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California Pima cotton journey to Switzerland begins with look

Paul Schnepf peers at cotton fields with what can only be described as passionate discernment, matched only by his aggressiveness when he actually invaded the rows.

There is nothing casual about Schnepf's inspection of cotton, specifically Extra Long Staple Pima cotton. His inspection partner on a warm fall day in the cotton fields of California's San Joaquin Valley is Gary Vessels, a veteran of three decades in the Western cotton business.

Vessels laughs as his boss Schnepf tears across rows like he has spotted the Holy Grail just four rows over.

“In my third life I would be a cotton farmer,” laughs Schnepf, plowing across rows, snatching bolls off defoliated plants. Schnepf first two lives are that of a family man and managing director of Hermann Buhler Spinning Mills in Winterthur, Switzerland, an industrial city near Zurich. Winterthur is the German-speaking village where the Buhler mill has been spinning cotton since 1858. It is one of the largest export buyers of American grown Pima and has been since the 1970s.

Buhler was one of the first European mills to buy Pima, forsaking the hand-picked Egyptian ELS cottons for U.S. Pima.

“Buhler was one of the early users of Pima when we began expanding our markets into exports,” said Jesse Curlee, president of the Supima Association of America. “While we did not do as good a prep job on cotton then, Buehler recognized early-on the length, strength and micronaire of our American Pima then making fine count yarns.”

Travels Pima Belt

Schnepf travels the Pima Belt from El Paso, Texas to Tranquillity, Calif., each year looking the Pima as pickers begin moving through the field and modules collect in ginyards.

This year he was ecstatic about the 2001 crop. “Excellent quality…harvesting conditions were very dry and quality should be wonderful,” he proclaimed. USDA classings later confirmed Schnepf's pronouncement. Through mid-January with nearly three-fourths of the crop classed, 93 percent of it classed Grade 2 or better, including 34 percent grade 1. This compares to an average of 85 percent grade 2 over the past four marketing years with an annual average of 9 percent grade 1.

The Arizona/Texas/New Mexico 2001 Pima quality has been very high this season with about 98 percent 2s and better, including 38 percent grade 1. Buehler buys cotton from throughout the Pima belt and is an exclusive buyer of organic Pima produced in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico by producer Dosi Alvarez of Las Cruces, N.M.

Buhler's Swiss mill buys 10,000 to 15,000 bales of American Pima each year. “That represents a significant investment and spending two weeks in the Pima Belt at harvesttime is money well spent protecting that investment,” said Schnepf.

Vessels is Buhler's representative in the U.S. He lives in Phoenix and personally inspects and samples each bale Buhler buys. Those samples reach Buhler's fiber testing lab long before the bales are shipped in containers to Europe, barged up the Rhine River and trucked to the small Swiss village.

Vessels spent 22 years with the Dunavant organization before joining Buhler seven years ago.

Schnepf cannot talk about Pima without kneading handfuls of cotton from a module or without combing a loc into long, uniform fibers.

Imperfections, quality

He's looking for imperfections and quality. Short fibers and neps are not what he wants to find. At the Buhler mill 26 percent of the cotton by weight is lost going thorough machinery designed to take out imperfections and making the cotton as uniform as possible.

“You can tell a lot about how cotton will perform in the mill when it is still in the field,” said Schnepf. “I have actually bought cotton while it was still in a farmer's field because of the quality I saw.”

This year's crop was a good one largely because of the dry harvesttime conditions. “Two years ago when conditions were wet, the quality was terrible. Dry is so much better not only for the mill, but the grower. It takes a lot less heat to dry the cotton when it is ginned and that saves growers money,” he said.

Schnepf is an unabashed supporter of American Pima. Buhler promotes it in six of the several yarn products marketed worldwide for use in weaving, knitting, warp knitting and twisting.

Worldwide ELS use has been largely flat for years, but America's share of the world export market has grown dramatically over the past two decades from no more than 60,000 bales per year to close to 500,000.

“There has not been any real growth in the world ELS consumption in 20 years,” said Schnepf. Therefore, competition is keen and it is important that American Pima maintain its quality edge. That can be tough against the hand-picked Egyptian cotton.

Schnepf said there are several challenges he faces in using Pima. Today it is the proliferation of American Pima varieties.

Now must blend

“Before when there was only S-6 or S-7 there was little difference between bales. Now with all the varieties, it makes it difficult for us because we have to blend all the varieties together to get the quality we want,” he said.

“I know the name of the game for farmers is yields, but different things are important to consumers — the mills — things like percent short fiber, neps are more important, especially when you are competing against hand-picked cotton,” said Schnepf.

Ask Vessels and Schnepf about bale packaging, and they roll their eyes.

“No white poly bale wrapping!” Schnepf pleads. “We understand the gins must use poly wrapping because of the cost, but our optical scanners cannot pick up with poly and white poly bale wrapping ruins the yarns. Please only yellow.”

He prefers cotton bagging, but realizes that cost prohibits it.

Stickiness has become a major issue in recent years. Buhler has a thermal stickiness detector in its fiber lab along with an HVI line and other equipment to test not only the raw cotton, but finished yarn as well. “The sticky cotton tester is not perfect, but it tells us enough to know when cotton is sticky. And we monitor that very closely because we don't want sticky cotton in the mill,” he said.

Vessels and Schnepf keep maps of growing areas where stickiness can be a problem.

Chemical finishing

Schnepf also warns that improvements in textile finishing are a threat to worldwide ELS use. “We have seen much improvement in the chemicals used for finishing woven and knotted products. This is important because mills now can get better fineness from lesser quality cotton,” he said. ELS cotton is expensive and in the highly competitive textile business, replacing it with cheaper cotton would be attractive.

The American Pima industry continually works to improve quality. “We are more mindful of prep today than when we first started to get into the export market in a big way,” said Curlee.

Mills like Buhler recognize that, Schnepf says, adding that with a limited world market, it is important the American Pima industry remain quality conscious and strive for improved, consistent quality.

“I enjoy coming to America each fall to see the cotton,” said Schnepf. “It is a joy to see a quality crop like this one.”

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