Georgia — which tied with Mississippi last year for second in U.S. cotton production — once enjoyed a reputation within the cotton industry for high-quality fiber. But that's no longer the case. The quality of the state's cotton has declined in recent years, to the point some textile mills avoid purchasing Georgia cotton and farmers lose money to deductions in certain grade categories. In this third installment of an ongoing series, Farm Press editor Paul Hollis takes a closer look at Georgia's fiber quality problems and what is being done to combat the stigma of poor quality cotton.
There are two quality problems related to Georgia cotton, according to a textile industry representative. One is the measured quality difference, with staple ranking high in this category.
“The other is the intangible, those things we don't measure, and uniformity is the key there. Uniformity is really the best indirect indicator — and it's really only a hint — of short fiber content, a big issue with mills,” says South Bryan of Avondale Mills.
Nothing in Avondale's contracts, says Bryan, prohibit the purchase of Georgia cotton. “We have cut-offs on uniformity, as do many mills. But there are big mills that try to stay away from Georgia cotton. It's not because of the measured characteristics, but more what we don't understand about Georgia cotton. It just runs rough, and that's why uniformity should be emphasized — because that's probably the best indicator we have.”
The major threat to Georgia cotton, says Bryan, is having a stigma attached to it, as happened with Arizona and “sticky” cotton.
“Georgia doesn't have a stigma, but there is a slight perception out there that could grow into a stigma if it's not addressed. I'm sure it will be addressed,” says Bryan.
Turning to the current state of the U.S. textile industry, he says it's no secret that U.S. textile mills are in dire straits. “It's common knowledge that our consumption has dropped from about 12 million bales to about 6 million or lower forecast for next year,” he says.
The erosion of the U.S. textile industry isn't over, he adds. “Next year, all multi-fiber textile arrangements that have allowed quotas for years will be replaced by the tariff system under the World Trade Organization (WTO). And our tariffs are not that high.”
There's a question about how viable the U.S. textile industry will be over the long-term, says Bryan. “I don't think it's appropriate to throw up our hands and declare that we're doomed. I do think more erosion is inevitable. But there's a good chance that after the dust settles and the quotas end, there will be a place for a smaller but more nimble U.S. textile industry. As long as we have cotton, and as long as we're close to the retailers, it makes sense that we can find a home for our cotton,” he says.
Survival will depend, he continues, on how well individual textile companies are managed.
Farmers, he says, are seen in different perspectives by some. Some see farmers, he adds, as enjoying massive subsidies and being very resistant to change.
“We holler about various cotton qualities quite a bit, and it seems as if farmers are not responsive. Take the issue of strength, for example. We needed better strength as we put in new equipment, and some farmers responded.
“But I heard several farmers say that they gave us better strength, and we paid them for it for about a year, and now we won't pay for it anymore.
“That's all part of product development. Avondale is still in business today because we've taken chances to come up with new products that may pay a premium for one year. But as soon as it becomes a successful product, everyone else will be doing it, and there's no longer a premium. The companies that consistently do that are the ones who tend to survive.”
Bryan says he's not knocking farmers. “I know that all of the subsidies in the world and all of the market stability in the world cannot possibly eliminate the risks farmers take every day in dealing with Mother Nature and other problems.
“When you have a tremendous amount of capital investment, anything you can do to reduce risk in any area is understandable, and I understand that farmers aren't being unreasonable when they try to limit their risks. But we certainly look at things differently.”
Just the same, he says, the U.S. cotton industry is resistant to change, and there has been little awareness of competitive pressures. The biggest competition to U.S. cotton isn't other growers in the world but rather man-made fibers, he says.
Textile processing, says Bryan, is an interface between high-speed machinery and variable cotton fibers. “What happens in harvesting, ginning and textile processing is that we abuse the fiber. Variability is one of the things that makes it difficult for textile processing. We can't set the tolerances in our machinery as closely as we should set them, considering the speeds they're running, to prevent fiber damage.”
There is a growing awareness, says Bryan, that the U.S. cotton industry must compete in world markets. The U.S. textile industry has been a “captive market,” he adds.
“We haven't complained too much, because we benefit from being in the only developed country in the world with a sizable cotton crop. But with two-thirds of the U.S. cotton crop going overseas, we need to look at competition a little differently.”
The United States has to compete with West Africa and, to a lesser extent, with Central Asia, says Bryan. “Then there's Brazil; they're coming after us politically and economically. As soon as they can complete their infrastructure, they'll be planting cotton. And they can harvest and gin cotton whenever they want.
“They'll eventually be able to bring cotton onto the market in late summer, or they can delay it and bring it onto the market in December. That's an interesting variable for them.”
If U.S. growers are to compete with other countries of the world, there needs to be a shift in mindset, he says. Everyone needs to be more aware of quality issues and of quality measurements.
“U.S. cotton is perceived around the world as having a higher short fiber content. The political brouhaha created by the Chinese when they said they were not taking U.S. cotton unless we used their measurements for short fiber content was sort of a ‘shot across the bow.’
“They did it in a way that we could ridicule their methodology, but I think it's a real issue that's not going away. They're currently wrestling with how they are going to measure cotton in their own country as they modernize their infrastructure.”
Quality issues are being addressed in the United States by improved cotton seed varieties, says Bryan. “And it's just in time. The micronaire issue over the last few years has been terrible. It's obvious what was done and why it was done. When genetic modification came along, there was no way a farmer was going to put quality characteristics above yield — it doesn't make economic sense, and it never will.
“The pounds are worth so much more than the premium and discounts that come with quality. Yields always will be No. 1. That's all seed breeders were worried about when they worked on that first generation of genetically modified varieties. The pipeline is slow, and it has taken several years, but they have listened to our needs. That's a tremendous positive, and it shows that progress can be made. This may well be one of the strategic advantages of the U.S. cotton industry.”
The U.S. cotton industry needs better measurements of quality, says Bryan. “The loan is not a perfect instrument. I understand the reasoning for premiums and discounts, but it's not a responsive system. Sometimes, the market doesn't pass on signals that can be used by producers. With the loan, those signals sometimes are blurred.”
From a product development standpoint, improvements are needed in quality measurements, he says. “Micronaire, length, strength, uniformity — the major HVI characteristics we trade on — don't capture everything. I'm not sure we'll ever have a system that captures everything, but we could do a better job with short fiber content.”
As researchers continue to work on new varieties, Bryan says, they should keep in mind that micronaire isn't the tool it once was. “Everyone loves micronaire, because once you get used to it, it becomes intuitive. But it really incorporates not only fineness, but immaturity and fineness. And we're getting to the point to where the micronaire for one variety implies something different than it does for another variety. Micronaire is becoming significantly less useful as we wrestle with different varieties.”