dan River Mill in southern Virginia with operations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. "There's not a price discount that will equate to those contamination problems. Because it's not just the value of the goods, it's the damage you've done with your customer that's very hard to repair."

Herron says he knows that can be a harsh penalty for the producer and the gin, but he doesn't know of any other way to address the problem. Dan River does not have many chances to replace a customer's contaminated cloth.

"Most contamination at Dan River is not detected until the product is finished and into the channels of trade even though we have various checkpoints throughout the system," Herron says. "Invariably the cloth has been shipped to the customer and that customer has made a garment out of it, and it's upon inspection of that shirt that the contamination is discovered. Therein is the cost. It's not just the price of the cotton or our manufacturing costs."

Servico, a progressive gin in Courtland, Ala., is one of many gins taking a proactive approach in attempts to avoid contamination in the end product.

Bobby Greene, president of Servico, says that he began looking for ways to reduce contamination at the gin as a result of the National Cotton Council's educational efforts.

"We have found contamination from time to time at different points in the gin and have implemented policies to deal with that issue," he says.

Servico has three checkpoints that are opened daily: module feeder, incline/stick machine and the feeders above the gin stands.

"Every day we open up all three checkpoints and each is inspected carefully," says James Askew, Servico gin manager. "Then during our operational periods, if anyone spots any contamination, we immediately shut the plant down and look at all these checkpoints to make sure we're not going to contaminate the bale."

Greene says they find contamination in the plant occasionally.

"We do find material wrapped around the rollers," he says. "We'll go in and flag the bales that came off of the module that we think is the source of the contamination. Then we carry that to the next step and let the textile mill know that these bales are suspect and they typically will go to one of their plants that is using cotton blended with some synthetic fiber so that it doesn't show up in an all-cotton yarn."

Askew believes producers especially should be aware of fields near highly traveled roads where contamination can blow into the field. He says the main type of contamination found at Servico is plastic.

"That's usually what we find here," he says. "The most contaminated modules come from fields that are near roadways. There are a lot of plastics that blow into those fields, and if the farmer doesn't take the time and effort to remove that material before they build that module, it's a tough battle for us to fight sometimes."

Greene says gins and growers now have potential liability if a mill is able to trace a contaminated bale back to its source.

"Even though it may be difficult to identify a bale that's contaminated once it's in the (mill) laydown, it certainly does narrow the contamination source to those bales within a laydown and they could be identified back to a gin point," he says. "So both growers and gins do need to become more aware of contamination. They need to do everything they can to fight contamination."

Herron says Dan River will continue to be more selective with gin points by specifying through their vendor that they want cotton from specific gins - those with a history of very few or no contamination problems.

"That's the No. 1 thing we can do," he says. "That would mean the gin had done a good job of educating its customers, the producers, about housekeeping, as well as housekeeping at its own place."