In West Africa, cotton ginners not only provide financing for cotton farmers, but also maintain roads and provide educational opportunities for them. In India, one out of every 25 inhabitants is a cotton farmer.
Those are just a few of the practices and peculiarities that make up the universe of cotton production outside the familiar confines of the United States. A panel of experts discussed how foreign farmers forge a living on cotton during the recent 2002 Beltwide Cotton Conference in Atlanta.
Cotton production “is a lot like it is in the United States,” said Timothy Drew, research and development manager, Cotton Seed International, WeeWaa, New South Wales, Australia.
Australian cotton production developed steadily from when it was first introduced in the early 1960s until the early 1980s, when acreage began to grow more rapidly. Drew noted that the entire industry consists of only around 1,500 growers, but they are a highly educated, highly sophisticated group.
Today, Australia is the world's sixth largest cotton producing country with 3 percent of world production. “However, the Australian industry is very much influenced by the amount of rainfall it receives each year, not only for the benefit of crops but to help provide irrigation water,” Drew said.
As in America, the Australian cotton industry is modern and innovative, but is quite vulnerable to world market prices. Grower practices are aimed at increasing yields and thereby decreasing the cost of production. Australians use a range of technologies including the Global Positioning System, infrared satellite images and computers.
“The export destination of the Australian crop is primarily into Asia and the Far East,” Drew said. “Over 80 percent of the Australian crop has an average staple length of 1.18 and strength of 28 or better. The majority of the micronaire is in the ideal range.”
Australian cotton is machine-picked and moduled and goes to modern, efficient gins. “The industry is trying to reduce freight and transport costs through strategically-located warehouses,” Drew said.
Plantings in the 2001/02 season were down 23 percent from the previous year, noted Drew. Last year, 3.5 million bales were produced on 1.2 million acres. Forecasts for 2002/03 are that 2.9 million bales will be produced on 1.1 million acres.
China has about 200 million farm households farming an average of 1.29 acres and earning less than $400 a year, according to Hunter Colby, managing director of cotton economics, Globecot, Nashville.
There is little or no mechanization in China; however, small tractors have begun to appear in the countryside. Cotton pesticide applications are handled with back-mounted hand pumps. However, many small fields are sprayed at different times, creating refuges for insect pests. Important pests include bollworm, aphids and spider mites.
All the picking of cotton is by hand and transported via three-wheeled bicycle carts to government-run procurement stations. However, some private cotton dealers have emerged this year, according to Colby.
Cotton stalks are cut after harvest. Some farmers will dry and burn the stalks for cooking and to heat their homes during winter.
This past year, cotton farm incomes plummeted due to the dismantling of the high, government-set cotton procurement price. Early surveys in China suggest that farmers are planning to reduce area sown to cotton this coming season by at least 20 percent.
Because of the WTO, substantial levels of cotton could be imported by China. This means that for the first time in more 50 years, China's cotton farmers will be directly impacted by world cotton prices.
Last season, Brazil produced about 4 million bales of cotton and enjoyed a bumper crop in the Mato Grosso region due to higher than anticipated yields, according to Ricardo Varela, Dunavant Enterprises, Memphis.
Projected consumption in 2001/02 was around 3.9 million bales, down slightly from the previous year. “We expect a 15- to 20-percent reduction in planting in Brazil this planting season, because of poor prices. Brazil may need to import some cotton in three to four months, maybe 300,000 to 400,000 bales.”
Since 1997, the Mato Grosso growing region of west Brazil has been developing into a more modern enterprise, according to Varela. “New seed varieties came into play and new techniques, including soybean/cotton rotation programs. In addition, the region has had a 15- to 20-year history of favorable weather patterns.”
Today, the Mato Grosso region comprises 40 percent of cotton acreage in Brazil, and produces 60 percent of the country's output. Mato Grosso farms average 3,000 to 5,000 acres, but labor costs are much lower than in the United States. The crop is rain-grown, with 65 to 75 inches falling between Nov. 15 and May 15. Little rain falls between May 15 and Nov. 15.
