The West African nations of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Senegal export 4 million bales of cotton per year, and it is all produced mostly on farms of 10 acres or less.
That is a bit incomprehensible for a California cotton producer like John Pucheu of Tranquillity, Calif., who with his brother farms several thousand acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
However, the chairman of the American Cotton Producers Committee saw it firsthand recently as part of a U.S. delegation visiting Mali and meeting with government officials of several poor African nations to help the development of the cotton industries in those impoverished nations.
“We talked a lot about farming and just as difficult as I found it to understand their system, they could not quite comprehend the size of farms in the United States,” said Pucheu.
But size became irrelevant as farmers from West Africa talked with the farmer from California. “They grow a very good quality cotton there… just under SJV Acala quality,” said Pucheu.
“It is all hand-picked cotton, and one big issue is contamination from farms and gins.” It is an issue solved not many years ago by American growers, and the West Africans were interested in how it was done.”
Pucheu was in West Africa only two days and visited only a gin site, but it as obvious to him that “if they could address the contamination issue in the field and at the gin, they would improve their marketing efforts.”
The delegation, was led by Jim Butler, deputy undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, and included other officials from the State Department's U.S. Agency for International Development and Pucheu as a representative of the National Cotton Council.
Pucheu said the ministers of agriculture were eager to learn how they could help their farmers improve crops by more effective use of fertilizers, water management, biotechnology and integrated pest management. A follow-up conference in Mali in June will examine other technologies that can benefit West African cotton production and quality. Additionally, under the Cochran and Borlaug Fellowship programs, USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service will invite West African officials and scientists to the United States to learn more about cotton classification procedures and soil science.
“The purpose of the trip was to improve dialogue between the nations of West Africa and the U.S. cotton industry,” said Pucheu. That not only covered cotton production, but cotton politics, too. The U.S. farm program has been blamed for keeping world prices low and hurting developing West African nations in marketing their cotton.
While some West African nations are considered democratic, their cotton-growing systems are all monopolistic, quasi-government companies that control every aspect of the cotton industry — from providing supplies to controlling ginning to furnishing credit.
“Growers are even told when to spray for insects by the government,” said Pucheu.
The monopolies can find themselves in an economic bind because they set the price growers will receive when the cotton is planted. If the world price goes down, the governments find themselves owing millions they did not make on the cotton. “There are 11 million people in Mali alone and about a third are directly tied to the cotton industry. Failing to pay what the government has promised affects a huge segment of the population,” said Pucheu.