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Industry leaders: Gin lab closings ill conceived

The Bush Administration's budget recommendation that two of the country's three cotton ginning labs be closed, if enacted, would cause economic losses to the communities where labs are located and would limit needed research into cotton processing, say industry officials.

The administration's budget would eliminate ginning laboratories at both Lubbock, Texas, and Las Cruces, N.M, leaving only a gin lab at Stoneville, Miss., to serve the entire Cotton Belt.

Steve Verett, executive vice president of Plains Cotton Growers Inc., who represented the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce as its current president at a recent press conference during the Texas Ginners Association trade show, said closing the Lubbock lab would be a blow to the High Plains economy.

“Agricultural research is vital to this area,” Verett said. “The gin research lab here is an important part of the Lubbock economy.” A lot of money comes into the community through gin lab research efforts, he said.

Lab closings would be part of a proposed 11 percent cut in the USDA-ARS budget, according to Ed Knipling, administrator of USDA-ARS in Washington.

Knipling, in remarks Feb. 14 to the Oklahoma Peanut Commission and the Oklahoma Wheat Commission in Stillwater, Okla., said decisions on which facilities to eliminate are based on “relevance factors and similar work performed in other locations.

“Those are tough decisions,” Knipling said. “The cuts are part of a judgment process and not by formula.”

Verett said he could see “no rationale,” for recommendations that ginning labs in Lubbock and Las Cruces be shut down. “It's just budget cuts,” he said. He also said the cuts make no sense since each of the three ginning laboratories perform unique functions.

“Across the Cotton Belt, we have three distinct ginning processes and two completely different harvesting methods that require different ginning processes,” he said.

High Plains farmers use mostly strippers to harvest cotton. In the Mid-South and Southeast, farmers rely on pickers. Different types of cotton, Pima, for instance, also require different ginning techniques, Verett said.

“The gin lab in Stoneville works mostly on picker-type cotton. The lab at Lubbock works on stripper cotton and the Las Cruces facility focuses on long staple cotton,” he said.

After the press conference, Ed Hughs, USDA-ARS research leader at the Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory in Las Cruces, said the New Mexico facility has improved roller gin efficiency and has made those gins adaptable to upland cotton as well as the long staple varieties grown in California, Arizona, parts of New Mexico and Texas.

“We've also worked in partnership with the labs in Lubbock and Stoneville to solve common ginning problems,” he said. Cooperative efforts include air pollution studies.

Hughs said the Las Cruces lab also developed processes to preserve the fiber qualities of long staple cotton. “Pima is a high dollar value cotton,” he said. The New Mexico lab has developed methods to increase gin processing speeds for Pima and other high value cotton types while preserving fiber properties. He said ginning efficiency has increased from one-and-one-half bales per hour to 6 bales per hour without fiber quality loss.

He said the process helps preserve fiber characteristics in upland varieties such as high quality FiberMax and other improved lines. “This is what international customers want,” he said.

Greg Holt, a USDA engineer at the Lubbock facility, says the lab helps organic cotton producers improve quality. “We've also worked on new uses for gin waste.”

Verett said consolidating all three gins, and preserving the unique characteristics of each, into the Stoneville facility, will not be feasible. He said getting the people necessary would be difficult and moving the needed equipment would cost millions of dollars.

Ron Craft, president of the Texas Cotton Ginners Association, said technology developed and ongoing at the Lubbock ginning lab is too valuable to lose. “Research at this facility is vital to agricultural producers and ginners,” Craft said. “Air quality, emissions and particulate matter studies are important. We also need to maintain research in seed separation and fiber quality preservation. We need new and better ways to improve ginning.”

He's concerned that Congress does not pay attention to agriculture's needs. “Sometimes I think Congress is willing to sell us down the river,” he said. “It is important that legislators not leave out ginning labs when they work on the budget.”

Rickey Bearden, immediate past president of Plains Cotton Growers Inc., and a cotton farmer from Yoakum County, said the Lubbock lab “means jobs, lots of jobs.” He said the 5.5 million bales processed from the 2005 crop could not have been ginned in a timely manner with old technology.

“The ginning process once turned out two bales per hour. Now we can gin more than 800 bales in a 24-hour period. We have to process cotton in a timely manner. If we were still ginning 2 bales per hour we'd be ginning year-round. One part of this industry can't be left behind without hurting another part.”

He said energy saving studies also mean a lot to the industry, especially with current high energy prices.

Russell Kuhnhenn, president of the National Cotton Ginners Association, said closing the two labs would damage not only the Southwest and Far West cotton industry but also would have repercussions across the Belt. The labs work on regional as well as beltwide problems, he said.

“They (two gins) are working on moisture sensors throughout the ginning process,” he said. “They also are trying to find a more accurate means to measure particulate matter and ways to address these issues.”

He said the National Cotton Ginners Association “strongly recommends that Congress restore funding to the two cotton ginning labs.”

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