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Corn+Soybean Digest

From Dirt To Shirt

From Tobacco Road to Taiwan, David Burns has his eye on cotton — from dirt to shirt.

The Laurel Hill, NC, cotton, soybean and wheat producer is among the nation's farmers who devote as much or more time selling their commodities to buyers halfway around the world as they do growing them.

Burns is 2007 Chairman of Cotton Council International (CCI), the export promotions arm of the National Cotton Council (NCC) devoted to getting cotton grown in Memphis, TX, and Memphis, TN, sold to buyers from Mexico to Malaysia.

“Before, we just delivered our domestic cotton to the mill nearby,” says Burns, CCI 2006 president.“But that has all changed.

“Our exports have increased steadily from about 35% just a few years ago to 70% or more today. Without us spending time and money to promote and market our cotton, cotton and synthetic fibers from other countries would take over.”

Allen Helms, a grower from Clarksdale, AR, and 2006 NCC chairman, is just as devoted to international trade of U.S. cotton. Last fall, he welcomed a delegation of Chinese government and China Cotton Association leaders to a trade ceremony in Memphis, TN. There, NCC and the Chinese association signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” promising cooperation between the countries' cotton industries.

As the dominant factor in the global cotton and textile markets, China is the world's largest cotton importer, largest raw cotton consumer (mill level) and the largest cotton producer. Recently admitted to the World Trade Organization, China is rapidly merging into the world economy.

“Cotton trade with China is very healthy today,” says Helms. “The U.S. exported 8.6 million bales, or about 36% of its crop, to China in the past 12 months (through November 2006).

“This memorandum is significant for the U.S. cotton industry, as it seeks to build its long-time relationship with China. It signals a spirit of cooperation and goodwill. We look forward to a successful future of mutually beneficial trade and increased cooperation among the U.S. and Chinese cotton industries,” Helms says.

Before his position with CCI, Burns was first involved with the Cotton Board and Cotton Incorporated. “It's important for farmers to know how the cotton industry promotes our cotton worldwide, and how our money is spent,” he says.

It's essential that growers like Burns and Helms are among U.S. cotton trade teams that visit potential buyers and proven customers abroad, says Allen Terhaar, CCI executive director, Washington, D.C.

“Nobody has as much credibility with foreign buyers as U.S. producers,” says Terhaar. “When they say something, the buyer, the client for our product, listens.”

Terhaar says there are various reasons why growers should be involved in export marketing. “For one, they are able to know their customers,” he says. Exports will equal 80% of U.S. cotton production, or about 14 million bales.

“It's important for farmers to understand how their product looks when it arrives at a foreign market. They can see what, if any, adjustments need to be made at the U.S. production and processing end.

“They see how we, as an industry that goes from ‘dirt to shirt,’ involves everyone from the producer to the mill to make our system work,” he says.

One major accomplishment for CCI is the establishment of the “COTTON USA” mark. Started in 1989, the mark identifies and distinguishes superior products made from cotton grown in the U.S.

“We are the world's largest supplier of high-quality cotton and the leading innovator in enhancing the performance of cotton products,” says Terhaar. “The use of the COTTON USA mark is limited to quality 100% cotton products that contain at least 50% U.S. cotton.

“It's a mark that is recognized worldwide, and that's important to our U.S. growers,” he says.

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