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Cotton industry loses leader with death of Billy Carter

The cotton industry lost a leader and one of the really good people in agriculture with the death of Billy Carter on New Year’s Day.

Billy’s vast knowledge of the cotton industry will be greatly missed. His combination of experience, a straight forward approach to the challenges faced by the cotton industry and his ever-present sense of humor will be long-remembered by all of us who knew him.

The last time I talked to Billy was back in September, at a cotton field day at Gary Respess’ farm in Pantego, N.C. I congratulated Billy for putting on such a well-attended, information-filled field day.

True to his nature, he said, “Gaylon Ambrose (Beaufort County Extension farm agent), Gary Respess and his family and lot of other good folks put a lot of work into making this day happen, I can’t take much credit, but I sure am enjoying the glory.”

That’s the way he was — humble and good-natured, but behind that country boy façade was a wealth of cotton production, marketing and promotion information that he was willing to share with anyone who sought his help.

Whether it be talking with North Carolina State University scientists at a field day or discussing trade strategies with Chinese textile manufacturers, Billy Carter was a cotton man. Traveling to foreign countries wasn’t his favorite thing, but he did it, and he did it well to help the plight of North Carolina cotton farmers.

Billy was a long-time member of cotton’s USDA Agricultural Trade Advisory Committee. He understood the reality of export of raw cotton and import of cotton products and worked tirelessly to put the two together to help the industry he loved.

Brad Robb, vice-president of communications for the Cotton Board, says of Carter, “Billy spent a considerable amount of time on international trade issues and helped bring a long-term vision to cotton leadership in the Southeast. 

He was a close, personal friend to many of us. We will miss Billy's insight, his straight-forward approach to problems, and his congenial sense of humor.”  

When I first started working with Farm Press one of my goals was to visit with all the major commodity leaders in the Carolinas and Virginia.

As part of that effort, and not long after started working with Southeast Farm Press, I called Bob Sutter, executive director of the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association to see if I could stop by for an impromptu visit on my way back to Raleigh from somewhere in eastern North Carolina.

Bob said he was getting ready to leave for a business trip, but would be there for a few minutes. I didn’t know at the time that the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association shared office space with the North Carolina Cotton Growers Association.

I don’t remember much about the visit with Bob, but I do remember him asking whether I had talked to the cotton folks and subsequently him introducing me to Billy Carter.

I spent only a few minutes talking peanuts with Bob Sutter before he had to leave for his meeting, but I spent a couple of hours talking about cotton with Billy Carter.

My initial thought about the joint peanut-cotton association offices in Nashville, N.C., was that it was a bit different for them to be housed in the same building in the same small town. After getting to know Billy, that arrangement made perfect sense.

Billy was a pragmatist of the ultimate country boy order and working with other trade associations for the overall benefit of agriculture, he reasoned, could only be good for the cotton farmers he represented. And, he was right about that.

Every year prior to planting season, I talked to Billy to get his thoughts on cotton production for the coming year in North Carolina. Last year we sat down with a couple of his growers at the North Carolina Cotton Growers Association annual meeting — a first time joint venture with North Carolina soybean, corn and small grain grower associations in New Bern, N.C.

I was looking forward to doing that again this year, but Billy was involved in a traffic accident on Dec. 30. His list of injuries from the wreck would fill this entire column. He fought hard, before succumbing to his injuries on New Year’s Day.

At that same field day back in September, I asked Billy if the cotton outlook for Southeastern growers was as good as it looked for the next couple of years. “We’ll see, he said, we’ll see.”  He was a cotton man through and through, but never got too excited in the good times nor too down in the bad ones.

I did a story with Billy and some other upper Southeast cotton growers back in the winter of 2008. Prices were less than half what they are now, and I remember hating to ask Billy what he thought cotton acreage might be that next spring.

He said, “We might lose a fourth of our cotton acreage next season, as much as 40 percent in some counties in the state.” He was a cotton man, but didn’t sugar coat reality. As a journalist, you gotta love that kind of honesty.

That’s gonna be tough to deal with, I said. “We’ll stick together, and we’ll get through it,” he said. Billy Carter was the glue that held North Carolina cotton growers together in the hard times and kept their feet on the ground in the good ones.

Billy grew cotton and other crops for about 30 years prior to becoming Executive Director of the North Carolina Cotton Growers Association in 2002. He didn’t just grow cotton, he grew it well. In the 1990s he was named Cotton Producer of the Year for the Southeast.

He was also involved in grower leadership positions with the National Cotton Council, North Carolina Boll Weevil Foundation, Southern Cotton Growers, Cotton Incorporated and American Cotton Producers for a number of years.

I didn’t make it to Billy’s funeral, but I’m guessing the small church in his home town of Scotland Neck, N.C., couldn’t hold those who did. I doubt there is a building in all of North Carolina big enough to hold all of us who considered Billy a friend and who were there in spirit.

When asked about Billy’s funeral arrangements, his wife Beverly Carter simply said, “Tell them to wear a cotton tie.” I suspect Billy is still smiling about that. If he’s checking the Internet up in heaven, I’m guessing he’s also smiling about all the offers of cotton ties for anyone needing one to be properly attired for his funeral.

Billy was good man. He leaves a big footprint in the cotton industry and in all of agriculture. He will be missed.





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