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Retirement ceremony brings reflection

There's something about Dec. 31 retirements that have a particular poignancy. Maybe it's because everyone is caught up in the changing of the seasons or the natural melancholy that comes at Christmas when you pass middle age.

The other day, I was privileged to attend a retirement event for Fred Middleton, who would be stepping down as director of communications for the National Cotton Council at year's end.

I met Fred when I was a freshman at what was then called Memphis State University and he was a sports writer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. It says something about the size of the cotton industry or the journalism business that we would continue to cross paths years later.

Some cotton farmers probably have never heard of Fred Middleton. But if they have ever picked up a copy of “Cotton's Week,” the Council's weekly newsletter, or clicked on the Council's “Cotton eNews” daily electronic news summary, they've seen Fred's work.

I'm not sure if Fred started Cotton's Week, but he certainly helped make it a first-class communications vehicle for the cotton industry. He did begin Cotton eNews, which has become a model for other daily e-newsletters.

More recently, Fred has been deeply involved in the NCC's efforts to put together a coalition of farm organizations aimed at trying to defuse some of the rampant criticism of farm programs in the national news media. He will continue to serve as a consultant to the NCC in that area.

The retirement luncheon was part “roast” and part recognition of Fred's contributions to the Council. As with any roasting, there were a lot of references to leaving the office early and golf scores and computer mishaps and late Cotton's Week articles.

Fred took it all well and gave almost as good as he got. Since the roast was a surprise, he had prepared some serious comments in response. At one point, he talked about the “footprint” left by members of the Council staff and its leaders in the myriad issues it deals with on a daily basis.

Like Fred, the Council has generally maintained a low profile, not seeking the limelight or praise for its efforts. Sometimes that works against the Council in areas like membership recruitment and fund-raising.

It used to be said that the National Cotton Council wrote the farm bill. The Council did not have as much say in the 1996 FAIR Act, or Freedom to Farm, which some would say added to its shortcomings. But it did play a major role in the direction taken by the 2002 farm bill.

As a result, the organization, and cotton farmers in general, have taken more than their share of media criticism in the months since the bill's passage in May. If anything, that criticism may intensify when Congress resumes work on the fiscal year 2003 appropriations bills that still must be passed.

If it comes, you can be sure that, as Fred did for the last 14 years, Council staff members will be working to put the best foot forward for cotton farmers on both the legislative and communications fronts.

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