Late spring usually finds Billy Carter planting 1,600 acres of cotton. This year, however, Carter has been behind a desk and out in the field promoting the crop and keeping North Carolina cotton producers informed of the changes in the new farm bill.
It's a role change, in a way, for the Scotland Neck, N.C., cotton industry leader. He's been involved in grower leadership positions with the National Cotton Council, the Southern Cotton Growers, Cotton Incorporated, and American Cotton Producers for a number of years. Earlier in the year, Carter became executive vice president of the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association (NCCPA).
Even behind the desk, he's taking the same commonsense approach he did in his farming operation and as a leader in the cotton industry:
He believes the cotton industry is at the bottom of a cycle.
The cotton portion of the farm bill will boost incomes for North Carolina producers.
Cotton farmers must place a growing emphasis on marketing.
Quality will continue to be important for both the textile and farming communities.
The obvious question is why a lifelong farmer such as Carter is behind a desk instead of out in the field?
The answer: economics.
The decision hinged on trends in the industry, he says. The stress of being the only manager on a 2,500-acre farm, escalating land rent and the need to get bigger all contributed to his decision to park his tractors. “I needed to get bigger in order to stay in farming, but I didn't want to take that step.”
That's about the time the position at the NCCPA came open.
Rick Holder, president of the NCCPA, believes the state's cotton producers will benefit from Carter's “vast knowledge and experience in all facets of the cotton industry.”
“Billy Carter's leadership experience at the state and national levels in the cotton industry will be an enormous asset to our association in this full-time position,” Holder says.
Drawing on his past experience as a farmer, Carter believes the cotton industry is in store for brighter days. “We've been at the bottom for a while, but we're not going to go down any further,” he believes. “It wouldn't take much of a yield or acreage loss in the U.S. and problems in China for cotton to be back around 50 cents.
“There are always peaks and valleys,” Carter says. “I hope this farm program will make the valleys a little easier to get through than they have been in the past.”
Being able to update base acreage is one portion of the new cotton program that will help North Carolina producers. “That will be the single biggest asset to increasing cotton income in the state,” Carter says. “If a producer can go back four years and update his base, that's going to increase income.” Last year only 55 percent of the cotton acres in North Carolina were cotton base.
“The general feeling about the farm bill is positive in regards to North Carolina cotton,” Carter says. He attended National Cotton Council meetings in May designed to explain the new program to producers. “I believe this program will support the U.S. cotton industry and keep us from giving away the whole ball of wax.”
For the future, Carter believes farmers will have to place more emphasis on marketing. “Quality will play a more active role in variety selection at some point in time — and sooner rather than later as the textile industry looks for quality and standards to fit their mill use. The closer farmers can come to what the textile industry needs, the better off we're going to be.”
“You have to have a marketing plan,” he says. “The way the markets change, a person has to have a plan and stick to it. He may get hurt one or two years out of 10, but he's going to be better off sticking to a plan than trying to out-guess the market.”
He likens a marketing plan to a planting plan. “You have to line up things according to what your financial position will allow you to do.”
It may involve hiring someone to do marketing for you, Carter says, because “making a profit consumes all of your time — it did mine.”
Sitting at his desk in Raleigh, Carter now sees his calling as one of “making life easier for cotton farmers — keeping everybody abreast of what's going on and how it might affect their operation.”
He's responsible for coordinating the education, promotion, research funding and daily management of the NCCPA.
The organization plans to launch a Website later this year.
Carter's biggest goal on the other side of the desk these days is seeing cotton profitable again. “I'd like to see smiles on faces of farmers and fewer worry lines,” Carter says. “And I'd like to see the textile industry do well. To see the industry thrive.”