Cotton, as much as any agricultural commodity, rises and falls with the booms and busts of the general economy—national and global.
When people face the alternatives of buying food or finery, the choice is simple. Yet, through bull markets and bears, cotton remains a stable part of the Sunbelt commodity mix, offering a degree of certainty to farmers and rural communities who rely on it.
On top of that, cotton provides a natural, sustainable fiber that meets consumers’ demand for comfort and durability.
For many rural communities across the Sunbelt, cotton drives a significant part of the economy.
“Without cotton, the Texas High Plains would be hurting,” says Shawn Holladay, a Lubbock, Texas, producer and industry leader.
Holladay, who has served in various positions with the National Cotton Council, Cotton Incorporated and Plains Cotton Growers, identifies as a cotton grower. “Cotton provides the best opportunity for many West Texas producers to make a living from the farm,” he says.
“Cotton is the most drought tolerant crop available. We typically grow only cotton; occasionally we might produce a few peanuts.
“We have the infrastructure across the High Plains for cotton,” he adds. That infrastructure — cotton gins, warehouses, equipment, ag suppliers — plays a key role in the region’s economy, creating jobs and tax revenue.
Holladay says the Lubbock area relies on Texas Tech, the hospital, oil, and cotton as key economic drivers. “Without cotton, the area [often called ‘the world’s largest cotton patch,’] would be hurting,” he says. “We have invested in the machinery to grow cotton."
Holladay was close to completing 2020 harvest in early November on what he says will be a fairly good irrigated crop. “We got a blank on dryland cotton,” he says.
Still, he says cotton remains the go-to option for many West Texas farmers.
Bill Robertson, Arkansas cotton Extension agronomist, says cotton has been an Arkansas staple for generations.
“For years, Arkansas cotton and rice paid the bills,” Robertson says. In recent years, cotton acreage has ebbed and flowed as markets changed, often favoring corn or soybeans. More recently, peanut acreage has increased.
“Lately, the economics of peanuts have been head-and-shoulders over everything else,” he says. “Cotton benefits from being in a rotation with corn. Cotton behind peanuts works wonderfully.”
Robertson says rotating chemistry along with crops improves weed control. Corn, especially, offers weed control benefits to subsequent cotton because of the different herbicide alternatives.
Like Holladay, he sees economic advantages with cotton. “Some economists say a cotton dollar turns over in the local community more times than a grain dollar because of the infrastructure necessary for cotton.”
The materials cotton farmers buy locally and the employment opportunities at gins and other suppliers provide significant economic advantages to rural communities. “A lot of these communities are better off financially when cotton is strong,” Robertson says.
He says the culture of cotton in Arkansas has changed.
“At farm meetings, Farm Bureau and such, when you talked to the older generation of farmers about crops they raised, they said ‘I’m a cotton farmer and also have some beans and corn.’ Younger farmers hardly ever call themselves cotton farmers even when they grow cotton.”
Robertson says changing farm legislation and the emergence of pest issues, including Reniform nematode, convinced cotton farmers of the value of rotation. “Some areas of the state were all cotton until the Reniform, and they were about to go broke and turned to corn to manage nematodes. Several years of good corn prices and good yields made it hard to find a cotton patch for a few years.”
Cotton clawed its way back into the mix and remains an integral part of cropping systems. “We need the diversity for soil health and pest management,” Robertson says.
Gary Adams, president and CEO, National Cotton Council, Memphis, says cotton remains important to rural economies. “Over the last 10 or 15 years, U.S. cotton acreage has been as low as 8 or 9 million acres and then back up to 15 million. Markets adjust.”
A key to the future, Adams says, is cotton’s commitment to sustainability. “Part of our message to consumers and brand retailers is the responsible production practices U.S. farmers employ. Sustainability plays an important role in consumer purchasing decisions, particularly for younger consumers. They want to know how a product is produced.
“U.S. cotton has a great track record of shrinking its environmental footprint,” Adams says. “Since 1980, producers have become more efficient with water, energy and other resources.”
Better technology and better management practices have helped. A lot of research in those areas has been funded by producers through entities such as Cotton Incorporated.
A new initiative, The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, Adams says, will help the industry demonstrate the commitment to sustainable production.
The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, through farmers who voluntarily enroll in the program, provides data to show how producers are improving resource efficiency.
“Aggregate data will be provided to consumers and the supply chain so they will have confidence in the product,” Adams says.
In 2019, the program worked with approximately 300 producer volunteers from across the Cotton Belt, and as harvest winds down for the 2020 crop, will begin reenrolling those and looking for new participants. “We hope to get 500 for the 2020 crop.”
Adams says Covid-19 has challenged but not stopped work on the Cotton Trust Protocol. Meetings have gone virtual. “Since summer, we’ve been explaining to brands what the Trust Protocol is all about. Retailers have gone through a hard period, too, but still maintain a strong focus on sustainability. Producer data will be valuable for brands and retailers.”
Adams and others in the cotton industry hope soon to see progress in stemming the pandemic and an economic recovery.
“We hope to bring back some of the cotton demand we lost in the last six to nine months to the pandemic.”
Adams says as the Council looks to the future, the case for cotton remains strong. “As we look ahead, we see room for improvement and believe the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol offers a way to provide assurance of cotton’s sustainability message.”