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Cotton's challenge: how to turn problems into opportunities

“Right now, in a lab somewhere in the Far East, a worker is putting in 12-hour days, making every effort possible to find the perfect polyester fiber that will substitute for your cotton.

“That potential new fiber is your real enemy,” says Mike Watson, vice president of fiber quality for Cotton Incorporated, the U.S. cotton industry's research and promotion organization.

“You're part of a global supply chain,” he told producer-ginner members of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at their summer meeting at Biloxi, Miss. “Delivery of a quality product is essential; otherwise, you won't be in business.”

Two of every three bales ginned in the United States today go outside the country, Watson notes, “so the definition of value for your cotton is set by the foreign buyer.”

And while the United States may have the most mechanized cotton harvesting system anywhere, he points out that 75 percent of the world's cotton is still hand-harvested, and foreign mills are accustomed to working with that cotton. “The rest of the world will gradually move away from hand harvesting, but it will be a very slow process.”

There are only two or three grades for that cotton, Watson says, and 90 percent is grade B. “Once it's bought and blended together, the perception of the mills is that it's all alike. While we think in terms of bales, the rest of the world thinks in terms of tons. They get frustrated when they get cotton from the United States and color is all over the place, and length varies widely. We work hard to educate the international community on the U.S. cotton production system.”

Chinese mills have used more U.S. cotton in recent years than American mills, Watson says, “and they complain bitterly about the quality of the cotton we deliver.” Although Chinese cotton tends to have a higher length uniformity index, he says, their hand-picked cotton has more contaminants than U.S. machine-picked, “so we have a big advantage there. The No. 1 controllable issue for American cotton is contamination — Wal-Mart bags, bird nests, tie-downs, etc.”

U.S. cotton is not part of a global supply chain, Watson says. “When American mills used 11.5 million bales of our cotton, shipping logistics were pretty simple. Now, cotton has to be at the port at a specific time for loading, or it may miss its window.”

With soaring energy prices, transportation costs have skyrocketed. “It seems every time we turn around, there's a $400 to $600 increase for the typical 40-foot shipping container. It costs 1 cent per pound to ship cotton from Mumbai, India, to China; it costs 7 cents per pound to ship from California to China. That's a 6-cents per pound disadvantage for American cotton in shipping cost alone.”

While the perception of cotton is as a fiber product, Watson notes that demand is increasing for cottonseed and byproducts, including gin trash, which help add to cotton's total value. “It's not just about fiber any more. Is it possible we'll one day grow cotton for its seed rather than fiber?

“Our continuing challenge is to find ways to turn problems into opportunities.”

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