Cotton looks strong, but it must remain sustainable and in demand

Brad Haire brad-haire-farm-press-jimmy-webb-3-web-promo.JPG
Jimmy Webb has served on many cotton leadership organizations for many years, and most recently as chairman of The Cotton Board.
Cotton demand right now is certainly not where growers want it to be, but good to see prices increasing as 2020 harvest begins.

It was mid-October. The south Georgia sky was the clear blue that happens only this time of year when the hazy humidity lifts to allow the vibrance down. Not a bad day for Jimmy Webb's cotton pickers to kick off the 2020 harvest.

Folks who know Jimmy Webb know it isn't hard to get him to talk, and that's a good thing. He's worn many leadership hats in the agriculture industry over the years. Webb will tell you upfront he is first and foremost a peanut farmer. He planned to be on a peanut picker later that day.

Peanuts aside, he has served on many cotton leadership organizations for many years, and most recently as chairman of The Cotton Board. The cotton leadership habit runs in the family. Webb picked up the habit from his uncle Bob McLendon, who 20 years ago was the first Georgia grower to be chairman of the National Cotton Council.

The hat Webb's worn the longest has been as a farmer. His family grows about 3,000 acres, or 1,000 acres each of cotton, peanut and corn. He expected peanuts to average 6,500 pounds per acre. His corn averaged a bit better than 200 bushels per acre.

No Dicamba Used

He planted mostly Deltapine 1646 this year but also planted some Phytogen and Americot varieties to test out, which he said also looked promising. Early this summer, he felt he might have the best yielding crop of his career. Many growers in the area did, but wet weather and tropical storms began hampering things in early September. The lower crop started seeing more hardlock and boll rot. Still, he expected a good shot and three bale cotton in some fields, maybe higher.

He said the new varieties and technologies, along with improved markets, are important to cotton's future. Cotton growers need all the opportunities and tools they can have, including such tools as the newer dicamba products. It was unfortunate a panel of judges on California's Ninth Circuit Court revoked the registrations of some dicamba products this summer. (As of this writing, EPA was expected but had not yet made a decision on whether to renew registrations for in-season dicamba products.)

Webb said he doesn't use dicamba in season on his cotton. He starts clean, deploys residuals and plants his cotton into heavy cover. His crew keeps small hand-pump sprayers on all equipment and use them to hit pigweed escapes with Liberty.

Futures Looked Better

December futures rose slightly above 70 cents in October. A welcomed trend. Webb wasn't sure if the increase in futures was due to speculators or the market responding to adverse weather worldwide, or a mix of both. Either way, he said, demand for U.S. cotton will have to increase sooner rather than later.

The October WASDE report reduced U.S. 2020 production by about 10,000 bales compared to the September report. Still, that puts ending stocks for U.S. cotton at around 7.2 million bales. The stocks-to-use ratio remained pretty high at 40%.

"Demand right now certainly not where we want it to be, but I'm excited that the price is where it is. So, I'm optimistic. When we start opening back up more after the pandemic, I could see things getting a lot better. Retail sales seem to be down, but online sales are way up. So, you see a kind of a shift. Cotton Incorporated has done a great job of pushing that online sales. They've come out with a great marketing slogan for our current times: Stay safe. Stay home. Stay comfortable. Wear cotton," he said.

Sustainable Push

The industry will need to continue to push efforts to ensure U.S. cotton remains attractive to consumers and retailers in a crowded synthetic fiber space, he said. A bright feather in U.S. cotton's hat is its sustainability message, which rings well in today's market space.

"Right now, and many know this, sustainability is a big issue. We need to look at being a sustainable cotton grower and telling that message," he said.

He pointed to the new push to get U.S. growers to join the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, a verification program the U.S. cotton industry developed to hang its sustainability hat and good message on.

"We've sustainably grown cotton for a long time in the U.S. and are getting more refined all the time, right? Our retailers and consumers need to know that. The trust protocol is that verification program we can point to, so we don't lose any market share, and a program all growers need to look into," he said.

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For growers to serve in leadership or advisory committees, it takes a crew back on the farm to keep things running smoothly. "It’s a big deal, and it’s why we have trouble sometimes finding people willing to commit to serve on boards," said Jimmy Webb. From left, the crew is Maurice Carter, Jeremy Webb (nephew), Scott Butler, Jimmy Webb, Mike Varnum (farm manager), Charles Varnum (the loan Alabama football fan), Chandler Farley and Webb's brother, Wesley.
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