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Georgia cotton needs to avoid quality stigma

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Tifton – The quality of Georgia’s cotton crop has declined in recent years. It’s already costing farmers money. Industry experts want to change that before the state’s cotton gets an economic stain it can’t remove.

About 60 ginners, farmers, millers, buyers and University of Georgia experts met to discuss the problem here March 16 at the UGA Cotton Fiber Quality Symposium.

Stigma?

“Georgia once had an exceptional reputation within the cotton industry for high-quality fiber,” said Don Shurley, a cotton economist with the UGA Extension Service. “But some textile mills now avoid purchase of Georgia cotton, and farmers are seeing deducts in certain grade categories.”

South Bryan, a cotton buyer for Avondale Mills, one of three domestic mills that purchase half the U.S. cotton production, agreed. Some large mills are not buying Georgia cotton.

“Georgia doesn’t have a real stigma now, but that perception could grow if the (quality) problem is not addressed,” Bryan said.

And once the stigma is there, it will be hard to erase, he said.

Poor grades cost

Shurley figures Georgia farmers lose about 5 cents per pound due to poor cotton quality. In 2002, poor quality stripped farmers of $43 million in potential income.

Georgia cotton generally scores well in most grade categories. But it gets poor grades in two important ones: short fibers and inconsistent fibers. Most mills now use high-speed spinning equipment. Short, inconsistent fibers don’t run well through these spinners and can jam them, costing mills time and money.

Georgia had the worst cotton fiber length quality in the country last year, Shurley said.

Most mills prefer cotton fiber that is “long and strong,” he said. Last year, about 11 percent of Georgia’s cotton met this requirement. Getting that perfect cotton is tough, but other cotton-producing regions come closer. The Memphis region had 24 percent of its cotton meet the high standard.

Competition

Georgia cotton has to compete against high-quality cotton around the world. It is estimated that 2 out of 3 bales of U.S. cotton will need to be exported because of continued decline in U.S. mill capacity.

Other global cotton regions, such as China and West Africa, still pick cotton by hand using cheap labor. They can produce high-quality cotton favored by more modern, fast mills, said Mike Watson, fiber quality researcher with Cotton Incorporated.

There are two types of cotton buyers in the world: the high-end buyer and “the bottom-feeder,” those who buy poor quality cotton because it’s cheaper, Watson said, and turn it into low-quality clothing items.

Georgia cotton could find a type of cotton-price purgatory, he said, where it’s too poor for the high-end buyers and too good for the bottom-feeders.

Cotton demand is strictly driven by consumer wants. If it was strictly up to mills, Watson said, they’d all use man-made fibers that can be made longer and stronger consistently.

Fiber fix

Cotton varieties in development might curb the problem, said Steve Brown, a UGA extension cotton agronomist.

Different farmer practices, such as harvest timing, could also help. And the cotton industry as a whole could look at better ways to handle cotton from seed to the mill to preserve quality.

Scientists with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences will begin cotton quality research this year at a new microgin on the UGA Tifton, Ga., campus. The microgin is a scaled-down version of a commercial gin and will provide scientists a real-world environment for tests.

Last year, Georgia and Mississippi produced about 2.1 million bales of cotton to tie for second place in U.S. production behind Texas' 4.3 million bales.

A sample of each Georgia cotton bale is sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Macon, Ga., to receive grades.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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