U.S. cotton is at a crossroads, “and we're all hoping there isn't a train wreck,” says Shane Stephens; but “despite all the challenges facing us, I'm optimistic for the future of our industry.”

Stephens, vice president of the StaplCoton cooperative at Greenwood, Miss., told members of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at their summer meeting at Hot Springs, Ark., “We've got a product that's very much in demand — over 120 million bales of cotton will be used in the world this year — and we should be proud of that.”

Even though cotton use by U.S. mills moves ever downward, sales into the export market continue to show gains and the lion's share of those sales is Mid-South and Southeast cotton, he says.

But therein lie problems.

“The product we're selling today is for a different market than in the past when we sold primarily to U.S. mills, and it doesn't fit as well for what foreign mills want.

“They're demanding higher quality, and many of them consider our cotton low grade. That hurts my feelings. We've gone from producing bread-and-butter cotton to what our overseas customers say is low grade.”

Whereas North American mills have 80 percent rotary spinning equipment and only 20 percent ring spinning, the situation is reversed in foreign mills, Stephens says. “They're 80 percent ring spinning, only 20 percent rotary. They aren't going to change their equipment from ring spinning to rotary, so we're going to have to adjust our product to meet their demands.”

In the mid-1990s, he says, ginners were advised to gin for four-leaf cotton. “Now, the mills would rather you gin for three-leaf. The market is sending a signal that it wants less leaf. Your response has been, ‘Well, pay me for it.’ And the market is now adjusting and beginning to pay for it.”

Some concerns about cotton going into the export market, Stephens says:

  • Packaging and contamination: “If a customer gets a bad U.S. bale, it will influence his view of the entire U.S. crop. At least one merchant considers a bale not saleable if it has just one drop of hydraulic oil on it. I realize the pressures you're under to keep your gins running, but if you've got machinery leaking hydraulic oil, you're risking all that cotton being unmarketable.”

  • Stackable bales: “If a mill can't stack the bales they buy, they will complain. Ginners are the only ones who can turn out stackable bales, and it's to your advantage to be sure your bales conform to specs.”

  • Excess bale moisture: “Mills are doing more monitoring and testing for moisture damage. There are some real problems. They read all the reports and they know what's going on, so you need to be on the lookout to reduce these problems.”

  • Stickiness and microdust: “These are also problems that can influence mills' view of U.S. cotton quality.”

The U.S. is “the best, or maybe second best behind Australia, in limiting bale contamination,” Stephens says. “American ginners are doing an excellent job on this. But the rest of the world is catching up to us, and we're going to have to do everything we possibly can to keep our cotton contaminant-free.”