According to Varela, Mato Grosso cotton producers spend roughly $1,000 to $1,200 per hectare on their cotton crop, ($415 to $500 per acre). They harvest an average of about 10,000 pounds of seed cotton, which produces about 3,900 pounds of lint cotton per hectare (3.4 bales) at a 39 percent turnout.
Depending on the rate of exchange, the price they receive for cotton is about 35 to 38 cents a pound, for a gross income of $566 to $614 per acre. In addition, Brazilian growers do receive some government assistance, “when the government has the money to do.”
Brazilian farmers are behind U.S. growers in land preparation, “especially the ability to laser-level land and in the use of satellite technology. As for cultural practices, harvesting and ginning, Brazilian growers are on par with the United States. They make four to five applications of pre-emergent herbicides, six to eight herbicide applications and eight to 12 insecticide applications.”
But Brazilian growers “are very much behind U.S. growers in the marketing of the crop,” Varela said. “U.S. farmers use tools like futures and options that Brazilian farmers are not using.”
Cotton production has increased significantly each year since 1949, and the region now produces 4 million bales annually. It is the world's third-largest exporter of cotton, according to Curt Arbenz, merchant with Paul Reinhart AG, Winterthur, Switzerland.
Most of the cotton is middling quality or better, staple, almost 1.09 or better; and micronaire ranges from 3.5 to 4.5.
Arbenz noted that most fields are plowed using oxen. Crop dusting and picking is done by hand. An agency similar to the U.S. Extension Service sets up weighing stations at harvest for seed cotton. Farmers are paid at that time for their seed cotton — a price fixed by the government at 12.5 cents per pound.
“Transportation to the gin is the ginners' responsibility,” Arbenz said. “Ginners provide farmer financing and also have to maintain the roads in their area, carry out literacy programs for farmers and women, and build drinking wells for villages. They also distribute medicine and offer medical services.”
India is the world's third-largest cotton-producing country and the second-largest cotton consuming country, according to Gerald C. Marshall, senior vice president for Hohenberg Bros., Memphis. One out of every five people in India is a farmer, and 20 to 25 percent of that number are cotton farmers.
About 23 million to 24 million acres are planted to cotton in India each year; however, it has the lowest average yield of any major-producing country.
India is divided into three cotton-producing regions. “The northern cotton region is at the same latitude as Montgomery, Ala. The central region is on the same latitude as central Mexico, and the southern region has a climate zone similar to Venezuela.”
With such an expansive production area, “it's fair to say that for 12 months out of the year, someone is planting cotton and someone is harvesting cotton.”
The northern region is almost 100-percent irrigated, with water coming from canals fed by five rivers. “It's similar to California's San Joaquin Valley,” Marshall said. “You can grow just about anything if you have the water. Away from the irrigation, it's virtually a desert. However, winters can be extremely cold.
“The quality of cotton grown there is a short staple cotton similar to that grown in west Texas, 3.2 to 4.5 micronaire and length of a 1.0 to 1.03. One-quarter of India's cotton is grown in the region.”
Most of the cotton in India's central zone is rain grown and depends on the summer monsoon, which up until last year had been fairly reliable. The temperature is more moderate than the northern zone. “The quality of the cotton is similar to Memphis Territory, length, 1.06 to 1.09, with mike in the premium range.”
The southern zone has a little less than a third of the acreage; about one-third is irrigated. The climate is tropical with the temperature rarely going below 65 degrees in the winter. Staple length of cotton can be over 2 inches.
Farming practices in India are poor, as are yields, which range from 260 to 290 pounds per acre. “Farmers have poor seed varieties and a serious debt problem, with most financing done through chemical and seed companies. In many cases, farmers don't have the money to take care of their fields,” Marshall said.
Cotton is 100 percent hand-harvested in India and much of it is roller ginned.