In 1930, approximately 75 percent of U.S. cotton acreage was planted to short staple varieties, measuring 1-inch or less. By 1950, the short staple varieties accounted for only about one-third of the total production. Staple was improved by about 0.05 of an inch over the 25-year period, 1974 through 1999.

Between 1979 and 1984, the staple increased from about 1.05 inches to about 1.08 inches, and between 1990 and 1991, from about 1.08 inches to about 1.10 inches. The most noteworthy aspect of this situation is that the staple has been more or less static since 1991, with the exception of a precipitous drop to a near 1983 era level of 1.07 inches and 1.06 inches in 1998 and 1999, respectively.

From 1975 through the early 1990s, the average micronaire value of the U.S. crop was good and did not vary widely. Beginning in 1993, the average mike value moved up abruptly to about 4.35 and then steadily increased to a high of approximately 4.66 in 2001. This has become a serious problem. Fiber strength faltered in the late 1990s. Much of the decline in fiber strength (grams/tex) may be related to the dramatic increase in mike value.

At the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show earlier this year, cotton merchant William Dunavant raised the question, “What went wrong?” The question related to the quality of the 2002/03 Memphis/Southeastern cotton crop. Actually the intent of the question probably could have been more accurately stated as, “Who did this to us?”

The merchant’s major concern seemed to be that he could not sell this cotton into the competitive market at a satisfactory profit. I have no doubt that there is some truth in this perspective, however, a more appropriate question would have been, “What did we do wrong?”

The truth is that producers have responded properly to the message from the marketplace; that is, quality has little or no monetary value. The opportunities available to producers for enhanced profitability are primarily increased yields, reduced production costs and avoidance of discounts. There is little incentive to improve quality above the base levels of the loan chart.

This means that the answer to the question, “What did we do wrong?” is we failed to provide market incentives for the production of the cotton qualities desired by the market. Thus, the error, or “wrong,” was perpetrated not by the production side of the industry, but instead by the utilization side.

The implied accusation in these questions is that cotton producers must be blamed for these problems. The truth is that producers have had little to say about the policies which led to this problem.

Now we come to the crux of the questions, i.e., “How do we put it right?” We do owe Mr. Dunavant for using his prestige to bring attention to the problem. Now, we must ask him and the leaders of the other segments of the industry to address the solution, or the answer to the last question.

There must be a mechanism whereby the value of fiber quality can be properly identified by the market! Make no mistake about it, once the market places adequate monetary value on the kinds of fiber quality it wants, the production side of the industry will respond vigorously.

Hal Lewis is a scientist, producer and ginner living in Doddridge, Ark.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com