King Cotton's crown sits ever more lopsided. Despite a monster crop in 2001, Depression-era prices would've sunk a lot of producers were it not for government payments helping to keep them afloat.

Optimism for cotton in 2002 wasn't exactly abundant at last week's Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Atlanta. Acreage and production are both expected to be down significantly this season; uncertainty still clouds the new farm bill and government money for agriculture; the textile business, which has been the traditional best customer for American cotton, continues to dry up as plants close or move out of the United States; and a cutthroat world market makes it tough for our cotton to compete with crops produced more cheaply elsewhere.

Although U.S. cotton continues to retain marketshare, with most major nation economies in the tank, consumers aren't buying as much clothing, bedding, carpets, etc.

The conferences themselves were impacted by the lousy economic environment. Attendance barely nudged the 3,000 mark, down sharply from a record 5,000-plus only a few years ago. While some people may have been reluctant to travel in the wake of the events of 9/11, the more common story was that a lot of those who'd otherwise have attended couldn't do so because of travel budget cutbacks.

William B. Dunavant, whose analysts sift information worldwide, says there's simply too much cotton overhanging the market and, barring unexpected circumstances, that won't begin to change until 2003, when carryover should decline a bit. Chatting with Mississippi economist O.A. Cleveland on a down elevator ride, he said that he, too, thinks there's not much improvement in sight before 2003.

There is no little irony in the fact that for years “experts” have been prodding farmers to become more efficient, to cut costs, to become better managers, to embrace technological advances. All of which they've done — had to do — in order to survive.

They've quickly adopted the transgenic varieties that make insect battles easier; they've gone to conservation tillage systems that reduce costs; they've bought bigger harvesters and almost universally have gone to moduling systems. And their reward for this improved efficiency?

Below-30-cent cotton.

In hallway conversations, there were numerous accounts of long-time, well-known farmers who're either calling it quits, retiring, or selling off their equipment and renting their land. Here in the Mississippi Delta, several leading farmers are giving it up for one reason or another. A lot of those who remain shake their heads and say they wonder why.

One producer offered his answer: “A lot of us don't have the option of alternative crops. If we farm, we're pretty much committed to cotton. We can't use cotton equipment for anything else — you can't harvest rice or soybeans with a quarter-million-dollar cotton picker. I worry that if we lose a lot of farmers, then we'll lose more of the infrastructure that's built around cotton, in which case we might as well wave goodbye as cotton production follows the textile industry to other countries.”


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.