Although cotton growers make the key variety selection decisions that ultimately affect quality and mill performance, farmers may have too little information to make those choices. "Seed selection is the genesis of the entire quality process," says Floyd County, Texas, farmer Eddie Smith. "But, as a farmer, I lack consistent direction from mills on what they want. Growers need a road map for planning cotton production."

Smith, speaking at a fiber quality seminar during the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Anaheim, Calif., said price premiums also do not reflect mill needs.

He said farmers are told that fiber strength is a critical factor for efficient mill operation. "But when strength improves, price incentives evaporate."

Smith said farmers understand that mills need fibers that will run fast and that growers need to grow cotton that permits that speed.

"We also need a price incentive to grow fibers that allow mills to run fast," he said.

Smith said the best guide Texas farmers have for the value of cotton quality is the CCC loan chart. "But these charts are geared to reflect more discounts than premiums; therefore, growers are more dedicated to producing volume than quality."

He acknowledged that recent technology, including high volume instrumentation (HVI), was created to provide a tool that would measure quality characteristics consistently. "Technology, however, is only as good as the fibers it manages."

Smith said a cotton variety taskforce, under the auspices of the National Cotton Council, could be a sounding board to improve communication between mills and growers. "Quality values should be stable from year to year," he said. "We would like a clear road map that would provide a basis for establishing mutually acceptable fiber qualities."

He said inside mills, communications exchanges between spinning and weaving operations establish a procedure for creating mutually acceptable fiber quality standards.

"Farmers need that kind of road map to plan production," he said. "If mills want fiber qualities that allow them to run fast and efficiently, they need to share with us exactly what those fiber qualities consist of. If you tell us what you want, we will grow it.

"But, growers need to be compensated for producing cotton with the qualities that make the mills more cost-efficient."

Larry McClendon, a cotton producer and ginner in Marianna, Ark., agrees that micronaire and staple length fiber properties are both moving in the wrong direction. But, he says, fiber quality has been a moving target for the producer.

McClendon likens the cotton fiber quality trend to the process of evolution. As varieties evolve and improve, the cotton mills raise their cotton fiber quality requirements. The problem with this, he says, is that the mills' fiber requirements are continually outpacing the fiber properties of the cotton varieties being planted by farmers.

"Market forces are telling growers that planting the highest -yielding variety is still your best chance for profit," he says. The prime reason for this is that, for the most part, farmers are paid for the amount of cotton they produce, not the quality of cotton they produce.

For example, crop yields affect a grower's LDP payment, crop insurance payment, and overall production income. Fiber quality doesn't affect any of these methods of income.

McClendon does believe there is a need to continue improving the fiber quality of the cotton varieties being planted by producers. However, he thinks this is unrealistic without any financial incentive to growers for producing higher-quality cotton. "Growers will continue to plant the highest-yielding variety they can despite its fiber characteristics," he says.

Quality is the responsibility of the entire cotton industry, not just the mills, merchants or growers, said Louie Perry, a Moultrie, Ga., producer and chairman of the Georgia Cotton Commission. "One of our biggest concerns is new germplasm. Biotech is the wave of the future, but we must have new germplasm to go along with biotechnology," said Perry.

Whenever new varieties are introduced, they should be tested under field conditions, he adds. "We're seeing stress factors that we've never seen in the past. Under plot conditions, we're not seeing the effects of these conditions. When the varieties are moved to field conditions, then the problems begin to show up," said Perry.

Efforts are under way in Georgia, he said, to secure funding for a research gin. The Southeast is the only region in the Cotton Belt that doesn't have such a facility, he added.

Regional research is another priority in Georgia, noted Perry. "We can't control the weather, but we can breed varieties that are not affected so much by adverse weather conditions. Hopefully, we'll develop more regional variety research.

The top two priorities for farmers today are yield and lowering production costs, said Van Murphy, general manager of BCT in south Georgia. "With profit margins being so low, better quality is way down on the list of priorities," he said.

Murphy encouraged merchants and mills to do something positive for growers. "A grower's contract today has no premiums and they're discounted whenever they meet standards. Premiums should be offered for cotton that meets higher standards," he said.